I’ve been reading a history book, this one on a subject with so little documentation it needs to rely on eyewitnesses remembering what happened 10, 30, 50 years before. Which, honest to God, why would you even bother?
Science insists over and over and over, eyewitness testimony isn’t reliable – it’s influenced by stress, it conflates similar memories into one, it’s full of holes, it’s subject to our human love of narrative. Even lawyers who have to rely on eyewitness testimony don’t like it. It’s a problem of epistemology, no worse kind: everything we know or think we know is based on memory of what we saw, heard, read, thought, felt. And if memory is no good, then everything we know could be wrong.
What then? I have all these old memories – what do I do with them? how do I trust them? Check them out, right? Find other people who were there and together create some sort of reality, that if not true, is then at least agreed-upon. And how does that work out? For your edification and delight, I have done an experiment.
I asked my two brothers and one sister (we span a range of 10 years) to remember our childhood (maybe 50 years ago) and suggest an event we could each describe. We couldn’t decide: either the event was too personal for publication or at least one of us had no memory whatever of it. So we lowered the bar and decided to describe the garage.
Picture, not a suburban garage but a farm outbuilding. It looked nothing like the picture here – that’s there just for atmosphere – but it had the same air of remaining upright only out of habit. I won’t trouble you with our four descriptions of the garage; instead I’ll tell you what, if you read only these descriptions, you’d know about the garage.
The garage was a long box; attached to the northern short end was a lean-to pump house. The garage was painted white and housed two cars, it may or may not have had doors. It had two windows on the southern short end; it may or may not have had windows at the back. Along the inside walls was stuff: maybe bikes, maybe a lawn mower, maybe old lumber, maybe twine and baling wire, maybe tires, maybe gasoline, maybe little hollows in the dirt floor made by nesting bantam hens. Maybe the roof was held up by a post in the middle, maybe a post and a construction jack. The roof was probably flat, possibly covered with tarpaper, possibly leaked.
The pump house definitely housed the pump for the well. It probably had a peaky roof. The door from the pump house into the garage may have had two steps, likewise the door to the outside. The floor may have been concrete; it may have had an opening in it to the well, which may have been covered with a plank which we may have been warned to never move. The pump house definitely leaned south, leaning into the garage, more and more each year until they were both no longer rectangles but parallelograms.
I could go on longer but you get the idea: what you know about the garage is a little sketchy but at least the known knowns and the known unknowns are nailed down. Or as my brother-the-statistician wrote, “as the number of people reporting increases, uncertainty shrinks (certainty rises), rapidly at first and then more slowly as a point of ‘diminishing returns’ is reached.” I declare the experiment in certainty-by-consensus a qualified success.
Except: during the course of the experiment, we digressed and ran into the Story/History Problem (Historian: “The distinction between the facts and the narrative is a false one — they are inseparable”), and thereafter certainty went seriously off the rails. First you have to know that some time in the early 1970’s, this leaning-situation regarding the garage and pump house was apparently making our papa unhappy. Our papa had interior rules that were definite but unique to him. He was also quiet so we didn’t know what those rules were; and we watched him closely.
Carl: One Wednesday, when Papa was home early from work, we saw him outside running one of those huge balls of baling twine from the inside of the pump house (where he had tied it to a rafter), out around the box elder tree in the driveway circle, and back to wrap around the pump house rafter, making many loops back and forth between the tree and pump house. Then he got a long pole, inserted it between the two strands of the twine loops, halfway between the tree and pump house, and started to twist the twine loops, apparently attempting to winch the pump house back to a straighter position. Of course, the attempt failed, and, eventually he realized that and quietly disassembled the thing, and, to my knowledge, never mentioned the episode to anyone. Gail and I were in the house, having just gotten stoned before the event unraveled, and Gail kind of freaked out wondering if he knew and was just fucking with us. We never asked. I would guess that 28% of that story isn’t quite right.
Gail: I don’t remember Carl being there, but I remember describing the scene to him on the phone. So, was he there, or did I describe it to him? I also don’t remember the twine being wrapped around the rafter, and don’t remember what it was wrapped around. But I had just dropped acid, so my memory is not worth shit.
John: I had come home from school, I did not see him do it. I remember having sort of a WTF moment. I looked at it until I finally figured it out. It reminded me of those little balsa wood propeller plans that you used a rubber band to wind up the propeller, and then let it go to see if it would fly. I think sometimes that is where he got the idea from. I never saw him take it down, either. The other thing I remember is walking into the house, and finding no one home. Obviously, I missed something.
I wasn’t there. The eyewitnesses aren’t even believing their own testimony. The last time I tried an experiment, it didn’t work either. Make of this what you will but at the very least we should give up on epistemology.
Photo: James Tworow