Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Truth and Nothing But...a Good Story

A few months ago, a friend of mine who leans to the right politically shared a post on Facebook that started out like this:

Professor Joseph Olson of Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, points out some interesting facts concerning the last Presidential election:
  • Number of States won by: Obama: 19 McCain: 29
  • Square miles of land won by: Obama: 580,000 McCain: 2,427,000
  • Population of counties won by: Obama: 127 million McCain: 143 million
  • Murder rate per 100,000 residents in counties won by: Obama: 13.2 McCain: 2.1

You may have seen this post, or even shared it yourself. By now, it is well known that it is a hoax, an urban legend, and almost every "fact" in it is false. By false, I mean provably incorrect, wrong, intentionally misleading, the opposite of the truth. A lie of the vicious variety. Thinking that my friend, an intelligent, honorable, well-educated man, must have just posted this Internet hoax without checking it out first, I commented on his post, helpfully (I thought) pointing out his mistake, including several links proving the thing is false.

But my friend simply deleted my comment and left the original post as it was, continuing to garner many "likes" from his like-minded friends. Incredulous, I commented again, this time asking, "Doesn't it bother you just a little that your post is utterly untrue?" His response was devastatingly brief, "Not one bit."

At this point I could have unfriended and written this guy off as just another whacked out Republican. But a few weeks later another friend, this time a left-leaning one, shared a news article in which Ann Romney is quoted as saying, "I mean really, all this wanting to be equal nonsense is going to be detrimental to the future of women everywhere." This time, my friend quickly realized this was a vicious fabrication (humorless satire isn't satire at all, just a lie). He posted a retraction and removed the original link. But instead of just saying, "I screwed up, please ignore," he said, and I'm paraphrasing here, the fact that so many people believed the article is an indication that it might be true, and in any case we should carefully consider the attitudes and positions of a potential First Lady before choosing her husband as president. In other words, if enough people find something to be plausible, it is likely to be at least partly true.

So it seems, on both sides of the political spectrum, we don't let the facts get in the way of a good story. And we never have. If you are a fan of Atlas Shrugged, Animal Farm, 1984, Lord of the Flies, The Republic, The Holy Bible, or almost any great work of literature, you know that a good story woven around a fictional set of "facts" is just as effective at shaping opinions, if not more so, than any dry set of statements, numbers, and statistics that have only the slightest advantage of being true. People are moved to action by narratives, not facts.

In Conflict, Compromise, and Consensus, I stated, "If one argues for an idea, or fights for it, it should be out of conviction the idea is righteous and true." In response to this, my good friend Dr. Russell Turpin points this out:

Among the most seductive of fallacies are the notions that believing something that is true must be advantageous, and conversely that believing what’s false is detrimental.

Well said. A good story is often more valuable than the truth. And facts are relative to the times and communities in which they are found. Ethics, however, are not -- at least not in my view. It is universally unethical to tell a good story based on facts you know to be false within your community. It is wrong to wield the terrible power of argumentation or war in defense of something you know to be a falsehood, even if it is to your advantage to do so.

Nevertheless, facts are rarely the best way to win an argument or an election. When faced with the necessity to choose between two alternatives in the real world, my favorite modern religious allegory, "The Life of Pi," supplies the answer in its final paragraphs. Which story makes you happiest?


  1. I like stories that teach me something, make me think in a new way, or allow me to learn about something I'm not likely to experience first hand. Some times fiction stories do that, some times real stories do.

    The problem with stories in the political arena is not just that they may be false, but that they are brief and designed to solicit gut reaction that reinforces our stereotypes, not to make us think more broadly.

    Over the years and to my surprise, I have observed that many people create their own stories of who they are and how they live. They create their own fiction world and they like it that way. The brain actually assists them, biologically, in staying where they are. So it is very difficult to have someone whose life rests heavily on a provable falsehood to actually accept any proof to the contrary. It is just too difficult to adapt and create a new narrative. I'm sure I do the same thing but can't tell you right now if I'm in my real or my fiction world ;)

    1. Laura, I think we all create our own, partly or mostly fictional, life stories. I know I have a story in my head in which I am the protagonist, hero even, but I doubt it's completely true. I've heard friends and family retell stories of our shared past which I know to be factually incorrect. The reteller always ends up appearing to be better/smarter/stronger/nobler in the fictional versions. I wonder if this is psychologically necessary? If so, recent advances in recording devices, storage capacity, and software features like FB's timeline that accurately, digitally record our every action, are going to wreak havoc on our psyches. There's probably the germ of a good sci fi story there.

  2. An interesting and related post on stories, religion and status.

    1. Ryan, I read the link and I think it's mostly bunk. First, I don't disdain religious stories because they're not based on true facts, any more than I disdain Moby Dick because the whale didn't exist. The problem isn't the stories, it's the moral of the stories which often seem to grant adherents permission to ignore their inate ethical compasses because god can speak to them to give override commands. Or that redemption is available anyway, so why bother? And more generally, I don't believe children are taught morality through stories, religious or otherwise. Empathy, the basis for all ethical frameworks, has been shown to develop at a fairly early age, long before kids have been exposed to much storytelling, reading, or TV. Our view of the world as a just place isn't based on reading about Narnia, and it isn't necessarily fallacious. It is what we make it, and it would be a better place, IMHO, if we stopped giving ourselves permission to do evil things because imaginary voices in our heads say it's okay.