When People Can’t See What’s Right In Front Of Them

This is  the preface to Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman’s book Nurture Shock. It’s one of the best stories I’ve read about how people can completely ignore irrefutable evidence that’s right in front of them:

During the late 1960s, visitors to the Magic Castle— a private nightclub in Hollywood, California, run by professional magicians— were often delighted to see that the club had hired a Cary Grant look-alike as its doorman. As they’d step up to the portico, the door would be swung open by a dashing man in an impeccably tailored suit. “Welcome to the Castle,” he charmed, seeming to enjoy his doppelgänger status. Once the guests were through the lobby, they would titter over just how much the doorman resembled the iconic actor. The nightclub is mere yards from the Chinese Theatre and the Walk of Fame. To have the best Cary Grant impersonator in the world holding the door for you was the perfect embodiment of the magic of Hollywood in all its forms.

However, the doorman pretending to be Cary Grant wasn’t an impostor after all. It was, in fact, the real Cary Grant.

Grant, a charter member of the Castle, had been intrigued by magic since he was a kid. Part of the Castle’s appeal to Grant and many other celebrities, though, was that the club has an ironclad rule— no cameras, no photographs, and no reporters. It gave stars the ability to have a quiet night out without gossip columns knowing.

Grant hung out in the lobby to be with the receptionist, Joan Lawton. They spent the hours talking about a more profound kind of Magic— something Grant cared more deeply about than the stage. Children.

Lawton’s work at the Castle was her night job. By day, she was pursuing a certificate in the science of child development. Grant, then the father of a toddler, was fascinated by her study. He plied her for every scrap of research she was learning. “He wanted to know everything about kids,” she recalled. Whenever he heard a car arrive outside, he’d jump to the door. He wasn’t intentionally trying to fool the guests, but that was often the result. The normally autograph-seeking patrons left him alone.

So why didn’t guests recognize he was the real thing?

The context threw them off. Nobody expected the real Cary Grant would appear in the humdrum position of a doorman. Magicians who performed at the Magic Castle were the best anywhere, so the guests came prepared to witness illusions. They assumed the handsome doorman was just the first illusion of the evening.

Here’s the thing. When everything is all dressed up as entertainment— when it’s all supposed to be magical and surprising and fascinating— the Real Thing may be perceived as just another tidbit for our amusement.

That is certainly the case in the realm of science.

In the immediacy of today’s 24-7 news cycle, with television news, constant blogging, press releases, and e-mail, it feels as if no scientific breakthrough escapes notice. But these scientific findings are used like B-list celebrities— they’re filler for when the real newsmakers aren’t generating headlines. Each one gets its ten minutes of fame, more for our entertainment than our serious consideration. The next day, they are tossed aside, lipstick asmear, as the press wire churns out the science du jour. When they’re presented as quick sound bites, it’s impossible to know which findings really merit our attention.

Most scientific investigations can’t live up to the demands of media packaging. At least for the science of child development, there have been no “Eureka!” moments that fit the classic characterization of a major scientific breakthrough. Rather than being the work of a single scholar, the new ideas have been hashed out by many scholars, sometimes dozens, who have been conducting research at universities the world over. Rather than new truths arriving on the wings of a single experiment, they have come at a crawl, over a decade, from various studies replicating and refining prior ones.

The result is that many important ideas have been right under our noses, building up over the last decade. As a society, collectively, we never recognized they were the real thing.

From: Bronson, Po; Merryman, Ashley (2009-08-14). NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children (pp. xiii-xv). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.