Column: Pacquiao, Matobato, and the science of memory

Published on October 4, 2016.

I HAPPENED to be in the Senate’s main session hall when Sen. Manny Pacquiao questioned the controversial witness and self-described Davao Death Squad hitman Edgar Matobato on Sept. 22. I had a ringside seat to what Sen. Ping Lacson later called “a splendid interpellation.” The chair of the committee on justice and human rights, Sen. Dick Gordon, was also effusive in his praise.

What, exactly, did the eight-time world boxing champion do?

Pacquiao managed to entrap Matobato in a web of the witness’ own making. He began with a seemingly tangential question. What is your basis for trusting a person? he asked Matobato, in Bisaya (which Sen. Migz Zubiri then translated, in English, for the benefit of the rest of the committee).

If he’s a good man, Matobato replied, in Bisaya.

What are the other reasons that would make you trust a person, or make you believe him? Pacquiao asked in Filipino.

If he treats me well, the witness replied.

If a person keeps changing his word, would we still trust him? Pacquiao asked.

No, sir, Matobato said.

Pacquiao, displaying the instinct for the jugular that served him well in his boxing career, then said: So, for the record, we cannot trust a person who keeps changing what he says.

This was, of course, the gentleman from Sarangani springing the trap. Matobato, the surprise witness who surfaced at the committee’s third hearing, had said some things during the third and fourth hearings that seemed inconsistent or even outright lies. Pacquiao was thus able to use Matobato’s own set of criteria to damage the witness’ credibility.

He defined Matobato’s problem, to Matobato, succinctly: The public is choosing between two options, to believe you or not to believe you. How can you expect the public to believe you when you keep changing your statement?

I must say that, inside the session hall, you could sense an almost audible reaction from the audience. Pacquiao had clearly scored a hit.

Hence Lacson’s high compliment. “He exposed a lying witness—one who can’t remember the details of his previous testimony. Indeed, when one is stating the truth, there is no way he can forget. On the other hand, a coached or a lying witness forgets his narration of events and circumstances over a certain period of time.”

On reflection, however, I cannot agree with Lacson, or with Gordon, who chaired the hearings with aplomb. It is not that, to use a phrase current again in American political use, Lacson and Gordon are guilty of “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Far from it. They praised Pacquiao not because they were holding him to lower standards that would be usual for a senator, but because they saw that he had done his homework and clearly made his point.

I disagree with the view, though, that Pacquiao had scored a knockout; indeed, I do not see Matobato’s inconsistencies as fatal to his testimony. Rather, they show that three basic types of memory are (usually) at work, and demonstrate that our senators must know which is which.

Lacson’s axiom: “When one is stating the truth, there is no way he can forget.” Well, we can pose this test to Pacquiao himself. What were the dates of each of his 50-plus fights? Forget month and day; just the year will do. If, as is likely, Pacquiao will misremember a few, or perhaps several, of the dates, will we immediately conclude that the all-time boxing great is not telling the truth? Not at all. There are simply too many details to recall.

There is, in fact, a science to this. “Many very different things happen when we remember,” Wittgenstein wrote. It is a simple observation that should give us, and the senators who conduct legislative investigations, pause.

What psychologists call “procedural memory” includes many kinds of remembering, mainly having to do with habit or skill. We can think of this as “remembering how.” The Senate committee should ask Matobato more questions involving this kind of memory: How, for instance, do you strangle a victim? This will establish certain facts about his sordid career.

What is usually called “semantic memory” deals with facts, what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls “the vast network of conceptual information underlying our general knowledge of the world.” We can think of this as “remembering that.” The committee has asked Matobato a lot of questions involving semantic memory. Where is the Heinous Crimes unit? Did you start with the CHDF or with Cafgu? What year did you kill Sali Makdum?

Much of Pacquiao and Lacson’s unease over Matobato’s testimony has to do with errors in semantic memory. But this is precisely the kind of memory test which would trip up Pacquiao, if he were asked for the dates of all his fights.

The third kind of memory, “episodic,” is experience-based: “This is memory for experienced events and episodes, such as a conversation this morning or the death of a friend eight years ago” (SEP). We can think of this as a kind of “remembering who”—but in Didion’s sense, a remembering of who we were when the event happened. This is the memory that allows us to remember the scents of a particular scene, the emotion we felt at a particular time, what we were thinking or doing when bad news arrived. It is this kind of memory on which, in my view, Matobato’s testimony must finally be judged.

Note that his recollection of the abduction of Makdum actually coincides with the narration of facts of that adverse source CNN interviewed, in that news report Sen. Alan Cayetano showed to try to undermine Matobato’s credibility. They were both there.

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