Does your Storytelling Trump the Truth?


One of the greatest confusions of my life has been watching otherwise very sharp folks descend into a sort of silly crazed madness – or at least incoherency – with respect to complex topics like politics, economy, global warming, etc.

AT THE VERY LEAST a thinking person should realize that we generally don’t have enough data or enough experiments to draw firm and certain conclusions about most complex topics, yet most of us seem to want to do exactly that.     I like to think I’m open minded about most things and generally happy to entertain even the most skeptical views of ideas I hold dear, but I’m sure I fall into this incoherency sometimes too.   However I try to insist to myself that I’m going to let the facts drive my conclusion rather than create stories and then fit in only those facts that support them.

Happily I think I …. finally …. understand why smart people can believe such dumb things, or support their views so strongly without regard to a reasoned analysis of all the information.

Storytelling trumps the truth !

It is not clear to me why we humans are so enamored with stories as opposed to data analysis, but clearly we have a huge preference for the storybook versions of things.     This is fun and entertaining when it comes to films, theater, music, and reading stories to your kids.    Unfortunately our storytelling obsession often gets in the way of good science, politics, and economics, all of which are best driven by cold hard facts and cool, rational interpretations of that data.

The storytelling obsession is SO powerful in fact that I often have people argue with me over something that is downright totally obvious if you view it rationally for even a moment.    It’s the idea that we should all work very strongly against politically motivated spending patterns and try to prioritize spending so we spend where it does the most good.    Most people will initially agree with this, but as soon as you say, for example, that we should take money AWAY from keeping comatose folks alive and put that money towards prenatal care in the Bronx (or, heaven forbid, Africa!),  many people do the descent into irrationality and say things like “well, what if it’s your friend who is in a coma?”.      If you say we should cut the defense budget they say (irrationally) “But how will we protect ourselves”, as if spending and protection obviously go hand in hand.      Stories allow us to spin and bend the data and analysis to our own agendas, and this is not a healthy process.

Many will relate personal stories or create stories to describe scenarios where – in some limited set of circumstances – they would have been hurt by a system that did not prioritize things in their way.    OF COURSE we will all have times when a rational system does not meet our needs!    This happens all the time.    But political / storytelling  spending – which is now rampant – will in all cases virtually guarantee we have suboptimal allocation of resources.

The answer is that a rational person recognizes that we’re all in this together and we need more rational rules about spending and we’ll all need to live with (or die by) those rules.    Sure there can be processes for exceptions to the general rules, but it’s simply not rational to suggest, as many do, that “we should always spend all the money in the world to save every single person”.

I think see these storytelling effects best on the far left and right of issues.    These can be political where President Obama is portrayed as a conservative corporate stooge by the incoherent left and a communist non-citizen by the incoherent right.   Neither view lines up with any but a delusional view of reality, yet both are fairly popular (and incompatible) ideas.

On a global scale we see religious fanatics use storytelling to weave their madness and bring continued instability to many regions.     I’d argue that a major challenge for many nations is to abandon leaders who are primarily charismatic storytellers in favor of resolute and analytical problem solvers.    Ideally you’ll find people who are both and in my opinion Obama may fit that bill if he can extricate himself from old school Democratic party economic delusions.

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About JoeDuck

Internet Travel Guy, Father of 2, small town Oregon life. BS Botany from UW Madison Wisconsin, MS Social Sciences from Southern Oregon. Top interests outside of my family's well being are: Internet Technology, Online Travel, Globalization, China, Table Tennis, Real Estate, The Singularity.
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11 Responses to Does your Storytelling Trump the Truth?

  1. horatiox says:

    I think see these storytelling effects best on the far left and right of issues. These can be political where President Obama is portrayed as a conservative corporate stooge by the incoherent left and a communist non-citizen by the incoherent right. Neither view lines up with any but a delusional view of reality, yet both are fairly popular (and incompatible) ideas.

    I agree with you to some extent, though political narratives usually depend on a combination of factors, primarily semantic. There are stock phrases, of course, and the usual ID politics (Limbaugh chanting “liberal,” as if the term describes anyone who does not vote GOPer, or the Kossacks intoning “tea-bagger”).

    The conservatives seem “more guilty” in that regard. Limbaugh and AM radio started the hysteria, back in the 90s, and arguably produced a backlash (including possibly BO’s election). RushCo rarely took on specific policies, except to whine about excessive taxation, and govt.spending –yet even Clinton did not really raise taxes that much, compared to 60s, 70s. Rightists depend on the myth of the tax and spend liberals, but USA taxes are among lowest in world.

  2. glenn says:

    You mean story telling like this:

    Your messiah Joe…the lying Obama.

  3. glenn says:

    More story telling Joe. Wake up to who is in the Whitehouse.

    Fox has unearthed tapes of Obama Muslim Envoy Rashad Hussain telling audiences that Muslim Sharia Law should be imposed world-wide.

    Hussain and Obama first denied any such remarks.

    Then Hussain said the remarks were from his daughter.

    Then the White House denied any such remarks could be attributed to anyone in the White House.

    Today Fox reported that Hussain/The White House tried to go back and scrub these remarks from the record.

    Today Fox aired the tapes, proving that Hussain is a radical Muslim who encourages the adoption of Sharia Law as a goal of global Jihad.

    Thank God for Fox…they are the only ones NOT TELLING STORIES.

  4. horatiox says:

    I think the right-wing overreacted to Hussain’s appointment (as with Cal Thomas’s rant). Americans should be concerned, however, with the islamicist agenda–they should also be concerned with rabid christian fundamentalists or the power of the orthodox jews as well.

    A rather large (and growing) population of muslims reside in SoCal. Some are pleasant and intelligent (they seem to be the ones from the middle east, Jordan, syria, turks, Egypt, etc.–the saudis tend to be wealthy, arrogant a**holes). Yet other, louder muslims have already made demands for holidays, changing school rules, allowing hijab, and preventing certain books, etc.

    Obama may not have ties to the more radical sects (the jihadists have called him a traitor, pal of Israel, infidel, etc.), but he does have some connections to Islam (his name itself is muslim), which the Demo spinmeisters have downplayed. There are janus-faced sorts of liberals who whine and kvetch about christians and catholics 24/7, and rarely if ever discuss islamic encroachment.

    • glenn says:

      yeah Obama is middle of the road…that is why he just spent $20 million to relocate a bunch of Hamas refugees right here to the USA. HB 1388 is just plain stupid. Next he will do the same with the Taliban supporters and eventual Al Qaeda supporters.

      That is what happens though when you elect someone whose father wasn’t a US citizen. Obama’s loyalties are not just with the USA and that is very dangerous for us.

  5. glenn says:

    Joe is this story telling?

    http://www.google.com/hostednews/canadianpress/article/ALeqM5h0QC7bditrEb3wYz_6_b-gsGGDxA

    Geesh…a premier from Canada got his healthcare taken care of in the USA because he couldn’t take a chance on his personal health with the Canadian system.

    Great idea Joe to support the Canadian health system here in the US Joe…as you have said previously you would love to see the Canadian system adopted here. Just nuts, either Joe you are very naive or you have had too much spiked Kool-aid.

    Watch what happens in this country when Obama – Rahm’s through healthcare…remember you voted for Obama and I will be here to remind you of it. 🙂

    • JoeDuck says:

      Glenn you love to do exactly what I’m talking about – take a few news items or offhand remarks and then create a story around them that has very little to do with the big reality.

      Most people are tired of politics as this kind of “hit and run” stuff, they want solutions that spring from recognizing that people have different opinions and world views that are usually pretty compatible.

      Rather than bashing Obama’s low level appointees for some offhand remark, we should be suggesting ways to fix the major problems like Health Care (twice the cost for outcomes about = Europe and Canada. This would OUTRAGE you if you were a true fiscal conservative. We need cheap solutions and all I hear from Dems is expensive non-solutions and from Tea Party nothing but rants about Govt Spending they helped start in GW time)

      Other problems are Iraq (good progress there thanks to a very smart policy from Obama / Petraus), Afghanistan (not clear how that’ll turn out yet, but it’s odd how the right hasn’t been supporting Obama’s militaristic approaches there. Very hypocritical since that’s what the right said would NOT happen).

      • glenn says:

        You have to be more socialist than American…

        You have to be more athesist than not…

        You are an apologist for this crew.

        You love the Clintons, Podesta, Obama, Gore, et al. No matter what happens to them or is exposed about them you will NEVER admit it. Your response is always…minimize what is said when it approaches your sacred cows.

        Huge problems are coming for Gore and the rest of these miscreants…

        http://www.americanthinker.com/printpage/?url=http://www.americanthinker.com/2010/02/al_gore_is_lying_low_for_good.html

        Joe now on to healthcare…I think ALL Americans would rather have our expensive system them be subjected to the massive criminal actions in hospitals in Britian. Joe just face it…socialized healthcare has never worked and WILL NEVER WORK.

        You fix healthcare by getting government out of it. You fix healthcare by allowing people to negotiate their own deals with their own private physicians. You fix healthcare by letting health insurers the ability to sell disaster coverage anywhere in the country – NO RESTRICTIONS. People need to have insurance to protect against catostrophe and they pay for the regular normal medical needs.

        It was the Democrats who created this mode of healthcare to get everyone hooked on the insurance company paying for everything then they sabotage the industry to create this crisis so you have no choice but for the government to step in.

        How can you be so naive to see this whole healthcare scam has been in works for years? They are the 100% cause of all the cost problems in our healthcare systems…not insurance companies…they are just adjusting and responding to the sabotage from the government.

        Afghanistan…Obama’s waffling all fall…like a fool. Since Obama took over the war effort and waffled 1/3 of all the deaths in the last 8+ years are attributed to his lack of leadership. He needs to be held accountable for this recklessness and unnecessary loss of life. It is his fault.

      • glenn says:

        Joe I can’t believe you don’t understand the role that Obama’s czar play.

        He has dozens of them. Not just a couple but dozens.

        No one has vetted any of them.
        There is no confirmation process.
        They have executive priviledge.
        They have no oversight.
        They report directly and only to Obama.
        They can do anything they want with impunity.
        They are unconstitutional.
        No laws apply to them.
        The constitution doesn’t apply to them.
        They can’t be called to testify by Congress.
        The judicial branch cannot touch them.

        THAT SHOULD SCARE THE HELL OUT OF YOU. Bush did it and it was wrong and Obama just like Bush takes all his bad habits and amplifies them a few orders of magnatude.

        This is why he has a cabinet and why people are vetted and approved. But non-leaders like Obama and Bush can’t be bothered with proper prudent procedure it just gets in their way…afterall no one is smarter then them.

        When our country needed proper leadership and our country had a chance to vote they voted for this egotistical narcissist that gives good read (not even a speech – he reads a teleprompter – TOTUS is running the country) and we empowered these unamerican people in congress to completely destroy us.

        That is our day of reckoning…after all the stupid BS speeches that made us feel like we like in Rodney King land…Obama has accomplished NOTHING, our foreign relations with Muslims are further strained, he accomplished nothing but made us weaker.

        Now all this outrageous and reckless spending is going to sink our country. We can’t avoid it now…it’s coming and it is going to be a huge financial bloodbath and people who have worked decades and saved may lose everything. All because people got sucked into a hope and change BS and didn’t pay attention to the facts that were steering them right in the face.

        We are going to have massive strikes, riots and breadlines…it is just going to be dandy.

  6. glenn says:

    Yeah Joe we can’t be a nation of torture, rendition and all that jazz that you wholeheartedly jumped on the Obama bandwagon to support…

    But how come you’re silent when Obama backed off on rendition and now he has actually outsourced the interrogation and torture to Pakistan…silence…

    http://corner.nationalreview.com/post/?q=NjQ4MWNiODc4OTdkNjliODYwMzk4ZmE3ZjYyNjk2NTY=

  7. horatiox says:

    This was a good post–even important in a sense.

    Blogs will fizzle out and die, or become effective tools of the Demopublican police state, UNLESS ethical bloggers uphold something like…evidentialism, and focus on level-headed arguments supported by facts/data/stats., instead of ranting and raving about what they want to be true (or want to be implemented). Or, they will become trivial: the equivalent of online switchboards, with locals in Green Acres.com exchanging recipes, used car ads, and the latest scandal…

    Unfortunately, many bloggers, even techies who consider their skills in java or XML proof of their intellectual superiority, never learned how to write research papers, or non-fiction of any type (the latest online “snark”-fest is more or less meaningless after a few days, except maybe as …evidence). The typical liberal-bloggers, IMHO, don’t generally bother to support arguments or substantiate specific points (except maybe some cherry-picked factoid from a Wiki here and there), and instead…they bloviate (tho’ noted among the teabagger zombies as well).

    For that matter, the default political code tends to be a vague liberal hedonism–“I like to smoke crack; therefore, it should be legal!” Sort of the Max of New Worlds approach to social problems.

    The Founding Fathers themselves, on both sides of the aisle (ie Federalists AND anti-Federalists) generally opposed mere politics by consensus. Some political principles–like the Constitution itself–were non-negotiable. A majority of mormons, baptists, muslims or even atheists cannot vote out the First Amendment, though many would like to. In effect most moderated blogs (from A-list KOS down to D-list sites such as New Worlds) have evolved into anti-Constitutional speakeasies, more akin to the mafia than to agents of democracy.

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