Mining the past and cognitive psych

I was thinking about the two examples I posted earlier in the week of folks interrogating historical pictures/text for scientific info. And one of the things I was thinking about was the difference in credibility between the more recent traveler’s reports and pictures and those provided by the classical artists and commentators. There are a bunch of factors – art (with its varied intentions) vs. photography (at least until the advent of the shoop, subject to a lighter level of manipulation), the specific credibility problems around the taking of wild animals (a polite way of saying that all fishermen are liars), but I kept dwelling on one other difference. The African travelers of the 1850′s are like us. The Romans, Greeks and Etruscans aren’t. I don’t want to overdo it – I think that people, are at the core, similar – but the facts available to a Greek philosopher (even Democritus) and the available ways of organizing the facts? Not the same as those available to an explorer in the 1800s. This facts and framework thing affects how one sees the world and thus feeds back on how the world is portrayed. Tangent – another argument in favor of mining the most prosaic of historical docs? Three sheep on a tax roll are always three sheep, after all.

So I listened to an NPR piece on the search for the HMAS Sydney rapt. I knew about her history; Robert Farley over at Lawyers, Guns and Money has put up an excellent series of posts on the Sydney – Kormoran engagement and aftermath In a nutshell, on 19 Nov. 1941 HMAS Sydney encountered and engaged the Kriegsmarine merchant raider HSK-8 Kormoran. Both ships were sunk; 318 Germans survived but all of the crew of Sydney was lost. A variety of theories have been proposed to explain the lack of Australian survivors  from involvement of a Japanese sub through German treachery and subsequent murder of survivors to the more prosaic poor ammunition storage leading to magazine explosion. LG&M posts fleshing this out: Sydney, Kormoran, the battle and afterward (with bonus musings on the legality of a couple of James T. Kirk’s ploys). In 2008  the wrecks of both Kormoran and Sydney were located.

Where the engagement took place has been an open question since the get-go and it’s one that folks searching for the wreck wanted to have answered, the ocean being a big place and all. Let’s ask the survivors:

“Particularly in a wartime situation, the position of the ship is really kept in the bridge area,” Trotter says. “It would not be normal that the rest of the ship’s company would be told.”

Still, in the course of their interrogations, about 70 Germans did come up with a location. But those locations, taken together, didn’t make much sense — the positions were spread out, smeared over hundreds of miles. One survivor even placed the sinking almost halfway to Antarctica.

So most Australians concluded that the Germans must be lying, their conflicting accounts part of a ploy to throw the Australians off the scent. When Sydney hunters went out looking for the boat — and many did — they either completely disregarded the accounts from the Germans, or, in a couple of cases, focused exclusively on the captain’s version of the story. *

The assumption that the Germans were lying fueled the sub/treachery theories. Without any semi-specific area to search, efforts to locate the wrecks came up empty. Enter cognitive psychologists Kim Kirsner and John Dunn.

As cognitive psychologists, Kirsner and Dunn took a very different view of the German accounts. To them, the spread of the reports looked like the kind of data they saw in memory experiments. So they set out to prove scientifically that the Germans were probably telling the truth.

“We wanted to make the case — show that the characteristics of these reports were the right kind of characteristics,” says Dunn. That is, that the inconsistencies in the reports were precisely the kind of inconsistencies that occur naturally from failures of memory and the vagaries of transmitting information from person to person. *

They expanded the work of Frederic Bartlett:

One of his most famous studies was on the cognitive and social processes of remembering. He composed a series of short fables (the best known was called The War of the Ghosts[1]), each of which comprised a sequence of events which were ostensibly logical but subtly illogical, and there were several discreet non-sequiturs. He would recite this story to subjects, then later (sometimes much later) ask them to recall as much of it as possible. He discovered that most people found it extremely difficult to recall the story exactly, even after repeated readings, and hypothesised that, where the elements of the story failed to fit into the schemata of the listener, these elements were omitted from the recollection, or transformed into more familiar forms. *

Kirsner and Dunn did a statistical analysis on Bartlett’s data and on the German’s accounts. They saw similar results – in other words, it seems like the Germans were doing standard misremembering, not lying. The effort to find the wrecks went on from there, but my brain came to a screeching halt. One: our schemata cause us to misremember consistently. Two: a group of inconsistent accounts can be analyzed and we can see if they fit into a normal misremembering scenario. Question one – given a schemata pattern and a benchmark – in this case, Kirsner and Dunn’s analysis of sailor stories and the now known location of the ships – can we use the stats to model and correct for inaccuracies in other tales? Question two – given 2 or 3 pattern/benchmark pairs separated by time/culture/etc, can we contrast  different misremembering tendencies and say something about the schemata in place for each pair? Question 3 – would a constellation of these schemata metrics give us a way to filter out some of the framing (theirs and ours) that stands between us, with a bunch of traveler’s tales, and a more accurate data set?

Reaction one: cool.

2 thoughts on “Mining the past and cognitive psych

  1. Nice study. World views are a bit of a headache. To take another example, going back to the fish in early mosaics and determining size. Medieval art has to be evaluated with the fact in mind that the people were the most important element, not perspective or scale. So you have a tiny boat and two or three absurdly large people on the forecastle; it isn’t that the boat was that small or that the artist couldn’t draw, it is that the important element was the people. So the size of the fish needs to be considered in relation to its original purpose in the mosaic.
    But as you say, 3 sheep on a tax roll are always 3 sheep…pity accounts of the sizes of armies aren’t that way, but pride is a bit more complicated than money.

  2. Your ‘size of armies’ reference made me semi-remember another digitization project – British, I think. Maybe medieval paymaster records? Google, ho!

    And thanks for the comments – I appreciate ‘em.