Saturday, April 06, 2013

Unreliable Evidence (Alan Alda)

The actor Alan Alda has presented several science programmes on PBS. In one programme, he visited Professor Elizabeth Loftus, who has made a special study of false memory. According to the Guardian, Professor Loftus successfully gave him a false memory of having been sick as a child eating too many hard-boiled eggs.

"The researchers showed him round, and afterwards took him for a picnic in the park. By the time he came to leave, he had developed a dislike of hard-boiled eggs based on a memory of having made himself sick on them as a child - something that never happened." Laura Spinney 'We can implant entirely false memories' (Guardian December 2003)


Spinney's version of the story is repeated on several other websites. I have just watched the programme on the PBS website (Don't Forget, May 2004). Loftus certainly tries to implant this memory. She manages to slightly reduce Alda's confidence that the hard-boiled egg incident didn't happen from CERTAIN to ALMOST CERTAIN. But he still eats the eggs at the picnic.

So my memory of the programme is significantly different from Laura Spinney's memory. Given that the programme was about unreliable memory, that's an interesting twist.

However her article seems to have been published some months before the programme was first broadcast, so it is possible she saw an earlier edit or had some other source of information. It is also possible that the programme has been re-edited retrospectively. Who knows whether the facts she was given were more accurate than the ones in the version I saw?

A few years later, Alda made another programme about memory, also involving a picnic. Professor Daniel Schacter set a number of memory traps for him; he avoided many of these traps but not all of them.

SAF- True or False with Dan Schacter (2010) via Emily Vukson


So if we watch enough programmes involving Alan Alda and picnics, will our memories get confused too? "Through early morning fog I see visions of the things to be." Bulletin Board (1975)

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