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.