Last week I shared a brief reflection on a tiny aspect of my commute. Please check it out it if you haven’t already, it is a quick read.
Wasn’t that nice? It started by introducing some old concepts in a new light—you knew about trains before, and maybe even knew there was a MARC Penn that line goes from Baltimore to DC, but probably didn’t know the specific trains and their timetables. Then it gave you a coherent explanation of a phenomenon you hadn’t known about before. This first caused slight, but not unpleasant, cognitive strain while you were figuring out what I writing about, followed by the small pleasure of an ah-hah moment once the pieces clicked.
It was a brain massage, if you will. It was also complete bull.
Not that anything I wrote was wrong, as far as I know, but I didn’t give many arguments for it being right, either. There were no ridership statistics or arrival times to back up my claims. And even if there were—I didn’t give any alternative hypotheses to explain the situation, nor reasons why those would be less likely than my own explanation. When you think about it, it was more of a brain Twinkie than a massage—all empty calories, with a fleeting feeling of fullness.
Welcome to 99.99999% of the written word, and to anything ever spoken out loud.
We like stories. They need to make a threshold amount of sense (this is why societies universally ostracize schizophrenics). They should contain an element of surprise (it is not that the 7:07 train would come later than the 7:23—twists like that do not surprise anyone any more—it is that it comes in much earlier because people think it wouldn’t). And they get bonus points if—as my last parenthetical implied—they paint the others as stupid or incompetent. There are many more checkboxes; more of them checked, the better the story.
Most professions are based on storytelling. Doctors tell different stories to their patients, each other, and themselves—as do most other scientists, to a different degree. Lawyers tell stories to their clients to make them believe they will craft good ones for the judge, jury, and the opposing side. Ask a marketer what makes a good commercial (spoiler: story).
Being a coal miner doesn’t involve telling stories. No one wants to be a coal miner.
Our minds prefer a good story over a true one, and will have us believe it more, too. However, the more boxes you see checked, the more suspicious you should be that someone manipulated the tale to make it more pleasurable, ergo memorable, ergo believable.
(So, if what you’ve just read made sense…)
If you are looking for an objective truth—or getting as close to it as possible—any medium that involves audio/visual queues will be an impediment. Sights and sounds stir up emotions, and emotions prime us to believe or not to believe. Pay attention to the background music in a documentary, or how the desk of that shifty lawyer they’re interviewing is a complete mess.
TV news is, of course, a joke—this is why comedy shows are becoming the most popular delivery form.
Written word has its own way of deceiving—anecdotes, incomplete data, misquotes, lazy references—all to make a better narrative. Just read anything by Malcolm Gladwell. And look at the time it takes to get to the bottom of just one tiny factoid in that story of the iron content in spinach. Finding truth is exhausting and exasperating, and people whose job it is to find it (hello, accountants) are way less fun than those who make stuff up. Mark Twain said it best:
A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
Misquoted? Most likely. Or is Huff Post wrong? It wouldn’t be the first time.
There is nothing in this post that bigger and better minds than my own haven’t written about already. But that’s a boatload of pages! Not many people have the time, discipline, and interest to read all that—and even if they did, they would keep making the same mistakes over again, as shown in several studies described in those same books (yes, yes, all studies are flawed; one windmill at a time, please). These things are hard-wired, and for a good reason—evolution doesn’t care for objective truths.
Or maybe it does. I don’t know, I’ve just made it up.