Thursday, August 7, 2008

Things We Believe

"Tell me facts and I may remember them. Tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever." -- Cherokee proverb

According to polls, a majority of Americans believe that humans were "created directly by God" instead of natural selection. Another poll found a majority of Americans believe in alien life, and a poll in 1997 determined that almost eight in ten Americans believe the US government is withholding physical evidence of said alien life. And one in ten Americans still believes Barack Obama is a Muslim.

If evolution is a fraud, then it is an elaborate fraud, requiring ten million fossils to be hidden in perfectly ordered layers across the globe. If the government is hiding the remains of alien crewmen from a crash at Roswell, New Mexico, it is the worst-kept secret in the world. And if Barack Obama is a Muslim, then why the hell did we spend all those months bombarded by headlines about his (insane, yet Christian) pastor?

The human ability to believe anything, even in the face of contrary evidence, is one of the most startling (and annoying) traits of our species. Everyone -- and by that I mean everyone -- insists they are a rational, reasonable creature, yet we are all quite irrational, and rare is the man swayed by reason alone. Not only do we Want to Believe, we actively create belief without even trying. It is hard-wired in our brains.

The reason is as simple as the stories we tell. The Bible is, indeed, the "Greatest Story Ever Told" -- at least in terms of sales -- because it opens with a compelling narrative. All that sturm und drang of the Old Testament is more than myth; it's damn good storytelling, and good stories never die.

By contrast, most biology textbooks that even discuss evolution will offer facts instead of a story. Few teachers have the ability (or the time) to tell the 'story' of life's complex history. But whenever science does receive a good narrative treatment, the results are always a spectacular success:

Mind you, there is no society on Earth without a belief system. Atheism does not come naturally to human beings. To evolve is to survive, and we are soft-skinned animals who survive with our brains.

Imagine Homo erectus leaving his cave for a late-night trip to his favorite boulder. He leans his spear against the boulder and pulls his, ah, 'equipment' from under that lionskin. As he urinates, he hears a rustling in the tall grass. "What's that?" He thinks.

Our caveman now faces Pascal's Wager. Just as Pascal posited that one should choose to believe in God because one loses little by believing, but may lose for eternity by not believing, our ancestor must decide what to believe about this rustling grass. He can believe some thing is causing that disturbance -- a lion stalking him, or a rival from another clan. Or, he can believe the noise is only the wind...or he may just choose to ignore the noise altogether.

Of course, if that rustling in the grass is a lion, and he decides the noise is innocent, he will probably die. The smart choice is to pick up his spear, make a grunting noise, and prepare for battle. If it is an innocent coincidence, he has lost nothing by reacting.

But all of this mental processing must happen very quickly; lions do not sit idle while Homo erectus stands around inventing decision-matrices. Logic and reason are pastimes for humans who have time for pastimes, while survival of the fittest usually means survival of the fastest. Thus we have evolved a brain that leaps to conclusions based on limited evidence.

We have evolved to make leaps of faith.

But evolution demands more than the survival of one individual. For a species to succeed, it must pass survival information to its young. Humans have a tremendous evolutionary advantage called language; long before the first written words, that meant storytelling.

Our caveman kills the lion and returns to his cave. Everyone asks him how he bagged the beast, and he tells them. Over the years to follow, other members of his clan recall the story and react to rustling grass with interest (and a ready spear). A century later, our primitive ancestor's great-great-grandkids are teaching their own children to watch out for lions.

But as human societies outgrew the need to hunt lions, their need for answers did not diminish. Indeed, the number of questions multiplied as our needs changed; so did our stories.

In a world far more complicated than our ancestor's hunt-or-be-hunted life on the savannah, a complex and often frightening world can surprise us. Worse, with 24-hour cable news channels, our mental world is too noisy to hear rustling grass. Our modern problem is too much information -- and an easy narrative will always beat out facts.

Let me say that again: a good story beats facts, every single freaking time.

This is why more than a third of Americans still believe Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11, a sizeable minority believes WMD were found in Iraq, and one in ten Americans still believes that Obama is a Muslim.

The operative word here is "belief." Once it becomes a question of faith, the game is almost always over. People are immune to facts because their minds resist information that does not fit an accepted narrative.

Even when we consciously know the narrative is a fraud, our brains continue to use the narrative. Furthermore, the brain changes the narrative to 'explain' facts that don't fit, or makes up new memories to maintain the narrative. There's simply no way to change everyone's mind, and no way to change a lot of minds quickly.

Which brings us to the Roswell 'incident.' In 1947, a mylar balloon crashed to the ground in New Mexico. Mylar was a new invention, capable of the astounding feat of retaking its shape after crushing. The farmer who discovered this 'wreckage' reported finding: "bright wreckage made up of rubber strips, tinfoil, a rather tough paper and sticks." The balloon was part of Project Mogul, a secret project that equipped balloons for high-altitude aerial surveillance of Soviet military activities. (Remember, this was years before the U-2, SR-71 Blackbird, and spy satellites.) In a misguided effort to cover up the news of a downed, secret-project balloon, some genius at the nearby Roswell Army Air Field issued a press release saying that a UFO had been recovered. The Army Air Force later retracted the statement, declaring the object a "weather balloon;" but the country was in the throes of UFO mania, so the retraction changed nothing.

Roswell's crashed flying saucer fit a narrative for UFO enthusiasts. By the time the US Air Force explained the sightings at Roswell, the story had taken on a life of its own. Popular culture, especially The X-Files, created an entertaining narrative of alien bodies and government cover-ups. Believers are convinced, and cannot be un-convinced.

As I said before, we Want To Believe -- indeed, we need to believe. Only through a torturous process are we ever able to stop believing anything, even the silliest of things. Facts and logic and reason are not enough. If you want to change minds, you have to tell a better story.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent post!

    I've often wondered whether people really "believe" in anything - or whether:

    (a) they assume something to be true because it seems reasonable (eg. "the earth is round") and they have never thought to question it; or

    (b) they want to believe something even though it is inherently unreasonable.

    I have frequently wanted to believe in something, but reasoning/common sense have prevented me. For example, a friend asked me why I didn't share his particular religious beliefs when they offered such an attractive view of the afterlife. My answer was that "wishing didn't make it so".

    I don't think "wishing made it so" even for him. He was simply able to suspend his reasoning with respect to his religious beliefs (while being a reasoning individual in other aspects of his life).

    In short, I don't know if he "believed" anything; he just wanted to believe but simultaneously didn't want to think about this "desired belief" too critically (if at all).

    I wonder if most "believers" fall into this category...