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Monday, June 01, 2015


A recent FRONTLINE special titled "Secrets, Politics and Torture" (broadcast on PBS, May 15, 2015 observed that the CIA had used the movie, "Zero Dark Thirty" to create the impression that their program of "enhanced interrogation techniques" had succeeded in providing the crucial information that led to the location of Kalid Sheik Muhammed (KSM) and eventually to Osama Bin Laden.

The Fontline documentary shows by analysis of the secret papers Congress forced from the files of the CIA that it was a distortion of the truth. 

Senator Feinstein and others quoted in the Frontline program expressed disgust with the movie that purported to be based on the truth, but in fact was a willing tool to disseminate self-serving propaganda by the CIA and supporters within the Bush administration who were desperate to persuade the public that torture was needed for national security. 

History is replete with examples of movies that have been used as tools to sell a particular point of view. Movies are just movies, we know that. We should not expect a form that seeks to entertain to hew to the "literal truth" especially when it would interfere with the mission - to amuse, engross, and make profits. But when the movie makers choose a subject and take a stance on a side of a controversial issue - whether it relates to politics, institutions, or history - there is a greater responsibility. 

Some argue that it doesn't matter because no one takes movies seriously as "truth." By this view, people don't rely on movies to teach them anything. 

I disagree with this. The evidence of movie history, going as far back as "Birth Of A Nation" proves the point. 

Now, there is support in scholarly studies.    
This New York Times article is worth reading.

NEW YORK TIMES . . . Why Movie ‘Facts’ Prevail

FEB. 13, 2015

BY Jeffrey M. Zacks, a professor of psychology and radiology at Washington University in St. Louis, is the author of “Flicker: Your Brain on Movies.”

THIS year’s Oscar nominees for best picture include four films based on true stories: “American Sniper” (about the sharpshooter Chris Kyle), “The Imitation Game” (about the British mathematician Alan Turing), “Selma” (about the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965) and “The Theory of Everything” (about the physicist Stephen Hawking).

Each film has been criticized for factual inaccuracy. Doesn’t “Selma” ignore Lyndon B. Johnson’s dedication to black voting rights? Doesn’t “The Imitation Game” misrepresent the nature of Turing’s work, just as “The Theory of Everything” does Mr. Hawking’s? Doesn’t “American Sniper” sanitize the military conflicts it purports to depict?

You might think: Does it really matter? Can’t we keep the film world separate from the real world?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Studies show that if you watch a film — even one concerning historical events about which you are informed — your beliefs may be reshaped by “facts” that are not factual.

In one study, published in the journal Psychological Science in 2009, a team of researchers had college students read historical essays and then watch clips from historical movies containing information that was inaccurate and inconsistent with the essays. Despite being warned that the movies might contain factual distortions, the students produced about a third of the fake facts from the movies on a subsequent test.

In another study, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology in 2012, another team of researchers, repeating the experiment, tried to eliminate the “misinformation effect” by explicitly asking the students to monitor the clips for inaccuracies. It didn’t work. If anything, the students were more prone to accept the untruths. The more engaged the students were by the clips, the more their memories were contaminated.

Why do we have such a hard time sorting film “facts” from real facts? One suggestion is that our minds are well equipped to remember things that we see or hear — but not to remember the source of those memories.

Consider the following evolutionary story. As our distant ancestors became increasingly able to communicate facts to one another via language, and to store them in their memories, this helped them survive. If a hunter on the savanna approached a watering hole, being able to remember that there had been a lion attack at that hole could be a lifesaver. But retrieving the source of the memory (did my cousin tell me about it? or was it my brother?) was less critical. As a result, our brain’s systems for source memory are not robust and are prone to failure.

This story is speculative, but it is consistent with what we know about source memory. Cognitively, source memory develops relatively late in children; and neurologically, it depends selectively on the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that is also late to mature.

Source memory is also fragile, highly sensitive to the vicissitudes of aging, injury and disease. Patients with damage to the prefrontal cortex exhibit failures of source memory that exaggerate the everyday errors we all make. One research subject who had suffered a lesion to his prefrontal cortex believed that a particular building in his vicinity was being used for sinister purposes; only later did it emerge that his paranoid interpretation of the building was a result of a spy film that he had seen some 40 years before.

In a 1997 study, patients with similar lesions were presented with lists of words or sentences read by two different experimenters, one male and one female. The patients were pretty good at recognizing whether they had heard a sentence or not, but they were significantly impaired at identifying which speaker had read it. It’s important to note, however, that this task was fairly difficult for healthy control subjects as well. None of us are immune from the perils of source memory.

The weakness of source memory leaves us, to some degree, at the mercy of inaccurate films. Is there anything we can do?

The research described above did reveal one technique that helps: Having the misinformation explicitly pointed out and corrected at the time it was encountered substantially reduced its influence. But actually implementing this strategy — creating fact-checking commentary tracks that play during movies? always bringing a historian to the theater with you? — could be a challenge.

Jeffrey M. Zacks, a professor of psychology and radiology at Washington University in St. Louis, is the author of “Flicker: Your Brain on Movies.”

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