Will Saletan on False Memories

Earlier this year, Siri Carpenter and Jeanne Erdmann started a terrific blog about science writing called The Open Notebook. The site features interviews with science writers talking about their work and revealing the “story behind the story” for well-regarded science features.

The site has featured interviews with outstanding writers, such as Roberta Kwok, Doug Fox, Hillary Rosner, David Dobbs and Robin Marantz Henig. Oh, and yours truly.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Slate national correspondent Will Saletan for the site. We discussed his incredible eigh-part series, The Memory Doctor, on experimental psychologist Elizabeth Loftus and her work on false memories. I read the series when it came out and was really excited to see the innovative way that Saletan used the web to draw readers into the story.

In the first installment of the series, he invited readers to take part in an interactive online experiment designed to illustrate how easily memories can be manipulated. (Check it out here.) Readers were shown different images depicting recent political events and asked whether they remembered them. What readers didn’t know was that one of the photos was doctored to show an event that hadn’t happened—President Obama shaking hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for instance.

Yet about half of the 5,000 readers who took part in Saletan’s online experiment later “remembered” the fake political stories as if they were true. They didn’t walk away with the deception though, all was revealed at the tend.

The experiment served as a powerful introduction to the concept of false memories and to Loftus, who makes a fascinating profile subject.

Read my Q&A with Saletan here.