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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  • (((J_Enigma32)))

    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.

    Another example I’m partial too is the idea the mistaken idea that “Tiffany” is a new name (it’s not; it existed in the middle ages) and that Europe in the middle ages was Whiter than a Finnish Christmas (It wasn’t). Our storytelling has trained us to accept both of these incorrect beliefs as truth.

    People are often surprised to learn just how multicultural the world has been in the past and how developed societies were. I partially blame it on the myth of progress — the idea that things will inherently get better as we go along because that’s just how things work — but I also blame it on our inherent need to feel superior to those “backwards people” in the past. Like, there was a global trade network at least several times in our history before the present day. Globalism is not some new thing. It existed during the Bronze Age, when the Indus River Valley people traded with the folks in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Anatolia, and Crete. And it existed again during the height of the Indian Ocean trade network that connected China, Indochina, India, and Indonesia with East Africa.

    This is something that sort of grinds my gears about most instances of fantasy, too. Where’s the complex trade networks? Hell, where’s the economics period (I find myself asking that question about sci-fi worldbuilding, as well)? But that’s a completely random tangent.

    It’s like I say: the data is objective (which, you can argue, is why pure data is meaningless). The people interpreting that data are not.

  • People are often surprised to learn just how multicultural the world has been in the past and how developed societies were. I partially blame it on the myth of progress — the idea that things will inherently get better as we go along because that’s just how things work — but I also blame it on our inherent need to feel superior to those “backwards people” in the past.

    You’re absolutely right, that’s one of our most abiding and pernicious myths. It prevents us from seeing that people in the past had different aims and mindsets that weren’t inferior just because they’re different from ours. Our forebears weren’t just sitting around waiting for someone to explain genetics to them any more than they were “lacking” televised sports events. And not for nothing, but people in other cultures aren’t ignorant just because they’re not clamoring for technocracy, either.

    We used to have a word for that sort of thinking, but nobody talks about “ethnocentrism” anymore.

  • (((J_Enigma32)))

    They technically do talk about ethnocentrism; all the time in fact. But it gets called “racial realism,” “nationalism,” and, here in the States, “support for President Trump” (or “support for the Brexit clusterfuck” if you live in the UK).

  • John Skogstrom

    So you’re saying there’s no way in hell I was gonna side with the MAGA kids over the elderly Native American? You’re probably correct, and I find myself unrepentant. Still, I’m willing to explore it. I convinced myself that I tried to see both sides, but I really have no idea if I judged fairly. I’m certain I wasn’t impartial.

  • Who says we should be impartial? I think the fact that these little twerps were from an all-male high school, in town to agitate against women’s rights, and flaunting their privilege where the marginalized were protesting, tells you all you need to know about this little brouhaha.

  • KarenOfRocks

    I often feel overwhelmed when I want to learn more about a modern cultural/political topic, and even more so when I want to learn about history. Back in 2013, at age 54, I was awarded my MS in geology. I remember how difficult it seemed to really get a good grounding in the current scientific knowledge of my research area. I read a lot of papers. I chatted up geologists at the USGS who were working on tangential things. Only after all that did I feel able to put my own findings in a meaningful context in my thesis.

    But thesis work was a breeze, compared to the things I want to learn about now. Scientists and the papers they write have biases, but they’re pretty clear most of the time in geology. Now I want to learn about things where everyone not only has their own opinions, but often their own set of facts. I’m never quite sure how solidly grounded I am. I find the situation very frustrating.

  • Joslyn Renfrey

    Its a bit distressing to note that, before the Nazis came along, trans rights were pretty accepted in Germany.
    Actually trans people have existed openly in many societies prior to colonization.

    Essentially what trans activists are doing is not trying to build a new world, but trying to undo ancient damage.

  • Bor Gullet

    ^^ Creepy weirdo dude with no nuts.
    L O S E R

  • PD

    I’m going to answer your questionh from the perspective of a fictional character who, in homage to John Lennon, I’ll just call “Expert Textpert.” Textpert is an exaggerated version of the sort of ‘progressive’ who is no less dogmatic than many fundamentalists but believes s/he is “bias free” and “rational.”

    Do we assume that everyone else is credulous, while we’re rigorously rational and factual?

    Expert Textpert: “No, I do not do that. What I do instead is practice street epistemology in order to prove that others are (usually) not engaged in evidence-based reasoning as I am (and others with whom I associate). Now that might sound a bit patronizing or conceited. But the fact is that, as you point out, looking in the mirror is not always easy. Sometimes the difficulty is not that we discover faults that are hard to swallow, but that we discover that we have superior cognitive styles and that is a “cross to bear” because it’s not politically correct to say, “We’re brighter than all those credulous people that believe all manner of crackpot ideas.” But what if that is the truth? What if we good-without-God secular humanists guided by rational evidence-backed methods really are in a different league than most of the rest? Dan Dennett calls people like us “Brights” and I’m totally down with that. I am a Bright. And if that hurts the feelings of irrational, fairy-tale gulping fools, that’s just too bad! Like Dennett says, it’s time we Brights “come out of the closet.”

    The real lie, the one that’s worse than fabricated news stories, is the idea that we’re all equally entitled to our beliefs. No. Some beliefs have to be attacked, and their believers too if they insist on clinging to them. Take the environment and AGW. I mean if these climate-deniers with zero-evidence manage to influence legislators and politicians then their opinions or false beliefs are social-evils that could lead to such paralysis in policy that we could all be toast! Beliefs without evidence are toxic like that in many cases. They’re not just passive and harmless ideas, but arguments about how to live and what to do or refrain from doing. The dark force of ignorance must be rooted out of the population in a peaceful, efficient but effective manner. It’s time to deny them voting rights and other privileges incompatible with abject ignorance!

    What we need is top-down social engineering led by the relevant experts in each field. We need to scrap democracy, which never lasts (look at Athens!) and have a very qualified indirect democracy by and for the experts and relatively informed citizenry. It’s called Epistocracy. Ezra Klein’s progressive outlet, Vox, ran an article on it last year, and its worth looking at here: The interview with epistocratic political science expert, Jason Brenan is a real gem. I think he makes his point forcefully when he states that:

    “I’m a fan of democracy, and I’m also a fan of Iron Maiden, but I think Iron Maiden has quite a few albums that are terrible — and I think democracy is kind of like this”

    Exactly! I feel just the same. There are too many bad albums, just as there are too many fact-free articles in the news and too many ignorant people with bad ideas. If they have good ideas, let the experts confirm that fact. I don’t think rock bands should get to release bad songs, and I sure don’t think voters should get to support bad politicians and ideas. Look, we got Trump that way! A lot of good democracy did for the Weimar Republic once Hitler got in there! I also recommend The Death of Expertise, a book that proves scientifically that the inept have taken over and rejected the tried and tested experts whose job is to tell us what is true, false, real and imaginary. I trust them. I’m even an aspiring expert myself. An expert on what, you ask? I’m currently getting a certificate in Meta-Expertise, i.e I am an expert at studying experts in order to gain knowledge of expertise as such.

    That’s my myth and I’m sticking with it.”

  • I didn’t get the chance to tell you how much I appreciated this. I’ve been under the weather for a few days, and toiling away at an uninspiring work assignment, so I really needed the laugh.

    And it’s a very astute takedown of my least favorite village atheist archetype, the keyboard warrior whose diagnosis of all the problems of the world is that there’s just too many ignorant people with bad ideas. These people will rail against the “anti-intellectualism” of fundies and Trumpsters, then shoot over here and criticize me for thinking too hard about things like science, knowledge and truth. I had never seen that Vox piece before, and I’m still not sure it’s not satire, but that might just be the antihistamines talking. It’s exactly the kind of thing these craven little “street epistemologists” would praise as a brave new idea for our civilization.

    While I was laid up I managed to stare at a few episodes of Robert Hughes’s old Shock of the New series. You could go on forever about how cheesy and 80s it was, but Hughes had a vicious wit and a handle on the political context of visual art that puts today’s art-show middlebrows to shame.

    Great to see you again. What’s been happening with you?

  • PD

    Great to hear from you. That Vox article is the real deal, I promise you. The author they interviewed– the Iron Maiden fan– is a real public policy prof whose book, Against Democracy was published by Princeton U Press . I think his previous book was called, “Compulsory Voting.” I don’t know anything about it, but I noticed it has a chapter called “Do Your Share Or Else!” Some people just like giving orders, I guess. Dennett’s “The Bright Stuff” (to which I also gave a link) is also pretty amusing, imo. Anyway, I’m really glad you got a laugh out of my little satire.

    I never saw that Hughes series on Art, but thanks for mentioning it. I’ve heard it was good before, and your endorsement led me to queue it up on my watch-later youtube list. “Today’s art-show middlebrows” — yeah, I did catch 1 or 2 episodes of the BBC series Civilizations (as opposed to the old Kenneth Clark series “Civilization”–singular and Eurocentric). It features Simon Schama, Mary Beard and a few other presenters, and though it’s nicely shot, the commentary is pretty uninspired. They do bring in contributions from non-Western cultures as part of art history, showing how, for example, the Dutch traders in Japan influenced Japanese art which in turn influenced the Dutch who brought Japanese styles back to Europe. So, you know, a “multicultural” approach, which has its advantages. Speaking of the arts, are you still posting on your music channel? I haven’t seen much in notifications. Occasionally I post a vid there, and it looks pretty desolate.

    Anyway, I’m also battling some kind of bug at the moment, so I’m sleeping on and off also with the Benadryl like you. Must be going around. I hope you get better soon. It’s been absolutely freezing here. I’ll continue checking in at Driven To Abstraction. I enjoy your posts, and they do stand out for having your trademark philosohy of science pov which I appreciate. I agree that some atheists treat science as something akin to a substitute religion (but without noticing it). Is that too strong a claim? I shouldn’t put that thesis in your mouth. Anyway, I think some do treat science in that way. Your tireless efforts to put science in a more reasonable historical and cultural context is a welcome corrective to that.

  • Don’t forget that other Covington Catholic twerps have worn blackface to school basketball games!

  • Don’t know you at all online, but if you’re serious about abolishing democracy, hard pass.

    First, scientists and other “experts” have their own values and myths and should not necessarily be accepted as experts themselves on public policy issues anway.

    Second, no way is Neolib Ezra my guide here. Barf.

    Since that paragraph is NOT in Expert Texpert scare quotes, I assume you’re serious about it, and you’re wrong IMO.

    We could give IQ tests … but they’re racially biased. We could have explicitly capitalist three-class voting, like 19th century Prussia, except the rich are often idiots.

    The antidote to bad democracy is better democracy. And better education. It’s not having experts “replace” democracy. That’s about two steps from Brave New World, as I see it.

  • These people[…]criticize me for thinking too hard about things like science, knowledge and truth.

    Is that what you think is happening? People are criticizing you for thinking too hard about these issues?

    From what I can tell, it is not the process but some of your conclusions that people generally take issue with. It’s a bit of a breezy mischaracterization of your opponents to assert that it is your effort to understand the nature of science and epistemology better that folks tend to get squirrelly about. You might complain that they are unwilling to meet you where you’re at, but it seems like part of the issue is you don’t understand where they’re at.

  • Bob_OR

    The Buddha and Jesus were chatting together and the Buddhja said,
    “I ought to adopt one of those rules that you can’t make a graven image of me. They always draw me too fat!”
    Jesus replied, “I know what you mean, they have been drawing me as a white man for 2,000 years!”

  • Bob_OR

    Our social/political/economic lives are filled with myths and fictions.
    A short sampling:
    1) Americans are an exceptional people.
    2) Manifest destiny
    3) Corporations as a legal fiction

    Anyone want to add to the list?

  • Hey, if it’s comforting myths you’re looking for, you don’t have to go any farther afield than Patheos Nonreligious here. There’s just as much bias, bigotry and intellectual dishonesty in these discussions as there is at any religious blog.

    Look at the way we evade responsibility for what we believe by saying that we’re “just following the evidence.” I’ve mentioned plenty of times that we make it sound like we’re conducting a science experiment, or that formulating a worldview is just a matter of data processing. Anyone who has ever engaged conspiracists knows that “evidence” is just whatever appears to support what I think. If it supports what you think, it’s not evidence.

    We also define religion as a set of literal beliefs about the world, more because it gives us a rhetorical advantage in online debates than because that’s what religion really is. And if we’re interested in defining Islam, for instance, we go to experts like Sam Harris and Bill Maher who we know will tell us exactly what we want to hear.

    Last but not least, we have a ridiculously idealized view of science. Talking about the “self-correcting” scientific method sounds like magical thinking, and making it sound like science is the arbiter of truth in all matters just shows how philosophically shallow our perspective is. Ignoring the messy reality of historically and culturally situated agents performing research, and the way science has enabled slaughter and domination on a vast scale, has to rank with the most unfortunate delusions of humanity.

    No matter how rational and objective we think we are, these are the myths we live by.

  • Bob_OR

    I agree with much of what you posted. Years ago, I was required to write a paper about prejudice. The assignment was , write about the prejudices of your own family of origin. My first reaction was, what prejudice? My family has fought against prejudice and bigotry as far back as I can remember! The first prejudice I described — anyone I perceived as being a racist or bigot automatically was a bad person and had nothing of value to contribute to a conversation. One of my favorite bumper stickers reads, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

    It is well known that we all, at one time or another, engage in selective thinking and have personal biases. That is why double-blind experiments were developed to minimize self-fulfilling prophecies. I have backpacked for over sixty-four years now and one thing I learned long ago is that if I want to argue with the reality of a situation, my assessments and beliefs will always lose the further off-base my thinking is.

    Yes, going only to “experts” who share your world view does not further your understanding of of religious traditions. I am a member of a religious book discussion group where I live. I am the lone atheist among Presbyterians, Lutherans, Catholics, and Jews; unfortunately, no moslem and non-Abrahamic folk. If you want to learn about religious beliefs, you need to talk people who are part of a particular tradition. Personally, I don’t care how someone rationalizes their belief, if we can agree on what it means to be human and our need for community, affection, and survival — then we are on the same page.

    The scientific method is self-correcting only to the extent that someone challenges the validity of any given hypothesis. Not everyone has an idealized view of science. I sympathize with your objection to those who talk about ” . . .’self-correcting’ scientific method” and “science is the arbiter of truth in all matters.” Yes, those in power have since the Enlightenment Era and the Industrial Revolution, used science to develop more powerful weapons to kill and to advance their domination of others. I disagree with you, though, “science” is not the delusion. The delusion is that of Empire, that “we” or “I” are/am superior to others.