The stories we think with

If you want make sense of the apparently weird beliefs and politics of people (including oneself), you should ask them to tell a story. When people twist facts around or simply ignore facts, they are just thinking or talking according to some story. For example, if someone refuses to wear a mask or practice social distancing during a pandemic and you ask them to tell a story to explain how life works, they might tell a story about how we live in a world where powerful or privileged people tell everyone else what to do; it’s an unfair, oppressive world, and a strong, smart person is supposed to resist being told what to do; they are supposed to fight for their own rights and not worry too much about how their own actions affect others–because those others should also be fighting for their own rights and not waiting for me to act in their interests. Only fools let others tell them what to do. If we experience cognitive dissonance because facts contradict our stories, we stick with our stories.

The point is, the story always comes before any supporting facts. We find facts to support a story. We also argue just to win arguments, not to find a common understanding. More “enlightened” people might think that we’re supposed to start with the facts and change our stories and beliefs based on the facts; however, this is very modern view. It’s actually far more “normal” to start with stories and then find supporting facts if necessary.

In a book on the 20,000 year history of American Indians, Jake Page writes,

Historians and archaeologists sift through whatever they can confirm as facts and tend to seek some sort of meaningful pattern in them–chronologies and more complex matters. This is essentially the opposite of the traditional Indian way. Indians’ history is a story as well, but story comes first–that is, the meaning of a story as originating core. The facts follow the meaning.

Page, J. (2004). In the hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000 year history of American Indians. New York: Free Press.

But this isn’t just the traditional American Indian way of finding meaning; it’s the way we all make meaning–at least most of the time.

Conspiracy theories are irresistible for many people because the theories offer meaningful explanations for otherwise random, unpredictable events; it reduces unmanageable complexity. An effective conspiracy is usually a very good story.

The thing about facts is that they are observations; they don’t exist independent of observing systems, or systems that have agreed that these things are facts. And for some observers, some facts aren’t worth considering at all.

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