THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 15

Subject:  Confirmation Bias – “Remember the Maine!”

Event:  Explosion of the USS Maine, 1889

On this day in 1889, the United States battleship Maine exploded while harbored in Havana, Cuba, killing 260 of the 400 sailors aboard.  The Maine had been sent to protect American interests when a Cuban revolt broke out against Spanish rule.  Although no clear cause for the explosion was proven definitively, a U.S. Naval Court of inquiry at the time placed the blame on a Spanish mine.  

Although he was initially against war with Spain, President William McKinley faced enormous public pressure to go to war.  The yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst inflamed American resentment against Spain, and cries of “Remember the Maine” increased tensions.  Finally, in April 1889, the U.S. declared war on Spain.  

The Spanish-American war lasted just five months.  Spain was not prepared to fight a distant war and was easily routed by the U.S.  As a result of the brief war, the U.S. acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, as well as temporary control of Cuba (1).

In 1976 an investigation into the explosion of the Maine by U.S. Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover cleared the Spanish.  Rickover concluded that the explosion was caused by spontaneous combustion in the ship’s coal bins (2).

Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery (Wikipedia)

Today, the mast of the Maine stands in Arlington National Cemetery as a memorial to the American sailors who lost their lives in Cuba.  We might also consider the Maine’s mast as a memorial to confirmation bias, the pervasive and dangerous cognitive bias that allows us to see what we want to see instead of the truth.  It blinds us to evidence that runs contrary to the truth we want to see but makes more prominent anything that will confirm the claim we want to support.  The feeling of being correct is more important to us than actually being correct. As author David McRaney says, “We basically had to invent science to stop ourselves from trying to solve problems by thinking in this way” (3).

The U.S. might have learned a powerful lesson about confirmation bias in 1889; however, it clearly did not.  More than a hundred years later, in 2003, the U.S. again fell prey to confirmation bias by going to war with Iraq.  The U.S. discounted evidence that indicated that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, instead of focusing exclusively on any evidence that supported the theory that Iraq did have WMDs. 

“Remember the Maine” is one of the more memorable slogans of history.  Like “Remember the Alamo” before it and “Remember Pearl Harbor” after it, these bumper-sticker sized sentences remind us that slogans are not just about advertising a product; instead, they are about getting people to do something:  buy a product, vote for a candidate, or take arms against an enemy in war.  In fact, the etymology of ‘slogan’ is from the Gaelic sluagh-ghairm, meaning “army-shout” or “battle cry” (4).

“Remember the Maine” features two principles that make it stick in the mind.  First, it is stated as an imperative sentence; second, it is clear and concise.  Nothing arrests the attention like a short imperative sentence.  Stated as a command, an imperative sentence like “Remember the Maine” doesn’t need to waste time stating a subject; instead, the slogan begins with a verb that acts like the blast of a starting gun telling us to “Go!”  In addition to being a call to action or a call to arms, great slogans make every word count.  They are micro-messages, and the fewer the words, the greater they stick.

For more proof the effectiveness of the concise imperative slogan, read the examples below — each one with no more than six words:

Eat fresh

Make believe

Think Small

Think different

Challenge everything

Just Do It!

Obey your thirst

Dig for Victory

Spread the happy

Ban the Bomb

Have it your way

Say it with Flowers

Fly the friendly skies

Save Money. Live Better

Don’t Leave Home Without It

Twist the cap to refreshment

Reach Out and touch someone

Buy it. Sell it. Love it.

Put a Tiger in Your Tank

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How can the slogan “Remember the Maine!” help us remember how to avoid the cognitive bias known as confirmation bias?

Today’s Challenge – Build a Better Battle Cry:  What is an existing product or cause that you would be willing to promote?  Brainstorm some products, causes, and some original imperative slogans.  When you have found one that works, write a brief letter to the company or to someone representing the cause, and make your pitch for your slogan.  Why do you think it works and should be used to promote the product/cause?  Make your case. 

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

February 15:  The Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei was born on this day in 1564.  He said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”  For more on Galileo, see Thinker’s Almanac – January 7.

Sources:

1-Cavendish, Richard. “The Sinking of the Maine.” History Today Volume 48 Issue 2, 2 Feb. 1998.

2-” Better Late Than Never?: Rickover Clears Spain of the Maine Explosion”  History Matters.

3-McRaney, David. “Confirmation Bias.”  You Are Not So Smart.  June 23, 2010

4-”Slogan” Etymology Online.