On January 6, 2021 I was sitting at home watching the joint session to confirm the results of the 2020 United States Presidential Election. Like many others, I sat aghast as the coverage slowly segued to a bunch of fascists, and terrorists attempting to storm the United States Capitol. I remember a commentator on CNN saying something like:
The way we can counter these lies and conspiracy theories about the election is with the truth. Facts are how we will fight these lies.1
At first, that statement seems like the kind of thing that a reasonable person might say on a 24 hour news channel. I think it's a bunch of nonsense.
The last few decades has seen a relentless assault on the truth. From Australia, to the United Kingdom, to America, and beyond. Issues like climate change, vaccines, and finally democracy itself are being drowned out by nonsense and pernicious lies. People like myself who believe in science, liberalism, and democracy feel like we're shouting into the void as politicians, celebrities, and the media continue to plumb new depths of stupidity.
Climate change is an example of an issue that is crucial for humanity to grapple with, but is just continually obscured by nonsense. As cool as it would be to go into space, Plan A, or Planet Earth is the best place we know of for humanity to live safely and happily.
Back in 2006, I had just graduated high school, and Al Gore released his magnum opus on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth. One might reasonably expect that a well made feature film about climate change would help sway public opinion to the cause, and many people found the film convincing.
An Inconvenient Truth is so convincing that it makes opposers of the argument as credible as Holocaust deniers. - Jon Niccum
And yet, according to a Pew survey2, the numer of Americans who believed there is "solid evidence the earth is warming" went down from 77, to 57 percent in the four years following the film's release. To quote another reviewer "the movie preaches to the choir rather than winning over new converts."3
Perhaps it's a more inconvenient truth that facts, even when presented with high production values, are not persuasive in the court of public opinion.
Another area where facts go to die is the anti-vaccine movement. Vaccinations are one of the greatest advances of the 20th century. The idea that we humans can prevent and eradicate entire deaseases is literally magical. Those who say that modern medicine is playing God are correct, because curing disease was previously the realm of God.
And he put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will: be thou clean. And immediately the leprosy departed from him. - Luke 5:13
Vaccines even go one better than Jesus. They prevent, and sometimes eradicate entire diseases. And yet, many wealthy, educated parents are refusing to vaccinate their children. Why? Are they stupid? I don't think so. One report found that 31 million people follow anti-vaccine groups on Facebook4. Surely there's many people among those 31 million who would have a higher IQ score than I do. I think a better explanation than stupidity is that the anti-vaccine movement tells great stories.
"Vaccines cause autism" is a (false) story. Conspiracy theories are stories. The following headline from a website I will not link to is a story:
Health authorities on alert after nurse DIES following vaccination with Pfizer's Covid-19 shot in Portugal
What's wild with this example is that the facts in the article debunk the story told by the headline! The key quotes from the article are, "We don't know what happened" and "The explanation of the cause of death will follow the usual procedures in these circumstances", and "autopsy was scheduled for Monday". It even took me a minute to realize that the headline doesn't technically say that the vaccine caused this womans death. It told a story, and my brain did the rest.
Facts crashing into a good story are like the waves crashing into this lighthouse.
Towards the end of 2020 I was on a Zoom call with members of the Washington Alpine Club. We were discussing how we might be able to get back to normality after this pandemic. Then one of the older members had the most amazing anecdote about getting the polio vaccine. That blew my mind. All year people have been saying things like "in these unprecedented times". But human history is so rich and complex that there is a precedent for just about everything. We just have to remember the stories of previous pandemics, like like the black plague, and the Spanish flu. We have to remember the stories of previous mass vaccination programs, like for polio and the measles. And we have to remember the stories of fascists attacking the seat of power of a democratic country.
The simple anecdote, which is really a very short story of "I remember getting the polio vaccine" was so powerful to me. More powerful than facts about how many vaccine doses are being manufactured, and more powerful than facts about the effectiveness of the vaccine. That story helped put 2020 in perspective for me better than any facts.
Facts are obviously important. The search for the truth, also known as science has brought us many wonders. Vaccines, and the computer I'm typing this on are the fruits of science. But humans spent tens of thousands of years passing on our knowledge via stories. That's what our brains are wired for. The enlightenment, on the other hand, was only a few hundred years ago, and the internet is only slightly older than I am.
If you want to convince a lot of people of something, you need to tell a story. Existential problems like climate change, global pandemics, and protecting democracy will require the cooperation of billions of people. I don't think facts are going to cut it, we are going to have to tell stories.
The elements of a good story tap into the deepest parts of our psyche. No matter what new technologies we come up with, we seem to use it to tell stories with twists, characters, comedy, and tragedy. It started with cave paintings, then books, radio, TV, newspapers, and now the internet. Even computer games are really stories in disguise.
Just before I moved to Seattle, I visited Lake Mungo in Australia. It's famous because human remains up to 42,000 years old were found there, including one of the world's oldest known cremations. I remember our guide trying to tell the stories of how Australian Aborigines, his anscestors, thought of time. They think of time on an annual scale, like seasons, but also on much larger time scales, similar to how the El Nino/La Nina effect operates. Of course, our guide was interrupted by an English tourist complaining that he didn't come all this way to hear fairytales. I have rarely seen anger like I saw in our guide that day. Our guide was rightly proud of the stories that have been passed down for tens of thousands of years, over hundreds of generations. Aboriginal Australians are the proud stewards of the oldest civilization on earth, so being interrupted by an impatient English tourist is understandably frustrating.
The human remains found in the white strip of sand in this photo predate the Great Pyramid of Giza, Christianity, and "civilization" by tens of thousands of years.
If we can harness the power of storytelling, our descendants may be telling our stories hundreds, and hopefully thousands of years from now. But we will only have descendants in ten thousand years if we can keep the planet in a liveable state, avoid being wiped out by pandemics, and prevent genocidal ideologies from taking hold.
To finish on a positive note, here is a story in a story in a story (a Tweet about TikTok videos of a sea shanty).
Indescribably jealous that the TikTok equivalent of a quote tweet is to join a sea shanty pic.twitter.com/S51sxn6rhq— James Felton (@JimMFelton) January 8, 2021
1: I haven't looked to find the actual quote, but I feel like letting the facts of this story be a little cloudy are in line with the spirit of this post.
3: Lisa Rose reviewing the movie in the Newark Star-Ledger. Source is from Rotten Tomatoes, I couldn't find the original.
4: Lancet Link