Saturday, January 30, 2016

Celebration of Mistrust

Many years ago i was an anthropology student studying cults, mass therapies and evangelical religions. This involved reading a lot about human psychology and personality transformation. I can remember reading of experiments (which probably had dubious ethics behind them) in which all the students in classroom (save one who was, unbeknownst to them, excluded) were instructed to insist, once the excluded student returned, that two lines on a chalkboard of obviously different length were the same length. Apparently, it took little time before the excluded student, having shared his observation that the two lines were different lengths, conformed to what the majority of students stated. I do recall thinking that such an experiment was kind of mean, even while I appreciated the lesson. And i recall in some of the anti-cult work that I became involved in that we often used the analogy for groupthink of a person whose watch had the correct time but who, upon entering a room full of people whose watches were all five minutes fast, would quickly conform and defy their own certainty of their dependable and correct watch.

Many years later i came across this story - which i adapt - recounted by Eduardo Galeano in The Book of Embraces (WW Norton, 1989, p. 158):

Once a professor brought a small bottle of some clear liquid to his class and which he placed on a desk at the front of the room. He explained that he wanted to do an experiment. The bottle was filled with a liquid and he wanted to see how fast the odor dispersed across the room once the bottle was uncorked. Each student was to report when they smelled the odor. He uncorked the bottle and after a few minutes a student in the front row said that he could smell something. A moment later students in the second row reported that they could definitely smell the odor. More and more students reported the odor. One said that it was very strong and not that pleasant. Finally all agreed that they could smell the odor and one student in the back coughed and asked to open a window to relieve the air. Afterwards the professor asked to students to come up one by one. He poured a bit of the liquid on each of their fingers and asked them to taste it. The liquid was water.

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