As I began to write this novel, I found myself returning unexpectedly to the concerns of my undergraduate studies thirty years ago. Back then, evolution was so controversial that one quickly learned to write cautiously, justifying even the mildest statement with scholarly footnotes. If anything, evolution is more controversial today. And in its modern formulations, evolutionary theory is forbiddingly difficult, and frequently counter-intuitive. In The Lost World , I have been able only to touch on some of the most interesting trends in current scientific thinking, and to hint at the complexities of thought that lie beneath the surface of every point of view.
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There is a marvellous illustration of this arms-race problem in the work of two psychology professors, Deborah Gruenfeld and Robert Wyer, Jr. They gave people statements that were said to be newspaper headlines, and asked them to rate their plausibility, on a scale of zero to ten. Since the headlines basically stated the obvious–for example, “black democrats supported jesse jackson for president in 1988”–the scores were all quite high. The readers were then given a series of statements that contradicted the headlines. Not surprisingly, the belief scores went down significantly. Then another group of people was asked to read a series of statements that supported the headlines–statements like “Black Democrats presently support Jesse Jackson for President.” This time, the belief scores still dropped. Telling people that what they think is true actually is true, in other words, has almost the same effect as telling them that what they think is true isn’t true. Gruenfeld and Wyer call this a “boomerang effect,” and it suggests that people are natural skeptics. How we respond to a media proposition has at least as much to do with its pragmatic meaning (why we think the statement is being made) as with its semantic meaning (what is literally being said). And when the pragmatic meaning is unclear–why, for example, would someone tell us over and over that Jesse Jackson has the support of black Democrats–we start to get suspicious. This is the dilemma of spin. When Rahm Emanuel says “bombshell,” we focus not on the actual bombshell but on why he used the word “bombshell.”