Yesterday’s post was about the power of storytelling and the power relationship between story (fiction) and truth (facts). I am the first to admit that I am not breaking new ground here. No sane person has ever denied the power of story in history to supersede and obscure truth. The question is, who cares? Or perhaps, why should we care?
The answer is that everyone should care, because power accrues to those who control the story. Think politics. Think business and advertising. Think religion. Think justice and our legal system. Think Hollywood and all the talent and money that goes into movies. Power, money and influence accrue to those who tell the best story.
To a literalist like me, it is disconcerting to read in a report from NPR that a National Science Survey found that 1 in 4 Americans believe the Sun orbits the Earth, and that only 48 percent said “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” That means that for a majority of Americans, a story about how humans have become the dominant species is more important than the factual, scientific record showing the link to other animals. That’s scary, because it suggests that a majority of Americans are more likely to respond to other good stories about what might threaten our species. We may have as much to fear from an escalation of stories as we do from an escalation of weapons.
In appreciation of the power of a good story (and in pursuit of power, money, and influence), I am trying to become a better storyteller. The problem is it doesn’t come naturally. Born and raised by scientist parents in the 1950s and 60s, I grew up believing that the scientific method was the gold standard for judging fact and fiction. Dragnet sergeant Joe Friday’s “Just the facts, ma’am,” could have been our mantra.
What’s interesting is that my belief in the scientific method doesn’t protect me from the power of a good story. For instance, I tend to take people’s word for things, and I tend to take facts presented to me as generally being presented by a disinterested source. This makes me a total sucker for the clever sequencing or manipulation of facts. For instance, I am terrible at guessing the outcomes of thrillers or “whodunits,” where the artful presentation of clues by the author or filmmaker is designed to lead you astray. Once a story gets planted and takes root, it requires tremendous energy to pull it up.
About ten years ago there was an article in The New Yorker that described how leaders in the Johnson Administration consistently disregarded factual information they were receiving from military officials in Vietnam that described in irrefutable terms how badly the war was going from the American perspective. This was “knowledge,” but instead of acknowledging it at such, and acting upon the information in a rational manner, the Johnson Administration clung to their beliefs about how the war was supposed to go. The author of the article, Nicholas Lehman, summed up the situation in the last sentence of the article: “It’s not what we know, but what we believe that makes all the difference.”
Stories and beliefs are truly powerful, more powerful than facts and knowledge. For those of us who believe that we are objective and act only upon the facts, it important to be humble about where the power really lies. It lies with the storytellers.