Errol Morris on Confirmation Bias

Errol Morris: I would never set myself up as somehow the oracle of truth or value-free judgment.  You know, I’m really not that different from the next guy. . . . I am a contrarian.  I think I can admit to that.  

Looking at the MacDonald case, I was bothered by it.  I don’t know how else to describe it.  There’s a line in a Robert Mitchum film noir where Mitchum says, “I could see the frame, but I couldn’t see the picture.”  It’s one of the great film noir lines. . . . It’s not so much that I could see the frame but I couldn’t see the picture – this was certainly true in The Thin Blue Line 25 years ago.  Here, there was something deeply unconvincing about the case that had been made, particularly the case that had been made by Joe McGinniss in Fatal Vision. . . . too pat, too slick, too simple, too easy. 

What’s so interesting about this story . . . When you have a theory – say you’re an investigator, which would be the best and easiest way of talking about this – you have a theory about what happened, a theory about who did it or how they did it.  The term confirmation bias – I hesitate to use it, but . . . you have a theory.  The question is, does that theory in some way determine the kind of evidence that you look for and the kind of evidence that you reject?  If you truly believe there were no intruders in the house and that Jeffrey MacDonald was the person who killed his family, you may not look for evidence that suggests that there were intruders in the house.  You might not even notice it.  It might become for all intents and purposes invisible to you.

I wrote a book prior to this book, Believing Is Seeing, which is – I almost think the title should have been Disbelieving Is Seeing because it shows you this interplay between how we see things and the beliefs that we hold about the world.  Vision, which we often like to think of as neutral or value-free, is anything but that.  We see on the basis of what we believe, not the other way around.  And that idea is very much part of a Wilderness of Error as well.

Cops come on a scene, look around, see the position of furniture.  And often you quickly – I think this is a human problem – you come to one narrative or another, an explanation of what I’m looking at.  What is this?  How do I explain this?  What happened here?  Who’s responsible?  Who’s the real perpetrator?  And so on and so forth.  In the case of MacDonald, the police very quickly decided it was him, not just that it was him but that he had staged the crime scene, he had arranged the crime scene to make it look like there had been intruders.  But he had done it in such a ham-handed pathetic way that it was easily unmasked as a fraud. . . . You idiot!  Look at this! . . . This is a pathetic attempt to deceive us into thinking that there were intruders when we know better.  We know there were none.  

So there you go.  You have an idea, a theory, and as a result of that theory how did it affect the next 40 years?  Yes, it affected the next 40 years in many very powerful and sad ways.

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

Does your theory about what may have happened in a situation in some way determine the kind of evidence that you look for and the kind of evidence that you reject?

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.