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Memories

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Remember the Downing Street Memo and its "revelation" that on Iraq "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy"? Seen as outrageous both as it concerned the lead up to the war, and as a more general inditement of the Bush Administration code of practice in relation to climate change, education, health and so on. The old media have been rightly condemned for not more actively seeking to reveal the manipulation of evidence, as a result of their being in lock step, Rove the Music Man, with the White House.

True, no doubt, but I wonder if the rot goes even deeper into the fabric of journalism in 2007. That the media couldn't see what was going on because they operated in the same way themselves. Every story these days seems to me to involve the intelligence and facts being fixed around the policy, the policy being that of the media proprietor.

Here is an example. You all saw the story here last week about chimps beating humans in memory/number tests. I saw the ABC America coverage. There were chimps doing amazing things after the briefest of looks at a number sequence. I couldn't have done it and nor could the human test subjects who tried. Really interesting, I thought. Here is one of those cases where it is possible to put our closest relatives on a level playing field in a test, and the chimps do better. What, I wondered, are the evolutionary reasons for this extraordinary difference in ability, what does it tell us about differences in brain function and memory, and how would this be related to the habitats occupied by human and chimp ancestors around 4 million years ago? I hadn't finished pondering on this really interesting story when the voice over from the ABC reporter jangled my nerves. The reason for the difference, he said, was that Chimpanzees liked peanuts (which were given to the chimps as a reward for correct answers) more than humans. The new bulletin presenter smiled as this nonsensical sentence came out - ah, this was just a funny animal story to end the bulletin after all. She had wondered what kind of a story it was, but now she knew, and it was ok to smile.

Cross to the BBC web site (and I assume BBC tv in Britain) and you find detailed conclusions along the lines I had been pondering - short term memory skills were probably more important in early humans (and chimps) than in modern humans. Why is this so?

And why did ABC (and therefore those channels around the world who picked up the ABC package) choose to fix the facts of chimp intelligence around a funny animal story, with no mention of evolution or relationships? Well, just the same day came the results of one of those profoundly depressing polls (Harris Online). 82 per cent of adult Americans believe in God and 79 per cent believe in miracles. More than 70 per cent of the 2,455 adults surveyed between November 7 and 13 said they believed in heaven and angels, while more than 60 per cent said they believed in hell and the devil. Roughly equal numbers believe evolution (42 per cent) and creationism (39 per cent). Seventy per cent of Americans said they were religious, while about one-third also said they believe in UFOs, witches and astrology.

Now, given that astonishing level of ignorance and superstition, what is a tv executive to do? Present stories that might help to make those 39% creationists think, or defang the stories, so as not to challenge those beliefs? Just like the intelligence agencies faced with an administration hell bent on war with Iraq fixed the facts, so the tv executives fix the stories. And a remarkable piece of research which could have helped open a few minds was trashed.

And journalists, being part of this approach to news coverage, observing government manipulation of reality, may well think, "Yes, so, that's just the way things work, isn't it?" And Mencken and Murrow (remember them?) turn over in their graves, yet again.

Like Thomas Huxley, on The Watermelon Blog I "would rather be the offspring of two apes than be a man and afraid to face the truth".