Thursday, July 19, 2018

On Facts

“Confabulating is a fancy term for shamelessly making things up.”  Macknik & Martinez-Conde (2010)

In the 1970s a man named Uri Geller gained international fame and fortune for his alleged paranormal ability to read peoples’ minds and alter the properties of physical objects, all courtesy of supernatural powers which Geller himself once claimed were given by extraterrestrials.  He was so convincing that millions of people around the world, including two researchers from the Stanford Research Institute, absolutely believed Mr. Geller’s “psychic powers” were genuine.  Whether he willed solid metal spoons to bend like wax before a German audience of 3,000 or accurately reproduced an unseen and impromptu drawing by Barbara Walters on national television, Mr. Geller was widely heralded and idolized as a true phenomenon with seemingly super-human and "special" powers.

Then came Mr. Geller’s August 1, 1973 appearance on the famed “Tonight Show” starring Johnny Carson (Season 12, episode 150).  Mr. Carson, who in his earlier days performed magic as “The Great Carsoni,” was skeptical of Mr. Geller’s authenticity as a psychic. Unbeknownst to his superstar guest, Mr. Carson arranged to have a number of common objects on hand for Mr. Geller’s appearance - objects similar to those Mr. Geller famously incorporated into his various exhibitions of "special" mental skills.  Footage of Mr. Geller’s appearance on the Tonight Show can be easily found on YouTube.  

Spoiler alert ... Mr. Geller failed to demonstrate on the Tonight Show, in front of millions of viewers, any psychic abilities whatsoever.  Why?  The fact is, Mr. Geller is not "special" after all.  He is instead, a performer, an illusionist, a professional trickster.  

But wait, there’s more.

One might reasonably assume that such a colossal exposure of fakery on the most watched and longest-running late night program in television history, would send the humiliated perpetrator of such chicanery into uber-obscurity.  Yet that is not what happened.

Instead, Mr. Geller’s popularity and credibility actually grew after his apparent debunking by Johnny Carson.  Yes, you read that correctly ... people believed in Uri Geller’s authenticity as a psychic even more than before, in spite of what they witnessed with their own eyes.  The explanation given is that when believers saw Mr. Geller fail, they rationalized that his powers must be real because if he was just doing tricks, he’d certainly have been able to perform flawlessly on Mr. Carson’s cue.  Uri Geller’s failure was seen as proof that he is a human, who like all of us, has skills that can be strong one day and not so strong the next.  

How is it that intelligent, experienced and reasonable people can be presented with a set of absolute and indisputable facts, only to then reconstruct them into an alternate reality based on a completely fabricated “fact” set?”

The answer may partially lie in the psychological principle of “cognitive dissonance.”  This principle refers to situations in which two or more ideas, behaviors, facts, or beliefs are in conflict with one another. The conflict is resolved (rationalized) by changing one’s internal narrative to align with one of the conflicting ideas, behaviors, beliefs or fact sets.  In other words, as former President Barack Obama said in a speech earlier this week when referring to the ways in which some politicians today deal with cognitive dissonance, "People just make stuff up."

Cognitive dissonance appears to be as powerful and addictive now as it was in the 1970s, or at any other time.  How else do we explain that "would" really means "wouldn't," that "choice" in education should really excuse decades of outright discrimination, that bullies are really victims, that biased opinion is really news or that surface learning is really meaningful, innovative and different?  Perhaps this quote by author, editor and Presidential historian, Jon Meacham helps answer the question,
"America has long raised political and cultural cognitive dissonance to an art form.  We are capable of living with enormous inequality and injustice while convincing ourselves that we are in fact moving toward what Churchill called the "broad, sun-lit uplands."
I don't know about you, but today's confabulations by those desperately peddling their misguided narratives, alternate facts and revisionist history, is cognitive dissonance that makes me long for the good old days of Uri Geller and his bent spoons.


  • Macknik, S., Martinez-Conde, S., & Blakeslee, S. (2010). Sleights of mind: What the neuroscience of magic reveals about our everyday deceptions. Henry Holt and Company.