Will the Real Hooded Man Please Stand Up
By Errol Morris
New York Times online column
Every human being has his own particular web of associations for identifying and interpreting reality, which, most often, instinctively and unthinkingly, he superimposes on every set of circumstances. Frequently, however, those external circumstances do not conform with, or fit, the structure of our webs, and then we can misread the unfamiliar reality, and interpret its elements incorrectly…
— Ryszard Kapuscinski, “Travels with Herodotus” (2007)
Years ago I became enamored with the writings of Norwood Russell Hanson, a philosopher and ex-fighter pilot who died at the age of 43 while flying his own plane to a lecture engagement at Cornell. Hanson, among others, pioneered the idea that observations in science are not independent of theory but are, on the contrary, quite dependent on it. In his book, “Patterns of Discovery,” published in 1958, he coined the term “theory-laden” and wrote: “there is more to seeing than meets the eye.” I would like to make an even stronger claim: Believing is seeing.
It is said that seeing is believing, but often it’s the other way around. We do not form our beliefs on the basis of what we see; rather, what we see is determined by our beliefs. We see not what is there, but rather what we want to see or expect to see.
The term “belief-laden” could easily be substituted for “theory-laden,” and Hanson’s ideas extended to seeing in general. To use the familiar Gestalt image of the duck-rabbit: if we believe we see a rabbit, we see a rabbit. If we believe we see a duck, we see a duck. And the situation is even worse than the Gestalt psychologists imagined. Often our beliefs completely defeat sensory evidence, or condition us to turn our senses off completely. What is really there? Is it a duck? Is it a rabbit? Or could it be a gerbil?
We see the world in a way that is influenced by our beliefs.
So as not to give a leg up to those post-modernist theoreticians who would throw truth out the window along with objectivity, let’s be clear: this is not an assault on truth. There is a real world out there. There is a fact of the matter. ... But a question remains: can photography help us in that endeavor? I am skeptical and would go even further and suggest that photographs attract false beliefs – as fly-paper attracts flies. Why my skepticism? Because photography can make us think we know more than we really know.
It is easy to confuse photographs with reality. To many of us, photographs are reality. But however real they may seem, they are not reality. Reality is three-dimensional. Photographs are but two-dimensional, and record only a moment, a short interval of time snatched from the long continuum of before and after. Photographs offer “the ocular proof” demanded by Othello – but judging from Othello’s subsequent behavior, that standard of proof did not serve him well in the end.
When I was a little boy I asked my older brother, If you blow up a photograph can you eventually see atoms? Here is one answer. When you magnify a leaf, in principle, you get down to the atomic level of the leaf. But when you magnify a photograph of a leaf, you get down to the atomic level of the photograph. You can keep magnifying the grains of silver-halide and get down to the atomic level of the silver-halide, but you do not see additional detail of the leaf. As a result of this inherent limitation, photographs are nothing more than coarse-grained screens laid over reality, revealing nothing more (about what is photographed) than a certain size. They provide an imperfect simulacrum of the surface of things.
Othello’s demand for “the ocular proof” is instructive; it calls attention to the importance we put on visual evidence. We, too, rush to think that photographs provide “proof” of something. But proof of what? All photographs leave out information – and leave out more than they include – which allows us to interpret them in ways that suits the cultural needs of our times. They often arrive bereft of context, with little or no pesky sidebar information to interfere with our interpretation of what they might mean or depict. They give our presuppositions – our beliefs – opportunity to prevail over reality.
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