The Myths We Tell Ourselves

The Myths We Tell Ourselves January 26, 2019

Truth is only truth when it fits our narrative.

Over at their Patheos blog Another White Atheist in Colombia, M. L. Clark is fond of starting posts, Let’s begin with a story. When it’s a vehicle for communicating ideas for others to interpret and engage (as Clark does), the story is useful and powerful. As the scandal at Der Spiegel shows us, however, this power has a downside. Sometimes when we begin with a story, we’re using its power but we’re not being fair to the facts involved. The myth, it turns out, is like what the old proverb says about fire: it can be your best friend or your worst enemy.

Stories That Matter

Myth here doesn’t mean falsehood. In her book Myths We Live By, philosopher Mary Midgley describes the symbols and narrative elements that shape our thinking:

Myths are not lies. Nor are they detached stories. They are imaginative patterns, networks of powerful symbols that suggest particular ways of interpreting the world. They shape its meaning. For instance, machine imagery, which began to pervade our thought in the seventeenth century, is still potent today. We still often tend to see ourselves, and the living things around us, as pieces of clockwork: items of a kind that we ourselves could make, and might decide to remake if it suits us better.

I would add that plenty of social phenomena depend on the myths we tell ourselves about how well things “work.” We judge our institutions based on how we define their function, regardless of the ends the powerful intend them to serve.

The Fake News Cycle

The prestigious German newspaper Spiegel is currently embroiled in a controversy resulting from the revelation that one of its most prominent journalists had been fabricating stories for years. This scandal touches on a lot of matters that deal with the role of the media in our tech-mad millennium. For my purposes here, the most relevant aspect of the controversy is what it says about the power of narrative.

The entire article at Medium concerning the scandal is worth reading. Obviously this is an extreme case, because it deals with outright fraud. However, the journalist who writes the article is describing an institution where the story is the central focus, something that sells papers, motivates clicks, and can bring prestige and fame to writers. The problem is when the facts are massaged—or created—to fit the story.

Science and Stories

People like to think that science is free of such storytelling, and gives us unmediated access to objective truth. However, the truth is that science is shot through with narrative conventions. In scientific inquiry, the paradigm is a framework that defines the way researchers think about the information their research generates as well as the work they perform. Theory precedes evidence; observations are meaningless data points outside the context of the paradigm.

Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, says the paradigm shapes our understanding of nature, and science consists of efforts to show how well nature validates the paradigm:

Few people who are actually practitioners of a mature science realize how much mop-up work of this sort a paradigm leaves to be done or quite how fascinating such work can prove in the execution. And these points need to be understood. Mopping-up operations are what engage most scientists throughout their careers. They constitute what I am here calling normal science. Closely examined, whether historically or in the contemporary laboratory, that enterprise seems an attempt to force nature into the preformed and relatively inflexible box that the paradigm supplies. No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed, those that will not fit the box are often not seen at all.

Outside the practice of empirical inquiry itself, scientific symbols become powerful vessels to shape our discourse about humanity and society. In our millennium, we’re fond of saying things are “part of our DNA” or using computer metaphors to describe various aspects of our lives and culture. We need to acknowledge how much license we take in applying scientific terminology to social and political matters.

In his controversial new biography of Darwin, A. N. Wilson describes the 19th century as a crisis of myth, when religious narratives were losing relevance. Darwin and Marx, he opines, were able to create secular myths to replace the religious constructs. Whatever the scientific merits of these myths, they appealed to the need for overarching explanations of natural, cultural and social phenomena.

Heathen Dogmas

Even here at Patheos Nonreligious, we tell ourselves stories about society and history that are better at making us feel superior than jibing with the truth. An interesting discussion here at Driven To Abstraction explored the common—and mistaken—belief that Europeans in the Middle Ages thought the Earth was flat. As I always say, I think it’s good to put our beliefs under the microscope rather than focus on the flaws in other people’s worldviews. However, it can be difficult to admit that we pander to our own vanity by telling ourselves, for example, that we’re committed to animal welfare when we’re just demonizing minorities.

What do you think? Do we need to be more careful with our storytelling? Do we assume that everyone else is credulous, while we’re rigorously rational and factual?

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