An attack of Pyrrhonism

We bought a book recently called 30 Second Psychology which refers to the Kitty Genovese murder.

Popular headlines at the time suggested that 38 people had watched for approximately half an hour, whilst Ms Genovese was murdered, and done nothing. This has given rise to many psychological theories:
– the Bystander effect (aka the Genovese syndrome)
Diffusion of responsibility
– feminist views of male/ female power relations (references here.)

The story is quoted in many textbooks, including the best-selling Influence, and in many essays. (Just Google for them.)

However, a local resident has amassed a lot of evidence suggesting that only a few people saw or even heard the incident (it was 3-15 am), and that at least one of them did take action, ringing the Police, who took far too long to arrive. (The person who made this claim later became a Lieutenatnt in the NY Police, so is probably not a baised witness.)

Modern accounts now tend to say things like “Clearly, events were not quite as they were described in the New York Times article and this doesnt seem to be a clear case of Bystander Apathy at all. Nevertheless, thats how it was reported at the time and thats how it is described in many Psychology text books!”

However, having recently been reading Sextus Empiricus, I find myself wondering how real a theory can be which is based on apparently false evidence. On the one hand, just because the facts didnt fit in this case doesnt mean they would not fit in others. On the other hand, people disprove spiritualism by demonstrating that a particular medium was cheating, with the clear implication being that they all do.

Theres a kind of bias here. If we believe we understand something, we are prepared to accept it even though in some cases the evidence does not support it. (The Genovese case does not disprove the Bystander effect. It probably just says nothing either way.)

But if we cannot understand something, we are more ready to assume that lack of evidence proves it does not exist. (eg Anthony Flews argument that “claims about God were meaningless where they could not be tested for truth or falsehood”.)

Its not quite the same as measuring your own blood pressure. (If the news is bad, you tend to believe it. If the news is very good, you wonder if the machine is inaccurate. Or perhaps the other way round, depending on your own personality.)

Sometimes I look at my Streak and wonder what Wittgensteins response would have been had I told him about it (NOT shown it to him) a hundred years ago.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *