Thinking

Serial and the Myth of Objectivity

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“Do you think he did it?”

It’s a question I’ve heard more times than I can count in the weeks that Serial has dominated water-cooler chit chat in my office and dinner party debates with my friends.

The answers are fascinating, not for what they reveal about the fifteen-year-old murder trial of Adnan Syed, but for what they reveal about the speaker. They reveal that there are those who want to believe Adnan is innocent and are determined to disarm every piece of damning evidence, weaving it into a story of tragically bad luck. Likewise, there are those who want to believe that Adnan is guilty and are determined reinterpret every piece of exculpatory evidence, appropriating it into a story of a premeditated murder.

Confirmation bias. We believe what we already believe and reject what we already reject. If your temperament, life experience, and beliefs lead you to view Adnan as trustworthy or untrustworthy from Episode 1, your subconscious likely filtered the facts that followed accordingly. You already had your narrative. And new facts alone were unlikely to shift your position.

Serial is interesting precisely because it recognizes this reality.

From the very beginning, it seemed that the creators of Serial – Sarah Koenig in particular – wanted to believe in Adnan’s innocence. The narrative never claimed to be entirely objective, with Koenig’s excitement over every scrap of new exonerating evidence as palpable as her disappointment over every bit of new incriminating evidence. Koenig transparently played out a battle with her confirmation bias each week on the podcast, openly acknowledging the limits of her neutrality and constantly questioning whether she was fairly considering all of the evidence. And, by extension, Koenig invited each of us to acknowledge our own bias.

It’s an apt invitation – because, like it or not, bias is inescapable. Necessarily limited to our own perspective, we construct narratives every second of every day to make sense of everything that happens to us. We have no choice in the matter. Facts without narratives are meaningless, void of any inherent significance or mechanism for interpretation.

This is why court cases essentially boil down to an exercise in storytelling. In law school, I took a class called Law and Psychology where we spent most of the semester studying all of the illusion-shattering ways that facts are essentially irrelevant at trial. For better or worse, whichever side constructs the better story that resonates with the most jurors, wins. And, whether jurors realize it or not, the narrative that resonates with them will almost be the one that intersects most closely with their personal story about the world.  In Adnan’s trial, the defense made the mistake of focusing on scattered facts without tying them to a cohesive narrative. The prosecution, on the other hand, managed to tell a compelling tale of deception, jealousy, and young love gone wrong.

In the Serial finale, Adnan explained that when he agreed to participate in the podcast, “all he wanted was to take the narrative back from the prosecution.”  He clearly succeeded on this front. While Serial left no stone unturned in pursuit of the facts, it did so in unabashed advancement of Adnan’s narrative, tying it with the narrative that our justice system is fallible and wrongful convictions are possible. Intentionally or not, over the course of this podcast, Adnan became the poster child for the wrongfully convicted in this country.

“Yeah, but do you think he did it?”

Your answer will likely depend on the extent to which your personal narrative resonates with the dangers inherent in our court system. I would suggest that the more broken you believe our system is, the more likely it is that you believe Adnan is innocent.

But of course, ultimately, your belief in Adnan’s guilt or innocence is irrelevant. All that Serial asks is that you consider the possibility that our justice system is capable of failing and the hurdles your personal biases present to this consideration. In my estimation, Serial’s greatest accomplishment has been encouraging an unprecedented number of people to contemplate the malleability of facts, the limits of a justice system that proclaims the primacy of empirical evidence while necessarily bowing to narrative, and the idea that perhaps the only true objectivity is awareness of our own subjectivity.

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