What America’s greatest hoax has to teach us about memory

It was just an ordinary Sunday evening in Grovers Mill, New Jersey. The date was October 30, 1938. But soon after 8pm, panic broke out. The reason was that radio newscasters were reporting that the Martians had landed in Grovers Mill. . .and they were out for blood.

The broadcast could be heard across the U.S. but it was those closest to ground zero of the Martian invasion who reacted the most as they could immediately identify the locales mentioned in the reports. Then they decided to fight back against the unwelcome visitors. This was their town and they weren’t going to let the Martians take it from them.

Of course it turned out that there were no Martians. There never were. And those heard on the radio were not even real newscasters. They were radio play actors reading a script written by Howard Koch, loosely based on H.G. Wells’ classic book, The War of the Worlds. The project was produced by a then twenty-three-year-old Orson Welles. And the whole thing was broadcast from the New York City studio of the Columbia Broadcasting System’s Mercury Theater.

Arguably the greatest hoax in U.S., Robert E. Bartholomew suggests this notorious historical event offers us a powerful lesson about memory, eye-witness testimony, self-deception, and mass delusions:

In his famous study of the Martian panic, Princeton University psychologist Hadley Cantril discusses the extreme variability of eyewitness descriptions of the “invasion.” These examples have been usually overlooked in subsequent popular and scholarly discussions of the panic. One person became convinced that they could smell the poison gas and feel the heat rays as described on the radio, while another became emotionally distraught and felt a choking sensation from the imaginary “gas” (Cantril 1947, 94-95). During the broadcast several residents reported observations to police “of Martians on their giant machines poised on the Jersey Palisades” (Markush 1973, 379). After checking various descriptions of the panic, Bulgatz (1992, 129) reported that a Boston woman said she could actually see the fire as described on the radio; other persons told of hearing machine gun fire or the “swish” sound of the Martians. A man even climbed atop a Manhattan building with binoculars and described seeing “the flames of battle.”

The event also reminds us that the human mind does not function like a video camera capturing each piece of data that comes into its field of vision. People interpret information as it is processed.

As a skeptic who remains unconvinced of the supernatural, the paranormal, or the invisible strings of grand conspirators, I’m no stranger to the appeal to anecdotal evidence. I’ve frequently heard fantastical tales from those who swear to have truly encountered the unbelievable. And my demands for physical evidence are often met with the rolling eyes of true believers who think I’ve set the bar for evidence too high so as to be out of reach. They’ll insist that no amount of evidence would convince me and that I’d still deny these phenomena even if an angel/ghost/extraterrestrial/Reptilian/agent of the New World Order showed up at my door. And to this, I respond that this is an unfair assessment considering I’ve been offered no evidence even remotely as compelling as that which they’ve invented in their hypothetical scenario.

The religious ask me to account for all the reported miracles and angel sightings, etc. from trustworthy witnesses. The paranormalists ask me to account for all the reported ghost and UFO sightings from trustworthy witnesses such as air force pilots or police officers as well as all the alleged “psychic” claims that the “psychic” “couldn’t possibly have known.” The UFO crowd The “alternative” “medicine” proponents ask me to account for all the reported cases of a person appearing to get well after seeing faith healers, psychic surgeons, acupuncturists, homeopaths, herbal supplement dealers, etc. And the grand conspiracy theorists ask me to account for all the little details from “the official story” that doesn’t seem to “add up” like why did that one newscaster report the wrong gun after the Kennedy assassination, or why can I see the letter C on the moon rock, or why did the guy yell “Pull it!” before WTC 7 collapsed, or why did one 9/11 eyewitness from the ground report that he distinctly saw X number of engines on the plane that struck the Towers when video footage clearly shows that there were Y number of engines on the plane.

While some of these types of claims have been thoroughly and definitively debunked, the truth is that often I don’t have all the answers and that sometimes it’s impossible to arrive at a more plausible and rational alternative explanation without having either been there or more famous cases, having at least done extensive research.

But one thing that I don’t find compelling–and the Grovers Mill case illustrates why–is the argument that there were just too many witnesses for X to have not really happened or have been a mere misinterpretation. Maybe there was a real historical Jesus and there really were five hundred witnesses who thought they saw miracles. Unfalsifiable. Maybe Joseph Smith really did have twelve witnesses who sincerely believed they’d seen divine revelation. Meaningless. Maybe that Pilot Kenneth Arnold did really see craft that he couldn’t identify in 1947 and believed were from out of this world. Scientifically worthless. Maybe the townspeople of Roswell, New Mexico and Major Jesse Marcel really did believe they saw a crash flying saucer or saucers. Tell that to the town of Grovers Mills. Maybe Betty and Barney Hill truly believed they were abducted by space aliens. So what?

Human perception and memory reconstruction are deeply flawed and easily susceptible to suggestion (Ex. here, here, and here). Here’s another account of a witness of the great Grovers Mills Martian invasion:

These memories are not statically locked away in the brain forever, but our memories of events are reconstructed over time (Loftus and Ketcham, 1991). Cantril (1947) cited the case of Miss Jane Dean, a devoutly religious woman, who, when recalling the broadcast, said the most realistic portion was “the sheet of flame that swept over the entire country. That is just the way I pictured the end” (181). In reality, there was no mention of a sheet of flame anywhere in the broadcast.

Now lets look at the history of UFO sightings:

In the beginning there were sightings, and those sightings began with private pilot Kenneth Arnold on June 24, 1947. As soon as news stories appeared reporting Arnold’s claim that he saw nine airborne objects that flew “like a saucer if you skip it across the water,” others began reporting seeing the “saucers” too (a curious development, since Arnold did not say that the objects looked like saucers—they looked like boomerangs, he said—but skipped like saucers, a subtlety lost in the public’s imagination). Soon sightings of “saucers” were pouring in from all around the country and from around the world. Sightings occurred in waves, which appeared to be fueled by media reports. A wave would typically start in one location, but as soon as news reports began to carry the story of the localized excitement, sightings activity would pick up nationally. Great waves of UFO sightings occurred in 1947, 1949, 1952, 1957, 1965—67, and 1973.

Then in 1973, there was a significant drop-off in the number of reported UFO sightings. Then after the release of Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, all of a sudden, the UFOs returned in droves. What are the odds? And it turns out that a pattern emerges. It seems the UFOs seem to always resurface every time Hollywood has renewed interest in aliens. I guess the movies on their planet are all directed by Joel Schumacher, so they have to traverse the whole universe to see anything good. And there was a time when aliens were always described as being little green men. Then after the Hill case, all of a sudden, the little green men stopped visiting and sent their friends the big-eyed Grays instead. What we’re seeing here, as with religions, is meme evolution. It seems like we’re seeing exactly what we’d expect to see if all these weird paranormal events were nothing but a self-perpetuating mass delusion.

People create false memories. This is the horrible reality of eyewitness testimony. Sometimes honest, well-meaning people simply get it wrong. They see or experience something strange or unexplained and their brain fills in details based on their own prejudices or expectations. This is how the real power of suggestion works. If your primed to think weird lights in the sky is a flying saucer, that’s what you’ll perceive it to be. And if you’re primed to think aliens are gray with big eyes, that’s what you’ll see.

The problem with anecdotes:

Test your skills as an eyewitness:

Watch this video and see if you can count how many times the players in the white shirt pass the ball around.

Do not read on until you’ve done this. This is more tricky than it seems.

Now, did you see the gorilla?

Here’s another test of your eyewitness skills:

And for more lessons in critical thinking, click here.

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