Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Boston Narrative: Facts and Fictions

Which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?” The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

“Choose the beautiful story, with the bright lights, the one where he can hear us,” she told him. “That's the true one. Not the scary story, not the sharks. 
The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson

The line between fact and fiction is sharp, objectively speaking. But humans have to process reality subjectively; we automatically mold everything we perceive into a coherent and satisfying narrative structure. We can't help it. Our brains are storytelling machines. Sometimes the stories we come up with overlap pretty well with the facts — but during times of stress, chaos, and confusion, fiction & fact tend to walk briskly away from each other.

Last week was an insane week, wasn't it? Talk about stress, chaos, and confusion. I was glued to my Twitter feed, which provided me with a steady diet of stories. Stories about bombers, about ricin, about fertilizer plants; stories about terrorists, about government regulation, about overbearing mothers in hijabs. Look, if we were omniscient, we'd know exactly what happened in Boston and in Texas. But we're humans, so we don't automatically know, we have to figure it out. And we're terrible at this, because we tend to believe what we want to believewe believe the better story. Why is it that some stories, even when they turn out to be totally false, feel so true?

Coherence is part of it. When things make sense, they play in our mind like an orchestra all tuned together. Perfect harmony. When things don't make sense, there's a discordance: to get that horrible clashing and crashing out of our minds' ear, we force disharmony into harmony. We turn the screeching of uncertainty into the soothing song of certainty — almost at any cost.

Is this why we saw so many "truths" immediately after the horrific events of last week? Were we all trying to calm ourselves down by coming up with good stories? Each of us had our own, and each story felt true to the storyteller. (psst: I had my story! And yes, it turned out to be totally wrong.) We had neat plot arcs, with heroes, villains, and crystal-clear motives. Some might call this "jumping to conclusions" but you could also call it "storymaking."

The storymaking brain is great for writers. We can leap into the chaos of a terrible week and come up with thirty different plots for our next novel. And that's OK for fiction writers, because our work is labeled as fiction. What about CNN, Reddit, Twitter? They are peddling their stuff as fact, the public is consuming it as fact.

This is a problem for humanity, it really is. We are far too willing to glom onto soothing, coherent fictions; the nice way they make us feel allows us to mistake them for facts. (Some of us don't even accept that "facts" exist.) Erroneous statements are too often given a pass — look for the phrase "it's just her opinion" about something that's actually a false claim. And how often is utter nonsense excused with with the platitude that "everyone's truth is different?" Reality is not actually variable. Things unfolded in a particular way last week. Our perceptions may vary, we may have different analyses of events, but perception and analysis is not the same as fact.

We need to be much more skeptical of our own beliefs. Words like "maybe" and "hypothesis" need to be used more often, as well as the phrase "I don't know." We need to be patient with our own uncertainty, willing to let it wiggle and slither uncomfortably in our minds for longer than we like — let truth emerge over time, and accept that sometimes, it never will. Hold your pet theories at arm's length. Label them as "provisional" and be willing to let them go when evidence mounts against them.

Beware the beautiful story: especially beware the better story. The story with animals. The one you prefer.


  1. 'We need to be patient with our own uncertainty, willing to let it wiggle and slither uncomfortably in our minds for longer than we like — let truth emerge over time'

    I appreciate this, Steph. It's a vital place at which to 'arrive.'

  2. I am happy to say that I tried to particularly hard to not have a story during the Boston episode. Aside from offering a few probables and suspecting some ideological motivation for the acts, the US experience of terrorism has kind of trained me to wait. Our mix of miscreants is somewhat varied.

    However, for the Texas explosions, my mind really seemed to want to concoct a narrative. I kept waiting to hear, expecting to hear that it was another plot. Though that dread was somewhat amorphous it was still clearly present.

    1. "Our mix of miscreants is somewhat varied." I really like this. Not the fact of it, but the phrasing.

  3. You have an award, Steph, over at SC.

    1. Ooh, a liebster! Now I need to think of eleven bloggers, who are not also people you tagged. Eeep!

  4. It's a balancing act. As we get older, with more distance between the present and the events of those stories, the urge to tidy them up and make meaning out of them is pretty much irresistable. In the long run, I think that's got to be a good thing. But in the short term, I agree that it's useful to resist that urge and be okay with uncertainty.

    e. e. cummings once said something like "Always the beautiful answer to the one that asks the more beautiful question." Okay, as long as it doesn't close us off from the truth! :-)

    1. I looked it up and you are close, it was "Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question." And I am reading that and reading that and it is not gelling for me! I think I need more coffee. That cummings guy, he was a tricky 'un!


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