Anyone who has been following the climate change controversy at all closely will have come across two words used ad nauseam: ‘myth’ and ‘narrative’. The first is defined as an incorrectly held belief, although in the Grand Debate it is usually used to refer to the stuff the other guy believes. The second also tends to be used as a pejorative; narrative isn’t just a story but a carefully fabricated one designed to push forward an agenda. Accordingly, most narratives are treated as if they were a joint alibi concocted by a consort of rogues prior to their interrogation.
When commenting upon other people’s beliefs I try to avoid using ‘myth’, if I can, because it doesn’t really achieve a great deal. However, I will be the first to admit that I refer to ‘narrative’ all the time. It seems such an appropriate word to use because, let’s face it, the human brain seems to have been exquisitely designed to tell stories – it’s what we do best. In fact, this has been the case ever since the filing of mankind’s first ever business reports, as found on the walls of the Lascaux caves. Today the same talent for narration can be seen in the conspiracy theories and propaganda that burden the internet (i.e. the stuff that you are not supposed to masturbate to).
The Birth of the Disaster Movie
One might reasonably ask where our predilection for creating narrative comes from. Simply observing the brain’s propensities doesn’t really explain anything, unless one can offer an argument for how they arise. Basically, one needs to determine the evolutionary advantage afforded by an ability to weave stories. It could be, of course, that the ability to tell and believe stories has no such advantage and that it is just a party trick discovered by a brain that actually evolved for the purpose of meeting cognitive challenges that were far more important for survival. Perhaps the brain that can discern potentially threatening patterns in the environment, plan future ventures or comprehend the motives and thinking of adversaries just happens to be the same sort of brain that could spin a yarn or two just for entertainment value. One cannot easily dismiss this possibility but it is tempting to think that there is more to it than that, particularly when one reflects upon the nature of the narratives favoured by the human race from its earliest days. Noticeably, the most potent and effective are those that speak to the meaning of existence and the ubiquity of mortality. Perhaps having narratives that establish a group belief encompassing such themes is unifying in a way that is to everyone’s benefit.
It certainly does seem to be the case that creation narratives and theories relating to death and eternity predominate amongst those that have gone viral. Amongst such best-sellers there is the Kono creation myth, in which Sa, the god of death, vengefully inflicts mortality upon all mankind after believing his daughter to have been abducted by the god Alatangana. Death and existential risk also feature prominently in the Oceania stories of Maui and his attempt to gain immortality for mankind by ripping out the heart of Goblin Goddess, Hina-of-the-Night. His plan, it has to be said, was a little over-egged. Turning himself into a worm, he entered the unsuspecting goblin via her vagina, intending a smash and grab followed by an escape through her mouth. Unfortunately, he didn’t get very far because he failed to appreciate that her vagina also had teeth. Lesson to be learnt: Do your homework.
In fact, it is not uncommon for such stories to tell of not just the protagonist’s demise but that of the entire world – a collective fate that usually involves copious amounts of fire, water or both. Believe me, it wasn’t Hollywood that first discovered the appeal behind a good disaster movie.
More Fire and Water
As for existential narratives involving heroes battling to save the world from an elemental fate, we do seem to have more than our fair share of mythic yarn woven into the climate change saga. For example, who could forget the BBC’s recent opus, ‘The Trick’, a potent narrative in which our hero learns that you can’t hope to fend off the evil forces that are busily destroying the world unless you master the art of the potent narrative? In this, he is coached by a pair of public relations experts, which just about sums things up. Not content, however, the BBC has returned to the battlefront with its latest radio drama, ‘Smoking Guns’. Once again, it is a good-versus-evil yarn in which nothing less than mankind’s survival is at stake. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I understand that the noble scientist (Dr Ben Santer) is set upon by ‘Cold War hawks’ and other flying demons.
With so much at stake, the storytellers have never been so busy, and I suspect there will be much more to come. I note with interest that amongst the many ‘contributors’ for Greta’s forthcoming ‘go to’ tome on the subject there will be a generous lacing of authors, playwrights and poets. Consequently, I am looking forward to some pretty imaginative stuff – perhaps the uplifting story of a polar bear on an ice floe rowing itself to safety.
Not to be outdone, the IPCC itself has lately learnt of the power of storytelling and now promotes it as being the best methodology for evaluating extreme weather events. Yes, you can talk about Fraction of Attributable Risk and Risk Ratio to the cows come home, but that doesn’t quite capture the imagination and it often exposes a truth that is in danger of underplaying the ‘required’ sense of urgency. How much better if one abandons the numbers game and turns instead to the storyteller, who can regale you with plausible explanations as to why the event occurred and how it is likely to have been much worse than it would have been without anthropogenic warming. It’s a valid approach but I hardly think that the IPCC had validity in mind when it proclaimed narrative as a superior method for capturing ‘true’ risk and combating pesky uncertainty. It is all very well placing ‘just so’ stories at the centre of the science but, by doing so, we are in danger of blurring the distinction between valid science and lurid journalism.
Just Enough Incredibility
Earlier, the eagle-eyed amongst you will have noted that in describing the various ancient narratives I neatly segued into using ‘myth’ more than once, despite having previously declared an aversion to using the word. Unfortunately, this is unavoidable due to another important characteristic that sets apart the successful existential narrative from the box office flop: It has to grab the attention by invoking the fanciful and terrible whilst remaining credible on at least one level. This is what a good myth does. It’s all about it hitting that sweet spot in which the unbelievable is used to grab the attention whilst retaining enough plausibility to make its point. Looking back at the ancient myths, it is difficult to believe that any of them would have met that Goldilocks challenge, but it is important not to judge them from our modern position of advantage. In their day, I’m sure the storytellers enjoyed a great deal of influence and played to a largely receptive audience.
So what then of our modern position of advantage? It certainly enables us to mock the idea of Goblin Goddesses with man-eating vaginas, or any posited fallout from divine rivalry, but does it protect us from believing potentially equally dodgy narratives that simply haven’t been exposed as such yet? What susceptibility do we have, for example, to narratives that speak of global destruction and man’s hubris, and yet are also seemingly supported by the full weight of the scientific community? Is this the point at which we should drop our guard and simply accept that, at long last, we have an inspiring narrative that warns of an existential threat whilst finally establishing our correct place in the world? Have we now discovered that sweet spot of sufficient incredibilty? Or does the allure and benefit of accepting such narratives threaten to render truth superfluous, thereby corrupting our judgement?
The Narrative Steals the Show
I think this credibility gap is the nub of the public’s dilemma. Lacking the time or patience to engage in our own research, we rely almost entirely on narrative constructed on our behalf by a host of agencies that seek to promote their particular world view. What then emerges as the dominant narrative owes its success as much to the efforts of those agencies, and to the appeal of the message, as it does to the veracity of the storyline. Specifically, we are biologically programmed to accept the storyline that appeals greatest to our desire for meaning and security within our lives. Suitably convinced, we move forward with a common sense of purpose and justice as if it were handed down to us from Mount Sinai.
The appeal of a good story is so primal that it is no coincidence that story telling should have taken centre stage in the battle for hearts and minds in the climate change debate. Nobody wins such a debate with graphs and numbers alone, and nothing brings a message more to life than a damn good story. It is little wonder, therefore, that the word ‘narrative’ has become the cliché that it has.
Nice article, most of the way along to an explanation of cultural narratives…
“What then emerges as the dominant narrative owes its success as much to the efforts of those agencies, and to the appeal of the message, as it does to the veracity of the storyline.”
The appeal of the message is the entire reason for success, but the main effect is via a subconscious appeal featuring many emotive angles at once, and usually in combined cocktails such as ‘fear + hope’ (which is also why the narratives are emergent). The surface message can say pretty much anything, as long as the right emotive hot-buttons get pushed, and is irrelevant to the ‘job’ of cultural narratives, albeit it may be very relevant to those who live within the resulting culture.
“Specifically, we are biologically programmed to accept the storyline that appeals greatest to our desire for meaning and security within our lives.”
Yes, we’re biologically programmed to behave in certain ways when subject to these narratives, and yes some narratives will be more successful in this regard than others. But it’s almost nothing to do with their meaning or what security they may or may not offer; it’s only to do with which narratives best pushes the emotive hot-buttons; which in turn cause the behaviours, which are only about in-group / out-group definition and reinforcement. The processing of ‘meaning’ occurs only with rational effort, and the whole point of these narratives is to trigger deep behaviours that bypass rationality. This typically results in adherents who think they’ve found the deepest meaning ever, true profundity, which they ‘feel’; but what they are actually feeling is brain chemicals released by a bunch of complete nonsense with less informational core content than a cold virus.
“Suitably convinced, we move forward with a common sense of purpose and justice as if it were handed down to us from Mount Sinai.”
Yes, suitably meaning ’emotively’ convinced, i.e. not rationally. And indeed a common purpose for the group, is the only point of it all, this having been a big evolutionary advantage throughout our history.
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Thanks for the response. I know that you and I think along very similar lines on this subject. However, it just would not do for us to be in complete alignment 🙂
In broad terms, I think our views primarily differ in the extent to which we believe that rationality is completely bypassed in the acceptance of a good narrative. I should have made it clearer in the article that when I said ‘the appeal of the message’ I was referring to emotional appeal. However, veracity has its own appeal and I still believe it plays a role, although quite what role isn’t obvious to me. For me, it is enough to say that truth and rationality cannot be assumed to be the property of the majority. You appear to go a lot further by suggesting that they can be assumed not to be. Or have I got that wrong?
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There is perhaps one major flaw in your thesis and that is that we know not all stories (=narratives) are true, some are made up and often we know this from the outset (Otherwise we should all believe in goblins with highly dangerous nether parts). In other situations we only come to know the story is false. A good practitioner can even make us suspend our disbelief as when watching a film or reading a novel.
Many of us develop stratagems for identifying false stories from the truth (examine the current discussion about the heinous crime committed at a Ukrainian railway station on another thread). When trying to unravel the truth or place blame we rely upon a set of procedures that usually will identify the truth from the falsehood and when this is seen to be impossible, blame commonly cannot be laid. In science, again we have a set of procedures (collectively termed the scientific method) which we commonly employ to identify truth. It is not always used.
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I believe that my thesis accomodates your observation. I’m sure that many audiences were sophisticated enough to understand the allegoric nature of narratives. They would know not to take the story literally but still take on board the message conveyed. This is the sweet spot to which I referred: There is enough fantasy to engage but not so much that nothing makes sense.
“However, it just would not do for us to be in complete alignment 🙂”
“However, veracity has its own appeal and I still believe it plays a role, although quite what role isn’t obvious to me. For me, it is enough to say that truth and rationality cannot be assumed to be the property of the majority. You appear to go a lot further by suggesting that they can be assumed not to be. Or have I got that wrong?”
Veracity’s role is not so much by appeal, but via non-cultural processes that can combat cultural ones. So cultures constantly undermine and thwart the law and democracy and science, but these processes of ‘rationality at scale’, constantly limit and neuter cultural moves. It’s a continuous war; but cultural processes don’t have it all their own way.
However, the cultural processes themselves are independent of rationality; at an individual level they simply wouldn’t work if the hot-buttons didn’t bypass rationality, and so where they happen to dominate within a society, then also rationality will be in short supply. But as they are group phenomena, for sure there is never a situation where everyone is culturally convinced. OTOH most of the unconvinced within a socially conflicted domain, such as climate change, are not using rationality either (to start with rationality needs knowledge, and unlike on the climate blogs, publics are essentially climate illiterate). They are either convinced by an alternate culture that opposes the climate consensus (e.g. Rep/Con culture in the US), or reject the consensus instinctively (because they detect it’s a[n alien to their values] culture – we have a detection mechanism for this, to stop cultures dominating everything, but unfortunately the trigger is value dependent and so not objective). Plus, as we can measure across national publics, many people can anyhow be simultaneously supportive of, and resistant to, climate change, depending on the scenario (reality-constrained or unconstrained); another story, but again not one of rationality.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that cultures are domain orientated; albeit they constantly try to expand their reach. This means there can be complete fantasy in one domain, yet reasonable objective behaviour in another, both within the very same society, and even regarding many of the same orgs or individuals acting in both domains. At least if there’s no cultural link between those domains, and they aren’t both dominated by different cultures!
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Reading your response, we may not be all that far apart. I might quibble over the applicability of the word ‘appeal’, but that’s just about it.
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“Many of us develop stratagems for identifying false stories from the truth (examine the current discussion about the heinous crime committed at a Ukrainian railway station on another thread). When trying to unravel the truth or place blame we rely upon a set of procedures that usually will identify the truth from the falsehood and when this is seen to be impossible, blame commonly cannot be laid.”
Unfortunately, cultural stories have probably 100k years start on us in this game, and are extremely adept at overcoming all our strategies, primarily by bypassing our reason upon which all those strategies are based. For cultural adherents, reason serves the cultural agenda. As Dan Kahan has shown, it’s even the case that people who are more cognitively capable and subject literate, are even more polarised on conflicted topics than those who less so, because they are better at defending their cultural position! As John implies, even nonsense stories can potently and *sub-consciously* convince; all religions are just fairy-stories for instance, yet most of the world still believes them, and almost in living memory they still ruled pretty much everywhere. For modern secular cultural stories, they may seem a bit more plausible, but it is not the element of reason that does the job, it is the emotive payload. Hence for climate change or the Ukraine alike, how people see the available data and what it implies will be very different depending upon their relevant cultural beliefs (for people that have same, but climate catastrophe narratives are extremely widespread, and I should imagine the Ukraine situation challenges / supports some deeply-held value systems for many people too).
“In science, again we have a set of procedures (collectively termed the scientific method) which we commonly employ to identify truth.”
This isn’t really a problem for cultures, it can easily bias science, or indeed hi-jack the whole show if this is advantageous. Climate-change is a case in point. The dominant cultural narrative that drives everything humans are doing in relation to climate change is: ‘the certainty of imminent global climate catastrophe’. This narrative is not supported by mainstream science let alone anything sceptical, yet is still in charge of events, and still claims full backing by ‘the science’, which pretty much all of the worlds authorities believe (excepting Trump as was). As above in reply to John, this doesn’t mean cultures have it all their own way, or always win. But it does mean that fighting them is incredibly hard; all humans have bypass modes built into our brains that they can access, so producing instant recruits (especially among children, who are primed to pick up cultural templates). Whereas rationally reclaiming these people, is incredibly hard to do. And scientists are no less vulnerable than lay-people to cultural attack, per above maybe more so.
But but, John there are lots of narratives today that many people do not identify as being fanciful. That surely is the raison d’etre for this whole blog. Some may be sophisticated enough so as to refute the falsehood behind the current climate narrative, but others and sometimes the majority, are taken in.
Andy, I believe you are making my points for me; points that I may not have been able to elucidate as well as you have.
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Well it just goes to show that you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.
Say, really like this essay on narrative – really.
I jest wrote my own ‘just so’ story concerning the lo-o-ong evolution that led
to the creation of the wheel. https://beththeserf.wordpress.com/
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Thanks, Beth. I shall be sure to read your story over a cup of coffee.
I didn’t say a great deal about the role played by poetry in constructing narratives around climate change but, judging by how much comes up on an internet search, it would appear to be a big business. In fact, there is so much of it out there that I am surprised that it doesn’t have its own section in Waterstones. Here is just a taste of what Google digs up:
I tried reading the first one (How To Let Go of the World) but it just went on and on and on. If we really are faced with imminent destruction, then I do think that poems owe it to the world to be short.
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I’ve finished my coffee break now, and very enjoyable it was too. Your closing paragraph hits the nail on the head:
“What I have been doing in my musings on the wheel demonstrates how easily we engage in metaphor. Sometimes in the arts and science we do this to good effect, sometimes, as visionary narrative or deliberate propaganda, it is done to the detriment of those who carelessly, or too trustingly, allow themselves to fall for a persuasive fiction masquerading as fact.”
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Beth (and John), that story of the wheel is a clever teaching technique, and indeed it’s a great last paragraph.
Some poems contain very powerful memes that can completely bypass our rationality, not only such that everyone who succumbs will take pleasure in propagating the poem further, but also so that they’ll think the thing is profound or even amazing knowledge. The content may in fact be relatively harmless nonsense (although it’s never good to have ones brain effectively turned off!) or may be much more dangerous cultural nonsense. There is a poem that has circulated the Internet for decades that is in the former category, and millions of folks all around the world think it is amazing wisdom, when in fact it has exactly zero meaning. I once wrote a fiction story about this poem, which as it unfolds includes explanations of how the memes within the poem work, and how to be on guard against them; it’s a sort of anti-meme narrative, an anti-meme meme. The story was prompted when a friend of mine sent me the poem and said how amazing it was; in explaining to her that this was not the case, I became intrigued about its history and how it worked. This was back in 2006 but the poem is still doing the rounds, and most comment on it is still overwhelmingly positive, i.e. from the very many people who are still taken in by it. If you’re interested, the story is at the ‘Bewildering Stories’ site here:
There is an interesting corollary to this whole episode. The poem has spawned some different variants since the original writer set it down. I effectively created another, because some slight tweaks made it more suited to my fiction. Some time after my story was released, the proprietor of Bewildering Stories noted that my variant was itself now spreading too! (i.e. independently of the story it was embedded in). Just shows, you can’t control these things 0: Anyhow, my variant was clearly not better at spreading, as it appears to have been outcompeted and it eventually died out (except for within the story).
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Beth’s cautionary tale of the power and allure of metaphor is very relevant to what you and I have been saying here. I have referred to the ‘sweet spot’ of sufficient incredibility (itself a metaphor) but the fact is that it is very difficult to assess the old narratives retrospectively in order to determine whether they achieved that balance or (more to the point) what that balance would have looked like. I assume they did hit the spot simply because that would be necessary for their success, but at the end of the day (metaphorically speaking) we have no way of knowing just how literally the tales of Maui’s exploits were received. It all seems very symbolic and poetic to the modern audience, and the goblin’s vagina may have indeed been a metaphor, but that doesn’t help me to determine whether the ancients believed the stories at a literal or metaphorical level. Metaphors have a habit of becoming prosaic through repetition and that may be a part of the process of coming to accept the fantastic. This shifting over time between the poetic and literal, and back again, may be why Alan and I are probably destined to argue past each other for all eternity.
Oh, incidentally, if you want a good example of a narrative that hits the sweet spot of sufficient incredibility, just look at RCP8.5.
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Andy West, So enjoyed yr cultural virus tale.
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Thanks, Beth, much appreciated 🙂
Alan Kendall (11Apr 22 3.44pm)
But we all believe some version of the goblin princess, be it only a virus with spikes altered by an invisible bat, and Freud has taught us (though we’ve forgotten) that you mock the idea of the goblin goddess with the man-eating vagina at your peril. It’s a myth that gets to parts that IPCC WG3 can’t reach, though Extinction Rebellion, with their mania for gluing themselves to Mother Earth, are fast getting there.
Jordan Peterson covers all this in tedious detail in his book “Maps of Meaning.” It’s a long and badly written book (at least the version formerly available free on his site) but he observes himself that everything he says has been said before by Jung, Mircea Eliade,and Joseph Campbell, and Campbell at least is easy to read.
John’s profound observations about the co-existence of (apparently contradictory) truth and emotional appeal in the same narrative have a sense if you try and see the human mind as a whole, which of course is Jordan Peterson’s Big Thing, much to his credit. In a simple society, where everyone was involved in the same activity of hunting or foraging or whatever, the same ingredients had to co-exist in every mind. The Enlightenment ideal aimed to raise every mind to the level of the most sophisticated, where the emotional and the rational would be (rationally) compartmentalised. Modern thinking has it that only the élite needs a rational narrative, and the rest of us can make do with goblin princesses, available cheap on Netflix etc. Alas, in our imperfectly regulated world, many of the goblin princess’s fanboys fancy themselves as members of the élite, creating great confusion. Edgar Rice Burroughs covers this quite nicely in his Martian series, which has been handily visualised in the Marvel ”John Carter, Warlord of Mars” series, for those who find 1930s trash fiction too intellectually demanding.
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Geoff, Allegories (Goblin Princesses) shouldn’t count.
Before this gets out of hand, I should remind everyone that Hina-of-the-Night was a goddess and not a princess. Paradoxically, this makes the details of the story more believable rather than less. There is only so much one can expect from a princess’s vagina but a good story teller has plenty of scope with a goddess’s anatomy. Once the audience has accepted the existence of goddesses, the bounds of the plausible become much wider.
I disagree only with this: ‘Modern thinking has it that only the élite needs a rational narrative, and the rest of us can make do with goblin princesses…’
Whatever modern thinkers think, elites tend to be more susceptible to cultural narratives than the rest of us. In pushing them down our throats at every opportunity, this is not because they think we need to be drugged up on Cinderella while they read Tolstoy and Hume. It’s because they hold these narratives to be ‘truth’, and fervently believe too that if the public doesn’t accept these ultimate and ‘obvious’ truths, civilizational disaster will result. A Bishop Hill tweet today noted that “Government and Whitehall machines are both awash with Extinction Rebellion fellow-travellers”. Indeed; goblins loom large in government.
John, in fact there’s a widespread literature featuring the unusual anatomy at the heart of your story, which (as far as I know) has arisen independently in different world cultures, and appears in some modern works too. In fiction, it doesn’t appear to be an unusual thing at all. This literature even has a name, look up ‘vagina dentata’.
Your point is taken. Vagina dentata is well within the realms of the possible for a goblin princess. Nevertheless, I stand by my point that a goddess is a more likely possessor of such an anatomy, once goddesses are assumed to exist. It’s a lesson in Bayesian probabilities.
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