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Margins of Error

Look closely at almost anything and you’ll find data—lots of it. But when you push past the calculations, what are all those numbers really saying about who we are and what we believe? CNN’s Harry Enten is on a mission to find out. This season on Margins of Error, Harry teases out big ideas like what accents say about where we live, how much money it takes to be happy, and whether the U.S. should finally switch to the metric system.

Harry Enten contemplates ideas

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Harry Makes a Spectacle of Himself
Margins of Error
May 17, 2022

More and more of us are in need of glasses these days and luckily, there is now a much more positive perception of people with “four eyes.” However, it wasn’t always that way. So where did the stereotypes come from, and is there a chance that people who wear glasses are smarter than those who don’t? Harry also discovers why eyewear has become defense attorneys’ favorite accessories for clients in the courtroom and visits Dr. Craig Moskowitz of Moskowitz Eye Care.

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Episode Transcript
Dr. Craig Moskowitz
00:00:00
All right? All Yeah. Okay. So bring that up to your eyes there.
Harry Enten
00:00:04
Okay.
Dr. Craig Moskowitz
00:00:05
Let's look at this number here. You see that number?
Harry Enten
00:00:07
Yeah, it's a twelve.
Dr. Craig Moskowitz
00:00:08
Great.
Harry Enten
00:00:09
That's an eight. It's been a long time since I've had my eyes examined. 15 years, in fact. I know it's been a minute. So a few weeks back, I called up Dr. Craig Moskowitz. He's a vision correction specialist and the owner of Moskowitz Eye Care in New York. And he gave my eyes the attention I know they deserve.
Dr. Craig Moskowitz
00:00:30
All right. And I'm glad you're getting an eye exam because there's a lot going on behind the eye or in the eye that we don't know about.
Harry Enten
00:00:36
Oh.
Dr. Craig Moskowitz
00:00:37
So I will tell you about everything we see today.
Harry Enten
00:00:39
Sounds great.
Dr. Craig Moskowitz
00:00:39
Okay.
Harry Enten
00:00:41
Three quarters of Americans need some form of vision correction. And one consequence of the pandemic is that, on the whole, our eyesight's gotten worse. Kids' vision, in particular, has suffered over the past couple of years as children have spent more and more time staring at screens. So that number of Americans who need vision correction, it's almost definitely going up. Now, as to whether or not my vision's getting worse. Well, I don't want to brag, but whenever I've got in my eyes tests in the past, both have been 20/20 or better.
Dr. Craig Moskowitz
00:01:18
So what's the smallest line you can read?
Harry Enten
00:01:20
428739. That's the bottom line.
Dr. Craig Moskowitz
00:01:25
Harry, that's 20/20. Look at that, it's perfect there. All right, let's try the other eye.
Harry Enten
00:01:29
That's going to be --.
Dr. Craig Moskowitz
00:01:30
Just so you don't memorize it, just read it backwards.
Harry Enten
00:01:32
Okay.
Dr. Craig Moskowitz
00:01:33
Okay.
Harry Enten
00:01:34
937624.
Dr. Craig Moskowitz
00:01:38
Excellent. All right. 20/20. You're right. You've got great vision.
Harry Enten
00:01:43
Like I said, perfect vision. But if I'm being honest with you, I kind of wish I needed to wear glasses, because to me, people who wear glasses, well, they've always seemed smarter than those of us who don't. Now, I know I might be in the minority here. I mean, let's be real, what else is new? As people who've worn glasses have historically been looked down upon or been considered unattractive? Just take it from Marilyn Monroe from the 1953 film "How to Marry a Millionaire."
Marilyn Monroe in film
00:02:19
"Well, you know what they say about girls who wear glasses. (What are you talking about?) Men aren't attentive to girls who wear glasses."
Harry Enten
00:02:29
But for me, I see people wearing glasses and I think, wow, that person's probably a genius. And our complicated social perception of glasses wearers. that they're smarter than the rest of us and also maybe nerds, it matters more than you might think from Hollywood to courtrooms. Glasses play a bigger role than you might have ever realized. So today I want to figure out just where did our stereotypes about glasses, good and bad, come from? And is there a chance that people who wear glasses actually are smarter than the rest of us? I'm Harry Enten, and this is Margins of Error.
Neil Handley
00:03:17
Well, hello, I'm Neil Handley and I'm the museum curator at the British Optical Association Museum, which is part of the College of Optometrists in London. We have the most significant and the largest collection of its type, and that includes something in the region of 3 to 4000 pairs of spectacles.
Harry Enten
00:03:37
Yes, there really is a museum devoted to glasses.
Neil Handley
00:03:41
It's actually a subject which, when I first came into it, I thought, who would be interested in that? But in fact, it's a fascinating subject because almost everybody can identify with it. We're nearly all going to wear glasses at some stage in our lives. And if we don't, then we know somebody close to us who does.
Harry Enten
00:04:01
No one knows exactly when glasses were first invented. But experts tend to agree that it was somewhere around the year 1300 in the north of Italy. They were first made by and for monks and nuns who were busy transcribing biblical scriptures in monasteries. But these early glasses, well, they were far from perfect.
Neil Handley
00:04:24
The early spectacles were only any use if you're sitting down and staying still because they didn't have the the arms or the sides or the temples. So you couldn't wear them and walk around. You had to hold them in place or just balance them very precariously on your nose. So that for use indoors for the very limited number of people. And this continues to be the case for several centuries.
Harry Enten
00:04:53
All told, for a long time, it was rare to see people in public wearing glasses. But when common folk did see these glasses wearers in public, they were of two minds about it. On the one hand, glasses were a clear sign that whoever was wearing them was literate and knowledgeable, which was good. But on the other.
Neil Handley
00:05:14
Although these are holy people, monks and nuns wearing spectacles, the audience are going to say, "Well, actually, if God had intended us to see this thing, he would have made us eyes that would see it. And therefore, if we can't see as well as we should, who are we as human beings to interfere with that process?" So if we're making lenses that make things more clearer, this is sorcery. This is magic. This is witchcraft!
Harry Enten
00:05:48
Glasses as we know them now, didn't really proliferate until the 18th century when people started making glasses with temples so you could walk around without them falling off. But while folks had mostly dropped the magic and witchcraft stuff, glasses were not fashionable, let alone even remotely cool.
Neil Handley
00:06:09
It's really hard to obtain paintings of people wearing spectacles in the past because there weren't many of them. That tells you something, in itself, that there was fear of the prejudice against spectacle wearers. And then you look at the types of subject which is depicted in the paintings with glasses and their money lenders. They are misers. They are government officials, people who we wish would turn a blind eye to us, but they don't. The people who are depicted in art, western arts, at least, wearing spectacles, were often hate figures. And this would really put you off.
Harry Enten
00:06:46
Misers? Money lenders? Well, according to Neil, this antique glasses attitude, which was often just thinly veiled anti-Semitism, was so pervasive that people who needed glasses, well, they just wouldn't wear them.
Neil Handley
00:07:06
So it's bad enough to be immoral. But then, as the obvious one, it's to be seen as somebody who is weak, who is disabled. It's an outward sign of disability, of visual impairments, and people are proud and do not wish to admit to these things. And this has been the case throughout history, across gender distinctions, across cultural distinctions. Nobody wants to be seen as weaker than the person next to them.
Harry Enten
00:07:36
In some ways, I think many of those sort of negative perceptions of maybe being weak kind of have come through even to the modern day and have manifested themselves, at least in some people perhaps not wanting to wear them. And it's something I can even remember seeing on an episode of a sitcom here in the States, "Full House," where Stephanie Tanner didn't want to wear glasses because I think she was afraid of being seeing sort of nerdy and weak and sort of an outcast in some way.
Stephanie Tanner in Full House
00:08:04
I'm going to look like a geek.
Danny Tanner in Full House
00:08:05
Sweetheart, you are not going to look like a geek. But if you don't take care of this now, your eyesight could get worse.
Stephanie Tanner in Full House
00:08:11
All those years you didn't care. What a waste.
Harry Enten
00:08:16
But it wasn't just regular folks who were worried how they'd look if they wore glasses. It was a highly calculated decision for high profile politicians, too.
Neil Handley
00:08:26
One of the most notorious examples, of course, is Adolf Hitler, who refused to have photographs taken when he was wearing his spectacles. And there's only really one authentic image that I've seen showing him with his glasses on. Go to the other side in the war and Sir Winston Churchill did wear spectacles later on in his life because he became very old, but he generally preferred not to wear them, but he used them for his speeches. So it was just for a very specific occasion.
Harry Enten
00:08:57
I'm wondering what why did Hitler not want to wear glasses, even though he apparently clearly needed them.
Neil Handley
00:09:05
In Hitler's case, there have been people who've written about the "Hitler stare" -- this mesmerizing stare. If he looked at you, you were captivated and almost hypnotized by his look. And if there'd been a spectacle frame in the way, that would have been a barrier. And so there was a whole academic argument here of people debating whether it was necessary for him to leave aside his spectacles because his principal appeal to the German people was actually his physical appearance.
Harry Enten
00:09:41
This wasn't something that only Hitler grappled with. In fact, in their official White House portraits, only three presidents are painted wearing glasses: Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman. That being said, our cultural perception of glasses has started changing somewhat over the last couple of decades. Glasses now have this kind of cool nerd vibe to them, and Neil attributes much of that shift to Hollywood and a certain teenage wizard with whom I share my name.
Harry Potter clip
00:10:16
Holy Cricket! You're Harry Potter.
Neil Handley
00:10:18
Harry Potter has revolutionized the children's eyewear market. It used to be the case that if you told a child that they needed spectacles, they would burst into tears. And now we come full circle and if you tell a child that they don't need spectacles and they're going to miss out on looking like Harry Potter, they burst into tears. And the irony of that is that the style of spectacles that Harry Potter wore were actually very old fashioned. They were from half a century before, the simple round eye look. But it wasn't so much the nature of the style, it was the fact that it was worn by this character with whom generations of children could identify. That was a very powerful thing.
Harry Enten
00:11:10
At this point, Neil directed me towards a box he'd shipped to our studios.
Neil Handley
00:11:15
So. So, Harry, we've actually selected some items for you to try on which we think you might enjoy. And that would be really interesting to know how wearing these items makes you feel and indeed, if it makes you feel more intelligent.
Harry Enten
00:11:32
And when I opened it up, I found three pairs of glasses inside. It was time to test my own stereotypes about three of the most recognizable styles of glasses. Ooh. I don't know if these make me look more intelligent. These kind of make me look a little bit --I feel like I'm --to be perfectly honest, I either associate these with either looking like an old woman or looking kind of sort of like Elton John or something like that.
Neil Handley
00:12:02
Okay, Harry, so what you're wearing at the moment is what's called an upswept design, where the upper outer rim is pointed, and often that described as cat size. It's a flamboyant look. So somebody who wears this has got to be very confident and will be probably trying to make a statement about themselves and somebody, as you say, like Sir Elton John, who has thousands of pairs of spectacles and allegedly even has a separate hotel room to store his spectacles in when he goes on tour, would select something like that in order to shock or to surprise, but to be noticed.
Harry Enten
00:12:44
I don't know if it's coming through on the mic, but I had the biggest smile during all of that, in part because I think I actually kind of got it right, but also in part because it's just the funniest darn thing in the world, because I really never wear glasses at all and I'm looking at myself, but why don't we put these aside and we're going to move on to the second pair? Oh, wow. Look at this. Oh, these look like something from a science experiment right now. There is a whole thing going on here, very sort of old fashioned. They kind of make me think that I'm like Benjamin Franklin or something. They feel a little bit more bookish.
Neil Handley
00:13:20
Well, Harry, you're actually going right up the right path there. These are a classic round eye style of the sort that you might associate with Harry Potter or with John Lennon. But one of the phrases is often used to describe a pair of glasses like this as "owlish," as in a wise old owl. And so yeah. And it also makes your eyes look a lot bigger. This wide open eyes look suggests that you're open to learning and discovering new things and it doesn't impact on your face in the same way. We can still see the individual behind them.
Harry Enten
00:14:01
We have one more pair, I believe. So let's see what that holds for us and our fun little experiment here today. Oh, yes. These definitely look like the glasses that my mother might wear over her nose as she or a librarian would wear. I'm not sure I would wear this type of glasses, but I certainly do look like the pair that my father or my mom would have worn as their eyesight got worse when they got a little bit older.
Neil Handley
00:14:31
Okay. Well, Harry, what you're actually wearing at the moment is what's called a rimless pair of spectacles. So the frame consists of the two side pieces and the bridge, but the lenses themselves do not have a frame around them. And for that period, at the start of the 21st century, the rimless look was very popular with techno geeks, with intellectuals, with businessmen. And yet you're also right. You said these looked like the sort of thing that your grandma might wear because they were a reversion to a much older style. And one of the things that I've done in a quarter of a century of studying the development of spectacle frames is noted how the styles are cyclical and they keep coming back in and out of fashion. I can of just say that, Harry, you really have made a spectacle of yourself today.
Harry Enten
00:15:24
Ultimately, I don't think I felt any smarter while I was trying on these different classes, but it was fun and I felt like I learned a lot about something Neil was telling me: glasses have truly become an important part of how we present ourselves to the world.
Neil Handley
00:15:44
So the interesting thing is, is if we look at a person wearing spectacles, do we judge them or do we judge their spectacles? And that's one of the questions I often ask visitors to the museum, because I want them to start thinking about their own preconceptions and to perhaps try and view the world a little differently. And just the same way that if I gave you a lens to correct your myopia, you'd also start to see the world a bit differently.
Harry Enten
00:16:14
Coming up after the break, it's one thing to try on different kinds of glasses and see which make you look smarter than others, but a former New York City prosecutor will explain how glasses are used as an ace in the hole for defendants in criminal trials. That's coming up right after the break. .
Harry Enten
00:16:40
Hey, folks, welcome back. So at the end of the last segment, Neil asked a valuable question. When we see someone wearing glasses, do we judge their glasses or do we judge them? It's an important question to ask in our everyday lives, as glasses become more and more common. But it turns out it's also an important question to ask in the courtroom.
Sarah Mariucci
00:17:04
What's the most fascinating to me is how much someone focuses on the eyes, especially on a static face, which is sort of what a defendant is in a courtroom.
Harry Enten
00:17:12
This is Sarah Mariucci, a former prosecutor at the Bronx District Attorney's Office and the author of the Legal Journal article," I See You: How Criminal Defendants Have Utilized the Nerd Defense to Influence Jurors' Perceptions."
Sarah Mariucci
00:17:29
The nerd defense, I mean, at its core is just a way for a defendant to alter his or her appearance at trial, I guess to fabricate a physical defect in oneself that carries with it significant stereotypes. And it's just such an easy method. It's just wearing eyeglasses and you tie wearing glasses with a perceived intelligence, and that has an effect on a jury outcome.
Harry Enten
00:17:55
Think about that for a second. Our social stereotypes around glasses are so strong that they may be able to alter the course of a criminal trial. And Mariucci says that's partly due to the kinds of stereotypes we hold about glasses.
Sarah Mariucci
00:18:12
It's been associated with reading, significant amounts of reading in childhood days, a nerd persona, a smart persona. And when intelligence is heightened, perceived intelligence is heightened, perceived threat is decreased. Right? So one will appear less threatening when they wear eyeglasses than someone who simply doesn't. And that is where you're starting to persuade the jury into thinking, how could this person have committed that crime? Look how, look how sweet and smart and nerdy and peaceful they appear.
Harry Enten
00:18:46
Indeed. Think back to the much publicized trial of now convicted killer Jodi Arias.
CNN report
00:18:52
Once a blond bombshell, Arias is now a brunette with bangs that are getting a lot of attention. And it's not just the bangs. It's her glasses and speculation about whether Arias even needs them.
Harry Enten
00:19:05
But if Arias was attempting the nerd defense, well, it didn't work. Further, the nerd defense isn't a one size fits all approach. Mariucci says it needs to be used within the right context or the right kind of case.
Sarah Mariucci
00:19:21
When you get into a violent crime, any type of violent crime, you want to make yourself look smaller. It's the same idea as wearing an oversize blazer to court an oversize jacket. You want to appear less intimidating. And glasses help with that. If you've committed a violent crime and you're wearing glasses, you're just less intimidating to the jury. Now, if you've committed a white collar crime, a financial crime, something that, you know, stereotypically involves a higher degree of intelligence and planning and scheming as opposed to just, you know, a heat of the moment type of, or a passion crime or even just a violent crime in general that didn't have much planning leading up to it. It has that opposite effect. You don't want to appear more intelligent and more conniving and something of that nature. You want to appear the opposite, right? Not not capable of having schemed up whatever it may be.
Harry Enten
00:20:13
Makes sense, right? So at this point, we wanted to know if there was a case that Mariucci could recall where a defendant had been found not guilty while they were wearing glasses. And she came up with one pretty quickly.
Sarah Mariucci
00:20:26
So People v. Davis, that was the case I was thinking of. The defendant was young, he was 21. And basically he was accused of attempting to murder different police officers that were attempting to arrest him. So it was a very long case. And Larry Davis was the defendant in that case. And his defense attorney basically said, here's some eyeglasses, wear them. It was a violent case. The eyeglasses were intended to make him appear, maybe not more intelligent in that case, but less violent. Not someone that could have committed that crime. And there was some information in the media basically saying they were trying to make him look like Mr. Peepers with these horned rimmed glasses. Whereas the prosecution obviously had a different portrayal of this person. He was acquitted of that attempted murder in that case. So whether or not these specific glasses are what made him have the acquittal, who knows? Right. That's you're never really going to know. You can poll the jury. You can ask the jury. But the jury probably is not going to outwardly say, yeah, he had glasses on, so I somehow thought in my mind he was less violent, so we didn't convict him. Probably not going to get that answer, even if it is in this subconscious thought process that one would go through to arrive at that case.
Harry Enten
00:21:36
It's a good point. No juror in their right mind would ever confess to making a verdict based off whether the defendant was wearing glasses. But it's a pretty easy tactic for defense attorneys to try.
Sarah Mariucci
00:21:49
They're so cheap and you can just pop them on. And if there's any chance that it helps at all in that it just slips by the prosecution or whatever, and no one's really asking like, hey, does this person really need that? As they would -- if someone rolls in and crushes your ask as a prosecutor, you're saying, the hell are you doing? Like you didn't break your leg? Or did you? Tell me what's happening. But with glasses, it's so subtle and it's so easy and it's so inexpensive that I think if defense attorneys are trained in it, I don't know, it might be more it might even be more prevalent than than we're aware.
Harry Enten
00:22:21
One fun coincidence, Mariucci actually wears glasses.
Sarah Mariucci
00:22:25
Yeah, eyeglasses and contacts. It wasn't even after what I think was my first year of law school. I was walking in Brooklyn and I couldn't read a sign far away, and it was just like, Oh, my gosh, I've had perfect vision my whole life. What's happening? And lo and behold, obviously, it was because I, you know, was glued to books for years leading up to law school studying for a test, all of that. So it's it is interesting because the reason I needed eyeglasses is because technically I was reading more. Now, does that correlate with a higher intelligence in IQ who -- like. I don't have the answer to that. I don't. I'm I'm more knowledgeable now. Am I more intelligent than I was? No idea.
Harry Enten
00:22:59
Hmm. Now, that's a good question. Do glasses correlate with higher intelligence? Coming up, I'll talk with a behavioral geneticist and try to find out. That's after the break.
00:23:20
So it really does seem like, for better or worse, we have this cultural idea that people who wear glasses are, in fact, smarter than those of us who don't. But I wanted to find out if that's actually true. Are people with poor eyesight really smarter than the rest of us? Turns out a 2018 study involving over 300,000 people set out to examine the human genome in its entirety to see if there's any kind of genetic marker tied to greater cognitive function.
Michelle Luciano
00:23:53
We give people psychometric tests. So one might be a vocabulary test. One might be a spatial task where you might need to rotate figures. So what goes into this general cognitive function score is essentially the results of all these different tests, and it gives us a good measure of a person's general cognitive abilities.
Harry Enten
00:24:19
This is Michelle Luciano. She's a behavioral geneticist and a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. And she worked on the study.
Michelle Luciano
00:24:28
So this study, it's in atheoretical study, which means that there are no hypotheses. What we're doing is genotyping millions of variants, genetic variants in an individual. We obviously need a large sample to be able to do the analysis. But then we're doing tests of each of those millions of genetic variants for each association with the outcome measure, which in this case is general cognitive function.
Harry Enten
00:25:04
Basically, when researchers have tried to study, quote unquote, intelligence, in the past, they pick one or two genes or traits and try to tease out their relationship to intelligence. So, like, are people with blue eyes smarter than people with brown eyes? There's your central question. There are your test groups. Fire away. However, this study was different. Instead of targeting one or two specific genes, Michelle and her fellow researchers were able to look at an enormous number of genes to see if there were any connections with general cognitive function. And one of the variables that they were most interested to look at nearsightedness or myopia. Now scientists have already observed some kind of relationship between myopia and, quote unquote, intelligence. But Michelle and her fellow researchers wanted to see if that relationship would bear out on a genetic level, too.
Michelle Luciano
00:26:05
And so we thought it would be interesting to see whether this association that's been observed has some kind of genetic basis to it. And we found that to be a positive correlation of 0.32. And it's a small correlation, but significant. So it's in line with what we were expecting.
Harry Enten
00:26:30
So to translate a bit, think of correlation on a sliding scale between negative one and positive one with zero in the middle. Zero means that none of the genetic variants that affect myopia overlap with those that affect cognitive function. A correlation of positive one, however, would mean a complete positive overlap. So like Michelle said, a correlation of 0.32 is low to moderate, which means there's some relationship between myopia and intelligence, but there's a lot of other stuff going on. It's also worth the reminder that this study wasn't explicitly looking for a connection between nearsightedness and intelligence. It was just one of the many genetic variants that they were interested in looking into. However, Michelle pointed us to another study published in 2018 that explicitly sought to untangle the relationship between myopia and educational attainment. Basically, the more years a person spent in education and this study was able to find a causal link between the two.
Michelle Luciano
00:27:41
And this study actually supported a causal direction from educational attainment to myopia. That's an interesting finding, actually, that we see a causal direction for educational attainment to myopia, which might suggest to us that it's this something about being in education. And there's lots of theories out there, whether it's exposure to light. So if you're studying, you're indoors and you're not getting as much exposure to light or you're just not outdoors as much. And whether that entails more long distance vision, whereas when you're in a classroom, a lot of the work you'd be doing would be at close range, like reading, for instance.
Harry Enten
00:28:35
That makes sense. And as someone who reads a lot, it also makes me a little nervous about keeping my perfect vision. So, okay, maybe my original idea that wearing glasses means you're actually smarter than those of us who don't isn't true. But Michelle says that the correlation between the two things, plus the relationship between myopia and educational attainment. Well, that'll keep the stereotypes about glasses wearers alive and well.
Michelle Luciano
00:29:04
Yes, the research would seem to indicate there is some truth in the stereotype. Right. Because we do see this positive correlation. But of course, it's a low to moderate correlation. So these are just tendencies. And yeah, obviously, it's definitely not set in stone. You could be highly intelligent or have really great general cognitive function, but still not need glasses. So your, your vision's perfectly fine.
Harry Enten
00:29:39
So it turns out the history of glasses is far deeper than I ever thought. And it's clear that what I think about glasses, that they're cool, that they make you look smart if you wear them. Well, that's very different from what a lot of people have thought over the years. Today, however, I'm not alone in how I view glasses because we do see people who wear glasses as smarter than those of us who don't. But the truth is, even if they are smarter than I am, it's not because they have poor vision. So maybe I should just shut up and take the W. I'll take what my genes have given me: perfect vision. Coming up on our next episode. You know what they say that money can't buy you happiness. Well, I'm not so sure that's true. Next time, I'll look into the messy relationship between money and happiness. Margin of Error is a production of CNN Audio and Western Sound. Our showrunner is Cameron Kell. Our producer is Savannah Wright, Production assistantce and fact checking by Nicole McNulty. Mischa Stanton is our mix engineer. Additional support from Tameeka Ballance-Kolasny, Dan Dzula, Alison Park and Alex McCall. Our executive producers are Ben Adair and Megan Marcus. And me, well, I'm Harry Enten.