by ALIX SPIEGEL / npr.org
In November 1941, two ships crossed paths off the coast of Australia. One was the German raider HSK Kormoran. The other: an Australian warship called the HMAS Sydney. Guns were fired, the ships were damaged, and both sank to the bottom of the ocean.
The loss of the Sydney in World War II was a national tragedy for the Australians, particularly because none of the 645 men onboard survived. In the years that followed, there was intense interest in finding the wrecks, particularly the wreck of the Sydney. The idea was that doing this might give the families of the lost sailors some measure of peace, a sense of closure and certainty.
The problem was that the only witnesses to the battle and the sinking were about 300 German sailors who had abandoned their ship after it had been hit. They were eventually picked up by the Australian military.
After their capture, most of these Germans were interrogated and asked to identify where the ships had gone down. But the Germans seemed quite fuzzy on this point.
Bob Trotter, a former director of the Finding Sydney Foundation, a nonprofit group established to help find the Sydney, says their ignorance isn’t all that surprising.
“Particularly in a wartime situation, the position of the ship is really kept in the bridge area,” Trotter says. “It would not be normal that the rest of the ship’s company would be told.”
Still, in the course of their interrogations, about 70 Germans did come up with a location. But those locations, taken together, didn’t make much sense — the positions were spread out, smeared over hundreds of miles. One survivor even placed the sinking almost halfway to Antarctica.
So most Australians concluded that the Germans must be lying, their conflicting accounts part of a ploy to throw the Australians off the scent. When Sydney hunters went out looking for the boat — and many did — they either completely disregarded the accounts from the Germans, or, in a couple of cases, focused exclusively on the captain’s version of the story.
Then came psychologists Kim Kirsner and John Dunn.
Kirsner, a cognitive psychologist from the University of Western Australia, first became interested in finding the Sydney in the 1990s. After attempting some different approaches to solving the problem, he brought in his friend and frequent collaborator, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Adelaide.
By the time Dunn entered the picture in the mid- to late 1990s, all kinds of people with all kinds of theories had already attempted to find the ships.
“If you didn’t believe the Germans,” says Trotter of the Finding Sydney Foundation, “the number of possibilities were endless as to what might have happened and where the ships might be. Lots of theories had been expounded, and lots of areas had been suggested.”
The cycle was always the same: Some treasure hunter with a theory would propose a site; people would rush off to look; there would be excitement, then disappointment.
How We Remember Stories
As cognitive psychologists, Kirsner and Dunn took a very different view of the German accounts. To them, the spread of the reports looked like the kind of data they saw in memory experiments. So they set out to prove scientifically that the Germans were probably telling the truth.
“We wanted to make the case — show that the characteristics of these reports were the right kind of characteristics,” says Dunn. That is, that the inconsistencies in the reports were precisely the kind of inconsistencies that occur naturally from failures of memory and the vagaries of transmitting information from person to person.
To make this case, Dunn says, they turned to the work of the British psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett.