Stories Must Die

I love a good story. Everyone loves a good story. Story-telling has been a profession for a long time, starting with Homer. [1] It’s one of the defining features of our species. There is good evidence that storytelling and social cohesion are strongly related. [2] So what’s with the title of this essay?

There is a great danger in story-telling. For one, story-telling is designed to appeal to our emotions: love, fear, remorse, regret, hopes, dreams, deep longing, even gratitude, to name only a few. The problem with emotion is that it’s not a good basis for collecting facts. Facts are best for understanding the real world. Emotions are good for feeling the world, without worrying about accuracy. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with feeling the world instead of collecting facts. Like I said, everyone enjoys a good story.

Let’s get back to the danger. In the so-called social sciences there is a tendency to rely on the story as a form of both data collection and justification. This is in addition to having almost no rigor with respect to their definitions or methods. Go to any two social scientists within any specialization, and ask them to define any term. It’s almost certain that you’ll get two different definitions. And there’s almost as good a chance that each of them will have a story to go along with it.

No story, no matter how riveting, can rise to the level of quality we must expect in a true science. No physicist, no chemist, no biologist would rely upon a story to advance their knowledge within the scientific community. Absolutely none.

Now, that’s not to say the story doesn’t have a place within the hard sciences. A hard-nosed hard scientist may use a vignette as a way of following an interesting lead. Perhaps there is a grain of truth that can be tested, verified, repeated, such that it meets the standards of science and can therefore be published to the rest of the scientific community. Perhaps the story makes the research more interesting for her colleagues. But there it ends. So many stories end up being only that, a story designed to entertain for a short time.

What’s the big deal, you say? What exactly is my problem with a good story? Why can’t it be chock-full of fact? Maybe I’m a story-hating geezer with hollywood issues? Perhaps you’re right. However, I can sum up the problems with a single word, muddy. Stories are entertaining, but they are never specific, so that too many things may be going on at one time. And when too many things happen at one time, it becomes impossible to point to any one and say, ah-ha, this factor is important for me to understand what’s going on. This brings us to the second fundamental reason stories shouldn’t be used; nothing is ever that simple.

What’s that you say? Gentle Reader? You would like a story to illustrate my point? Honestly, I’d prefer to not dirty up my argument here with some story. Rather, I’d like to try and convince you using an illustration of stories in general. Lately I’ve been doing research into our society’s attitudes towards hate. How we define hate is rather cloudy because we use the term very loosely nowadays, and the people that claim to be professionals in this area don’t help because it’s not in their best interests to refine the definition or their methods. They make their money writing books or being an expert on the newsy entertainment shows. However, since I’m neck-deep in hate, this could be the best place to find some recent examples about why stories are terrible sources of knowledge.

In the books that I’m reading, the stories they use tend to fall into two general categories. The first category is that of great atrocities perpetrated during wars. Of course there are many wars to choose stories from. You could say that there is always a war going on somewhere, and so there are many atrocious stories going on all the time. True, and sad. So the first example of stories within a whole class of war is the one that has to do with the formation of our great Union, an event that is collectively known as the “Trail of Tears.” In a long-standing confrontation between mostly European settlers and the much longer settled natives of the Eastern North American continent, the stronger European settlers were able to dictate many terms to the natives. Many of these terms revolved around access to land, and the ultimate conclusion was that natives were to leave their ancestral lands of the East for the great unknown of the West – a walk of several thousand kilometers.

Now, it’s hard to argue against the feeling that here is evidence for hate on the grandest of scales. An entire society, its government, its armies, and all its citizens were working against the natives of North America. And this newly formed government stood as a single entity attempting to eliminate not one, but many native cultures. They vilified the natives in print, stole from them when they could, cast them as red and inferior, and ultimately moved them from East to West. They even described them with their own words in ways that were meant to hurt. [3] Many thousands perished during the forced marches. [4] One can imagine the old and the young dropping off the side of the trail, or being carried away by raging streams or rivers. Those who were sick or unprepared, starved away. There were those who were wounded, and unable to obtain rest and care, left at the side of the trail, unable to be sustained by their families. Is this not all the product of hate? Who in their right mind would argue that this was not the product of hate? Who?

Well, me. And I should hope, you, as a believer in learning methodically and rigorously. We have to be able to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that what we are looking at is a fact, no matter what angle we look at it from. How in the world can the Trail of Tears not be looked upon as a great product of hate? Consider the following.

It is the rare story about the Trail of Tears that reveals the greater changes swirling about all those participants. There was the opposing world view of Europeans and Natives. The European believed they were chosen to take the land, had religious justification, and were motivated by great and omniscient powers. The Natives were weak, fought among themselves, and had not mastered technology to the level of the European. Add to all that these basic facts. Natives could not ‘hold’ their liquor. They were susceptible to strange maladies that often took their lives. They even looked very different, in ways that Europeans could only understand as being related to evil. It was for many of these inherent qualities that Europeans rationalized their own superiority over the native, further justifying the atrocities they perpetrated upon innocent people.

Today we have learned enough to know that because someone looks differently from ourselves, it does not mean that they are necessarily weak or inferior. We also know that someone’s genetic makeup does not mean they are less or better than ourselves. We also realize that most technology is relatively easy to master. The process of centuries of scientific inquiry can be passed to an open mind within a few years, such that it becomes as familiar to them as it is to us. And the reasons the natives couldn’t withstand the evils of alcohol, fell victim to a wide variety of diseases, and even looked differently from the European is because they were of a different genetic heritage. For millennia the peoples of the Americas had lived in biological isolation from the rest of humanity. The scourges that ravaged many in the Old World weren’t known in the New. As a result, the lessons of smallpox, mumps, and other relatively minor ailments to a European proved deadly to the native. The survival of the fittest was in full force, and only those natives who had immune systems robust enough to withstand the European germs survived, hopefully passing those innate talents onto their children.

In addition, each side of this conflict looked at the world very differently. For the native, the land was enjoyed passively; for upon it they hunted and gathered what was needed. For the European, the land was something to work, to harvest from, to change to their needs, and carve away from others in order to protect and pass those assets from one generation to the next. Europeans wanted to own their land to do whatever they pleased. Natives only enjoyed the land, leaving it untouched for their children to do the same. So, not only was their a clash between groups of different technologies, different genetic makeups, but also different ways of looking at the world.

Is there more that we can find to try and understand the conflict between Europeans and Natives? Of course. Technology, genetics, world views, these are great forces, and they are not all there is. There are more, and they are always influencing us. It’s important to realize that though there is great pain and suffering, though there is what we perceive to be great injustice in the world, it is not always something that can be simply categorized as hate. We must be careful in our understanding, otherwise we will not truly know the subject.

And here is the whole point of this story, oops, essay. Stories will entertain you, but they rarely teach rigorously. They are used by expert writers to make a point. Many successful business writers use stories exactly for this purpose, and business-people are quick to consider the writer an expert because of the quality of the story. But even a few questions about all the other great forces involved can shred the best story in minutes. Stories can’t teach the truth.

Only facts teach truth. Facts that you and I can verify independently of each other. Facts that hold up over time. Facts that stay facts for as long as time itself. And that’s the kind of stuff that we as students of behavior should insist upon.

And that’s a fact.


[1] I’ve read several versions, and Fagles translations are spectacular. They make modern literature and drama pale in comparison. And the audio versions read by professional actors are riveting. Check them out!

[2] There are so many examples where people claim exactly what I state above. Of course, as a true scientist, you are skeptical – we can’t take someone’s word about a fact, any fact. And that includes me!





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