Narratives

The power of belief is not necessarily related to the strength of evidence. People create different stories from the same set of facts, but the truth does not necessarily rest in the middle. In most cases, it rests wherever the science is, where the evidence is, where the facts are. That’s probably not in the middle. I wish we would quit having debates based on inferences, assumptions, beliefs, and stories and start having them on science-based research whenever and wherever that science exists.  And I wish we were more open to debate about spiritual possibilities where the science doesn’t exist. Granted, science is always evolving and it can’t answer all esoteric questions. That is not an excuse, however, to turn our back on science when it does have an abundance of evidence. Likewise, it is not an excuse to turn our back on spiritual possibilities where the science is still evolving. Ah, the mucky nature of it all.

Still from "Kudan," an animation by Taku Kimura. "Taku Kimura’s (JP) animation tells the story of a man who receives a peculiar packet from the mailman one day: a helmet that morphs him into the “Kudan.” This transformation into a half-steer, half-man opens up a whole new perspective for him on the world in which he lives. He finds himself in a seemingly endless forest full of gigantic trees whose roots are all interconnected and entwined..." From Ars Electronica's Flickr page. https://www.flickr.com/photos/arselectronica/
Title: Kudan / Taku Kimura | “Taku Kimura’s (JP) animation tells the story of a man who receives a peculiar packet from the mailman one day: a helmet that morphs him into the “Kudan.” This transformation into a half-steer, half-man opens up a whole new perspective for him on the world in which he lives. He finds himself in a seemingly endless forest full of gigantic trees whose roots are all interconnected and entwined…” | Credit: Taku Kimura, Links DigiWorks inc. | Source: Ars Electronica | License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Let’s start with an obvious example. There is an abundance of evidence that tax cuts for the wealthy don’t translate to greater revenues for government or income for the poor. As Paul Krugman points out, “the Kansas debacle shows that tax cuts don’t have magical powers. The real lesson from Kansas is the enduring power of bad ideas, as long as those ideas serve the interests of the right people.”

Krugman continues, “Why, after all, should anyone believe at this late date in supply-side economics, which claims that tax cuts boost the economy so much that they largely, if not entirely, pay for themselves? The doctrine crashed and burned two decades ago, when just about everyone on the right—after claiming, speciously, that the economy’s performance under Ronald Reagan validated their doctrine—went on to predict that Bill Clinton’s tax hike on the wealthy would cause a recession if not an outright depression. What actually happened was a spectacular economic expansion.”

Paul Krugman is seen by folks on the right as an extreme liberal. If you were to ask conservatives to espouse their narrative on tax cuts, they would present a very compelling case—witness their success in influencing current tax policy. The fact that they can construct a compelling narrative, however, even one in which they genuinely believe (or not), doesn’t mean their narrative represents the truth. And while it may not be wise to believe 100% of what Krugman says, his point of view is clearly (based on evidence from science and history) much closer to the truth than conservative economists who are bent on improving their positioning, power, and personal prosperity.

Joseph Stieglitz, in his article “Inequality is not Inevitable” from the Opinionator section of the New York Times, expands on this point:

“If it is not the inexorable laws of economics that have led to America’s great divide, what is it? The straightforward answer: our policies and our politics. People get tired of hearing about Scandinavian success stories, but the fact of the matter is that Sweden, Finland and Norway have all succeeded in having about as much or faster growth in per capita incomes than the United States and with far greater equality.

So why has America chosen these inequality-enhancing policies? Part of the answer is that as World War II faded into memory, so too did the solidarity it had engendered. As America triumphed in the Cold War, there didn’t seem to be a viable competitor to our economic model. Without this international competition, we no longer had to show that our system could deliver for most of our citizens.

Ideology and interests combined nefariously. Some drew the wrong lesson from the collapse of the Soviet system. The pendulum swung from much too much government there to much too little here. Corporate interests argued for getting rid of regulations, even when those regulations had done so much to protect and improve our environment, our safety, our health and the economy itself.

But this ideology was hypocritical. The bankers, among the strongest advocates of laissez-faire economics, were only too willing to accept hundreds of billions of dollars from the government in the bailouts that have been a recurring feature of the global economy since the beginning of the Thatcher-Reagan era of “free” markets and deregulation.”

Again, if we were to ask someone from Fox News or the Wall Street Journal about the right size of government, we would get an entirely different point of view. The point is that we construct different narratives out of the same set of research and facts. Sometimes the narratives are connected to the truth; sometimes they are not. The debate on climate change is another chilling example—or should I say heated example.

On a personal level, we do the same thing. Two people can have the same experience and walk away with entirely different stories of what happened. This is due to different personalities, values, experiences, interests, preferences, orientations, or capabilities—physically, emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually. Parents, for example, may view themselves as supportive, fair, genuine, and loving. Children may view those same parents as judgmental, unfair, inauthentic, and uncaring. And both can create narratives that support their beliefs. I’m not sure who gets to determine which side is closer to the truth.

On a spiritual level, this phenomenon is even more challenging.  As I wrote in an earlier post on Science and Spirituality, there are many compelling narratives on what constitutes truth and possibility in the spiritual realm.  In that post, I reviewed the book by Deepak Chopra and Leonard Mlodinow, Wars of Worldviews: Where Science and Spirituality Meet – and Do Not, which frames the debate and articulates the argument in substantive and captivating ways, both pro and con. Mlodinow presents the case for science by emphasizing the need for evidence, observation, rigorous analysis, impartial objectivity, quantitative results, statistical proof, and openness to new findings. Chopra presents the case for spirituality by pointing out that life is qualitative as well as quantitative and is subjective as well as objective. He suggests that meaning, spontaneity, free-will, richness of experience, purpose, intention, mindfulness, and consciousness are all elements of spirituality and can’t be measured in material ways.

I am struck by the enduring power of bad ideas or convoluted narratives, as long as those ideas and narratives serve private needs or the interests of the rich. I struggle not only with the scientific basis for my own narratives, but also with the sources and science which informs others’ narratives. What seems clear to me is that the forcefulness and cleverness with which a narrative is expressed does not equate to its veracity. What do you think?


Also published on Medium.

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Ron Irwin
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Ron Irwin

I agree totally Rick; don’t know what to do about it though. I fear for our kids/grandkids futures. Ronny

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