Forward this, three.

These last few weeks I’ve pointed out the increasing prevalence of “forwards” based on fiction.  At the same time, there seems to be a lack of active skepticism in our society.  All of this is being undermined by one incredible force; the momentum of entertainment.

In the beginning, there were gods.  Many gods.  Gods existed in the wind, the fire, the tree, and the sun.  We have gotten smarter and more sophisticated since then, and today we have fewer gods.  Some religions claim to only have one, but that’s a topic for another day.

Yet, in all practical terms, our society worships many gods.  These are the gods that appear on the altar we call TV.  They are beyond beautiful.  They are beyond reach.  Their words are music to our ears.  And we believe everything they say.

In reality, these are entertainers.  They are chosen from the ranks of many beautiful people based on their ability to talk, to look attractive, and to mesmerize us with any words it takes to make us feel better about ourselves.  If you’re a “bleeding heart liberal” then you’ll want to listen to someone who makes you feel better about your taxes helping families in need, or children getting vaccinations.  If you’re a “freedom loving gun-toting conservative” you’re going to want to hear about the evil socialist president and his equally evil sidekick, Hillary, and how the military is being decimated.

The point is that we believe their words, all their words, without digging deeply into what are facts and fiction.  It’s very possible one family is being helped by our taxes, but is it the best way?  How many families are there, and are we indeed teaching them skills and values necessary for them to become self-sustaining?  It’s also likely that the military is being decimated, but is this a surprise?  Our two-war military has been on a buildup schedule for many years, and Pentagon planners have known a draw-down is inevitable.  Is it a bad thing?  Our military spends a lot on very dubious programs.  Are they the first to go, or is it a form of corporate welfare meets pork barrel?

If you bow to the TV on a regular basis, and believe the words of your idol, then that is your god.  As a serious student of behavior, step out of your body and watch yourself.  Is that entertainer the god you want to follow?  Or would you rather follow your own conscience?

So take a bow.  To yourself.


Forward this, too.

Last week I mentioned that if you’ve had email for more than a minute, then you’ve gotten a forward from a friend.  It was meant as humor, but unfortunately, it’s pretty close to the truth.

I have some friends that I would consider to be pretty darn smart.  Like designing aircraft smart.  Flying helicopters smart.  Organizing social events for hundreds of people within a few days smart.  Yet these are the same people who send me forwards that show me what they are thinking (conservative, liberal) based on totally fictional statements!

The most recent two forwards (in the last two days!) were about how our socialist anti-military president recently ordered all our first-line naval vessels into Pearl Harbor for surprise and unstated upgrades.  All very mysterious.  But if you’re a current-president hating conservative who believes everything he does is evil, then you love the message.

A quick search on the web shows that the last time five large naval vessels were ordered to port at one time is from 1997, in Norfolk VA.  Not “first-line” vessels, it had something to do with nuclear upgrades, and certainly nowhere near Hawaii.  At the same time, there was nothing in the Hawaiian news about such a momentous event as five large vessels at the same time.  Trust me, having all those sailors hitting Waikiki beach at the same time would make quite a splash!

The other forward stated that a new anti-Jesus film was coming out soon casting Jesus and his posse as homosexuals.  Another search stated that not only was this a very old forward, it had existed on paper back in the early 80s!

When I get these forwards I take a few seconds to check them.  Then I write back to my friend and point out that, just maybe, their information is wrong.  I always get an interesting response.  After a while I stop getting as many forwards.  Are they still my friends?  I hope so, I’m not going to let that worry me.  Are they still sending out as many forwards?  I hope not.

As our society gets dumber, it’s up to those who still care to fight the tide.  Be a skeptic.  Trust no one.  No bit of information is too small to be suspect.  Being skeptical is an important trait to be a good scientist.  And if we intend to be scientists of behavior, it’s going to be especially important.

Believe it.  Or not?


Forward this!

If you’ve had email for more than a minute, then you’ve gotten a forward from a friend.

Religious, conservative, liberal, ranting, and most likely, total fiction.  There’s always been something about the urge to pass around a message that contains absolutely false information.  At the same time, it’s the kind of information that arouses our emotions; we rankle in anger, we giggle in anticipation, or we laugh at the outright craziness the message describes.

I can remember, from painful personal experience, one such “forward” back in the days before computers.  Yes, forwards have been around that long.  It was in grade school, on the playground, and the rumor went around that I didn’t have on any underpants!  Oh, the hurt, the pain!

Today, I can imagine the first such published “forward” taking place soon after the invention of the printing press.  A disgruntled employee of Gutenberg may have stayed late one night, taking the opportunity to print up a series of pamphlets directed against his tyrannical employer.  It probably said something like this; Johannes G isn’t wearing any underpants!  And he underpays his employees!

The point is, as an aspect of behavior, such forwards have been around a long time.

The problem today is that the speed of the internet has given the forward a whole new life, a breadth and penetration of our psyche that is greater than ever before.  This didn’t exist 50 years ago, and the effect only seems to be getting greater.

I would like to think that, in an advanced society, there would be a mechanism protecting us from fiction that tries to pass as fact.  Yet, in a “free” society, we place a high value on the value of “free speech.”  At the same time, the courts have (justly) ruled that crying out “FIRE” in a crowded place is not protected speech.  Perhaps it’s time we also protect facts from fiction.

Or are we destined to simply become, dumb?



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!