The Stories We Tell Ourselves
On conspiracy theories and other modern myths
“In most cases, men willingly believe what they wish.” — Julius Caesar, 52 B.C.
“It’s just the wind.”
You've probably thought that to yourself (or even said it out loud) when you were alone at home at night and heard an unexpected noise.
“It’s just the wind,” you say, as you try to convince yourself that there's nothing to worry about.
Then, thinking that the wind couldn't make that kind of a sound, you pivot: “Or maybe it’s a squirrel in the attic.”
You desperately want to try to outsmart the fear center in your brain. Maybe you succeed. Maybe you don't. It depends on the kind of story you tell yourself.
Aside from things that go bump in the night, the world can be a scary place.
Even now, amid advanced technology that connects us to each other's homes around the world, we don't know what the future will look like.
Imagine what it must have been like thousands of years ago, before calendars were in use, when weather forecasts were unheard of, and when we had no idea where we came from.
It’s human nature to want to simplify the complex, shape the world into a more orderly place, and make sense of things we don't understand.
So what do we do? We tell ourselves stories to explain away the inexplicable.
It’s been happening since we were first able to communicate. Humans developed myths, traditions, and stories that made sense out of a big and sometimes terrifying world.
“Myth has two main functions. The first is to answer the sort of awkward questions that children ask, such as ‘Who made the world? How will it end? Who was the first man? Where do souls go after death?’…The second function of myth is to justify an existing social system and account for traditional rites and customs.” — Robert Graves, 1955
One of my favorite scenes from Disney’s 1940 classic Fantasia is the mythology sequence (quite possibly because of my background as a classics major and a devotee of Beethoven). It’s set to Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral,” and in it, we experience an idyllic scene of centaurs, winged horses (recall there was only one original Pegasus), and Dionysus, the god of wine, all enjoying themselves.
Then the sky darkened, the dark clouds parted, revealing an amused Zeus, who called to Hephaestus to supply him with lightning bolts. The creatures scatter in fear, desperately seeking cover. Eventually, Zeus tires of this exercise, and the storm recedes.
It’s a creative and illuminating mise-en-scène that literally illustrates how the ancients created stories to explain the unexpected or confusing things in the world around them.
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise then, when surrounded by advanced technology that can be incomprehensible to some and grappling with unprecedented circumstances, that modern-day myths arise in the form of conspiracy theories.
From the moon landing to chemtrails, Freemasonry to the Illuminati, vaccinations to the fluoride, you can find people who are willing to believe fanciful stories that seemingly explain everything to them.
Most recently, the coronavirus pandemic has launched people into a tizzy, trying to make sense as to why, in the 21st century, we’re dealing with a worldwide plague. Bill Gates has become a target; the president suggested disinfectant to combat COVID-19; and a video claiming the virus was engineered to drive vaccines has been removed from YouTube and Facebook.
Incidentally, if anyone tries to convince you with the “Plandemic” video, here’s why it’s important to push back and how to do it.
It’s astounding to see the degree to which people will go to contort facts and logical thinking into crazy theories to fit their worldview.
It may be rooted in a lack of understanding of scientific principles. In her book Democracy and Truth, Sophia Rosenfeld finds that conspiracy theories flourish in societies where there's a gap between the governing and the governed classes. When populism takes hold, the public “tend to reject science and its methods as a source of directives.”
Advances in modern science and technology call even more attention to the disparity between experts and non-experts, leading to the doubting of basic truths.
This isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon, though: in 1623, Galileo wrote about the same phenomenon in The Assayer, noting that his observations of the heavenly bodies were based on math:
“…what I had set forth was supported and proved by geometrical demonstrations; and such is the strength of men's passion that they failed to notice how the contradiction of geometry is a bald denial of truth.”
What Galileo battled as he tried to convince people that the Earth revolves around the Sun was powerful emotions and biases that stopped them from seeing the truth. When we let our emotions overpower facts, we miss the opportunity to be enlightened.
When trying to persuade others, this is why it’s so important to focus on emotions, to make them feel a certain way, to create the desire to change. Backed up with facts, it's even more powerful.
This is what the best stories do. They’re vessels for information that create an emotional connection.
Incidentally, I’ve found a helpful site in working through some of these challenges is Your Bias Is. It’s worth a bookmark.
One final anecdote about human nature and how our perceptions can be molded during a pandemic.
Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, set in Milan in 1630, dealt with the reactions to an outbreak of the plague. It's remarkable in how it parallels what we see today:
People became less skeptical as leaders became infected:
“Gradually even the obstinacy with which the populace had denied the existence of a plague abated and disappeared as the disease went on spreading—always by means of contact and association. The disillusionment became more pronounced when the evil, after having been confined for a time to the poorer classes, began to attack persons of greater prominence.”
They chose to ignore the rationale of natural infection, and instead sought other explanations:
“Those who had so long and so doggedly pooh-poohed the idea that disease in embryo lurked nearby and might be transmitted by natural instrumentalities and work havoc, being now unable to dispute the fact of such transmission any longer and unwilling to attribute it to these obvious instrumentalities (which would have been the confession at once of great fallibility and of great blameworthiness), were all the more inclined to discover some other instrumentality at work and to accept the first theory offered.”
Finally settling on conspiracy theories:
“Unfortunately one was furnished ready-made by the commonly received ideas and traditions, then prevalent not only in Italy but throughout Europe, of the arts of black magic and of conspiracies to disseminate plague by means of infectious poisons and sorcery.”
The world is complex. And we have experts who make it their business to try to understand it. We ought to put our trust and faith in them. There's no need to make up stories about things in order to assuage our fears.
The best anecdote to fear is dealing with reality. Stories can come later.
“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” ― Mark Twain, 1894
Timely: Present Tense
“Very well. So the universe is not quite as you thought it was. You'd better rearrange your beliefs, then. Because you certainly can't rearrange the universe.” — Isaac Asimov, 1941
In an effort to stop conspiracy theories and fake news, Twitter is now labeling misinformation about coronavirus. (Vox/Recode)
Facebook has announced a 40-member advisory board that is dedicated to the idea of free expression, bringing a level of independence to Facebook that didn’t previously exist. (The Verge)
General Mills announced a double-digit rise in quarterly income, with more stay-at-home snacking happening. (MarketWatch)
Makes sense, as comfort foods make a comeback. (The New York Times)
Timeless: For the Curious Mind
“Credulity forges more miracles than trickery could invent.” — Joseph Joubert, 1811
The stories we tell ourselves about our food are some tall tales indeed.
“Take a look at the 1928 painting used for early Land O’Lakes boxes. If you think the original butter maiden looks less like a Native American woman than the daughter of a Minnesota dairy farmer playing dress-up, you’d be right: that’s actually what she was.” Land O’Lakes finally changed the iconic image on their butter earlier this year. (The Baffler)
Many foodies and soda lovers swear there’s a discernible difference between Coke made with sugar and Coke made with high-fructose corn syrup—a truer, less “chemical-y” taste; a realer real thing. The story behind Mexican Coke is more complex than you might think. (Smithsonian Magazine)
Did you ever stop to think about how Triscuits got their name? This man did, and he was in for a big surprise. (Delish)
Recommended Listening / Reading
“The desire of knowledge, like the thirst of riches, increases ever with the acquisition of it.” — Laurence Sterne, 1760
🎧 Myths and Legends brings you folklore that has shaped our world. Some are incredibly popular stories you think you know, but with surprising origins. Others are stories that might be new to you, but are definitely worth a listen. These are stories of magic, kings, Vikings, dragons, knights, princesses, and wizards from a time when the world beyond the map was a dangerous, wonderful, and terrifying place.
📘 Bulfinch’s Mythology offers approachable accounts of ancient legends in a compilation of the works of Thomas Bulfinch, banker and Latinist. This volume includes all three of Bulfinch’s original titles: The Age of Fable, The Age of Chivalry, and The Legends of Charlemagne. “Our work is not for the learned, nor for the theologian, nor for the philosopher, but for the reader of English literature...who wishes to comprehend the allusions so frequently made by public speakers, lecturers, essayists, and poets, and those which occur in polite conversation.”
Can you tell someone a story about how you found this newsletter?
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