27 May 2019           home | knowledge

Facts, Stories, and Politics

The historian Yuval Noah Harari writes in the NY Times of humans as the only mammals that can cooperate in very large numbers and that large-scale cooperation depends on believing common stories. But these stories, he says, need not be true. He writes that "You can unite millions of people by making them believe in completely fictional stories about God, about race or about economics." He continues:

... the truth is often painful and disturbing. Hence if you stick to unalloyed reality, few people will follow you. An American presidential candidate who tells the American public the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about American history has a 100 percent guarantee of losing the elections. The same goes for candidates in all other countries. How many Israelis, Italians or Indians can stomach the unblemished truth about their nations?

Someone commenting on Harari's article paraphrased Mark Twain that "fiction is easier to believe than fact since fiction has to make sense." Someone else wrote that in the 2016 presidential campaign Hillary Clinton was "more honest—and therefore perhaps more disturbing."

Someone else writes: "It seems we'd rather continue to believe outright lies than half-truths. I'm honestly not sure what that says about us, but it ain't terribly pretty."

Expressing hostility toward Harari, someone labels him as "postmodern" — as seeing western beliefs and institutions as based more on power and fiction "rather than on truth and reason." But Harari works by differentiating facts and imagination.

Harari writes of humanity's ability to compartmentalize:

Even the most extreme zealots and fanatics can often compartmentalize their irrationality so that they believe nonsense in some fields, while being eminently rational in others.

Harari sees recognizing the factual as necessary for survival. It keeps us from stumbling off of curbs and walking into speeding traffic. A reader adds that "The cost of lying about the facts is a huge loss of innovation, and a spinning of wheels — one more reason why children should be taught to think critically. We need to be skeptical about facts joined in less than the whole truth. (See "Reason, Assumption and the Economy".)

Someone agreeing with Harari recognizes that science, unlike reliance on story telling, has the virtue of being self-correcting. Someone else comments that maybe enough of us recognizing facts will allow us to do what we must regarding global warming.


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