Some aficionados were miffed by a recent study showing that in a blind test, violinists preferred modern instruments to the revered Stradivarius. It seems natural that people would want to believe they get superior sound from an instrument that cost more than a million dollars. Are they fooling themselves? My colleague Tom Avril brings this story to life in today’s Inquirer:
Chooi, fellow Curtis student Benjamin Beilman, and 19 others were asked to compare the sound of three modern violins with that from three made by the Italian masters: two by Antonio Stradivari and one by Guarneri del Gesu. Not only did the modern violins hold their own, but most of the musicians were unable to tell if their favorite instrument of the six was new or old.
The findings, published this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, have provoked a minor uproar in the rarefied world of classical musicianship. Some have questioned the validity of the study, which required participants to evaluate the instruments after a fairly brief exposure, whereas others are happy to see modern violin-makers – luthiers – get more respect.
The study would have fit right in among the many fascinating anecdotes in the new book Folly of Fools, which I’ve just about finished. The book applies science to the notion of self—deception. The author, Rutgers University biologist Robert Trivers, spawned a whole field with earlier work on the science of altruism. He said he hopes he can convince more people to start studying self-deception, since tendency permeates everything from relationships to parenting, religion to science to politics.
He points to evidence that power not only corrupts, but it causes people to become even more blind to reality and more susceptible to believing their own lies. Shakespeare was good at understanding the role of self-deception, but his fools were not the ones committing the folly. The fools were the ones to call attention to the folly of kings, poking holes in the curtain of deceit.
Trivers spends much of his time Jamaica, where I called him this morning and peppered him with questions. He said his favorite TV personalities are John Stewart and Stephen Colbert – modern day folly-exposing fools.
Evolution, said Trivers, is responsible for self-deception. There’s an advantage to it because it helps us better deceive others. Many other creatures employ deception to help them survive and reproduce – whether it’s female-impersonating sunfish sneaking sex or an orchid disguising itself as a female bee to get pollinated, or a cowbird laying eggs in another’s next and running.
Among primates, greater brainpower seems to be correlated with more lying. And what better way to lie convincingly than to believe your own B.S.?
He said he doesn’t advocate self-deception and hopes recognizing our tendency to do this might help us stay honest. That’s especially important in science, since the whole point is supposed to be to get at the truth. It brings to mind a famous quote along those lines by Richard Feynman: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.”
That applies to journalism too.