Raging Memories

A reader, who wishes to remain anonymous, wonders why natives in East Africa falsely remember that long ago rivers were raging torrents all year round, compared to seasonal trickles now:

Participatory research in East African catchments uncovers memories of catchment hydrology at odds with the hydrological record. Community elders paint a picture of drying and increasingly seasonal rivers; gone are the raging torrents of their youth, replaced by trickles which flow only in the rainy season. However, hydrological records from colonial and the post-independence era suggest that these memories are something of a fiction. In certain catchments, river flow has actually increased over time.

I wonder if you might be able to explain this apparent bias. It may be that participatory research methodologies are to blame – eliciting false information. However, conversation with colleagues indicates that this discrepancy between memory and the record may be a global phenomenon. Additionally, I have noticed that the conclusions of scientist colleagues appear to be influenced by community perceptions of a changing hydrology.

If there is a bias at work, do you think this may have consequences for our understanding of climate change? Do false childhood memories influence the popular  view that the weather is changing?

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  • geez

    “Do false childhood memories influence the popular view that the weather is changing?” – They may influence this view, but it seems unlikely they are the only factor if stat’s like “average monthly temperature” support it.

    I think many childhood experiences are remembered more dramatically simply because we were smaller physically. They may also have a greater influence on our mental structure due to their relative size in our total experience – when I was one day old, each hour was 1/24 of my total experience (as blurred as it may have been), so it really counted. Nowdays each hour is more or less 1/280K of my experience.

  • Constant

    Life was better in the good old days!

    The “good old days” bias.

  • dearieme

    I’d be more inclined to believe a memory comparison about discrete events – where I grew up, my parents had skated on the frozen river when they were young, but it never froze in my childhood – than about the value of a continuous variable – just how fast the river flowed. Should we believe the flood markers that you often see on old buildings in England? I’m inclined to. But much folk memory is demonstrable tosh: a good example in England is the extent of woodland some decades ago. Apparently folk assertions are readily proven false by consulting the Luftwaffe’s aerial photography.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    I wouldn’t be surprised if this bias makes the global warming theory more salient to the masses. For example, I think the substantial percentage of the American population that apparently both believes that global warming is occuring and that believes that creationism better explains species diversification than evolution believes the former due to either the weight of the empirical evidence or the credibility of the scientific consensus. However, I also doubt that the extent of scientific consensus about global warming can be best explained by false childhood memories causing a warped reading of data or a warped construction of theories regarding global warming.

  • Doug S.

    As always, I reduce everything to references to webcomics.


    All wisdom is to be found in webcomics.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    All wisdom is to be found in webcomics.


  • Aaron Davies

    Reminds me vaguely of my conjecture that the reason we’re so obsessed with “white” Christmases is that modern Christmas evolved during the Victorian part of the Little Ice Age. Actual numbers for most places in America show something like two or three snowy Christmases in fifty years or more.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Interesting theory, Aaron. And great webcomic, Doug S. I had seen the “Here there Be Anthropomorphic Monsters” scaled map of social networking websites, but I didn’t know it came out of a regular webcomic series. xkcd.com ties with or is better than jesusandmo.com, IMO.

  • I agree with the oberserver size and cumulative experience.

    However, there’s also the issue that changes in the terrain, depth and width at various locations make the flow seem slower.

  • The url is actually http://www.jesusandmo.NET .