THE MAGAZINE

When Did You Last Clean Out Your Mental Closet?

By Sherry Harowitz

A friend was recently telling me how his three-year-old granddaughter was convinced that the dandelion flower gone to seed was a clover. Her conviction could not be shaken, because this received wisdom had been handed down from her mother—the person who is, at that age, the font of all knowledge. Her mother had really said of the wispy round seed ball that it was a blower. The little girl misheard. But there was no going back. She was proud of what she knew. It was a clover. Period.

It’s a cute tale when it involves something so inconsequential, but much of our received wisdom is wrong, yet we refuse to review and reevaluate that knowledge, so certain are we that it is based on sacred texts or an unassailable source.

Sometimes the misrepresentation is as accidental as the blower clover. A freelance writer I know who was researching the history of the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., found, for example, that claims it had launched the career of Ella Fitzgerald were based on a misreading of an original story. Once the claim was made, it was repeated so often in print that the multiplicity of reports gave it the appearance of validity. It became part of the history.

Sometimes the misinformation is intentional. The first rule of propaganda is that a lie oft repeated becomes true. As historian Barbara Tuchman notes in Proud Tower, her book about the world just before World War I, when the French wrongly convicted Captain Alfred Dreyfus of treason, “The unanimity of the military court seemed confirmed by a published rumor that Dreyfus had confessed, which, as it passed from journal to journal, acquired the force of an official statement and satisfied the public.”

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