We are a storytelling people. It only takes a look at modern society to see the truth of it. Our advertisements, our movies, our books, our games…we love them and are persuaded by them not because they tell us facts or make promises. We are persuaded and enchanted when they tell us a story we can believe in.
I love this about humanity. I love that story often matters more than a mere recitation of fact. That is, after all, what I make my living on–telling YOU stories that will show a bit of God’s truth through my fictional words. I love it because I recognize how powerful such things are in my own life, my own heart. A history book that just presents a list of facts? Forget about it. But one that tells me about the lives–the stories–of the people who lived…those stay with me. They teach me. They help me to understand situations and cultures and people unlike me. It’s why I began Seeing the Story, it’s why I’m a novelist.
But there’s another side to being a storytelling people too–there’s a dangerous side. Have you ever paused to think about that?
The term today is “anecdotal evidence,” which probably makes most scientist cringe, LOL. But it’s something we put a LOT of stock in. Because they’re stories. Stories about people we know, or who are known by people we know, or on down the line. Anecdotal evidence comes in compelling packages and can never be disproven, because it exists only in the realm of story, really. Track down the actual person, and you may find facts quite different from the anecdote you heard (we all know that “telephone” game, right?)
I came across this years ago when I was doing research for The Reluctant Duchess. I needed a character to think she had miscarried a child. She fell a few days before. Could this cause a miscarriage? When I looked it up, I was shocked to see that doctors say, “No. Highly unlikely.” At least for the kind of fall I was talking about. But that’s not what I’d heard over the years. How could that be? Well, because there are anecdotes of women falling and then miscarrying. Surely it was linked! But was it? The sad truth is that a certain percentage of pregnancies end in miscarriage. And it’s also true that a certain percentage of people trip and fall every day. There’s going to be overlap there, but that doesn’t necessitate cause.
But a hurting heart doesn’t care about statistics. A hurting heart wants a reason. And so we seek them. We latch hold of whatever makes most sense to us. And we tout it as truth.
This can be so dangerous though. This can lead so quickly to “Mary and I got in an argument, and she scowled at my garden, and the next day it withered! She’s a witch!”
We may shake our head at witch trials in the literal sense today, but there’s a reason they’re part of our history–it’s because they’re so indicative of our natures. We tell ourselves stories…and we believe them. We act on them. We teach them as truth. And if scientific evidence ever dares to disagree, which do we believe?
The one with the most compelling story.
Now, I’m a storyteller–I am not a scientist. So my natural inclination is always to go with the stories. But I’ve had to teach myself over the years to check that impulse when it comes to certain things. Health, medicine, technology, just to name a few. Because though I can tell a great story about how all the computers in the house rebelled at the same time and come up with a really great conspiracy theory as to why…let’s be realistic. It’s just a coincidence. Me telling stories about how software corporations are out to get me is not helpful, LOL.
Which then makes me ask the same about other stories I tell, other stories I hear. Are they true…or just compelling? Do they have actual fact behind them? Do they agree with documented studies, if it’s a field that has such things? If not, then I need to favor fact above anecdote.
Because trust me, I know the power of words, of story. And that’s why I know how important it is to use them wisely.
Have you ever been convinced by a story just because it’s compelling, only later to learn it’s totally untrue? Are there any cases of anecdotal evidence floating around your world today that you need to investigate more closely? I hope we can remind each other to do that. Because loving stories is one thing–but we need to be careful we’re loving the right ones. The ones that speak of Truth.