Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Story is King

Reading Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories, which I heartily recommend. He's writing about how the orthodoxy that dietary fat is the main evil of the American diet established itself, despite the lack of compelling evidence for it. He goes through the various studies meticulously. Over and over someone will set out to demonstrate that dietary fat causes human heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or obesity: the data will fail to support the hypothesis -- and the researcher will conclude that it must be true anyway. And the press reports another study that implicates dietary fat in chronic disease. As the examples accumulate it becomes a little surreal feeling.

What impresses me most is how persuasive familiar narratives are, how they override both evidence and common sense. One familiar narrative was the tobacco one -- courageous scientists bucking the big money and insisting that smoking caused lung cancer, while lickspittle lackeys of Big Tobacco published studies saying it didn't, or that at least it wasn't so bad, or argued that the evidence was ambiguous. That was a true story. When the familiar characters appeared, regarding dietary fat -- powerful financial interests arguing something wasn't harmful, and goverment-sponsored scientists saying it was -- the power of the narrative was overwhelming. Facts just don't matter, at that point. The story must be served.

Again, the story of original sin, always so powerful in America. Primitive people used to eat grains and vegetables, ran the story. Then we were corrupted and became greedy and cruel and began eating vast quantities of animal fat, and God struck us down with all kinds of diseases. The facts all disappeared from under that story -- it turns out hunter-gatherers probably ate more animal fat than we do, and of course they didn't eat grains at all. But again, facts can't stand against story. The story wins, every time.

I make a grim little game, every time a new war comes around, of trying to spot the bogus atrocity stories. They always show up. I correctly identified one early on in the first Gulf war. The Iraqis, so went the story, deliberately switched off the power in a Kuwaiti hospital wing in which premature babies were on life support. In some of the stories they actually went through and deliberately killed the babies. It was widely reported in the press. The fact that it was false was reported, too -- eventually. In tiny "corrections" buried in the back pages. I had no facts at the time, of course: I just recognized that the story was too good. It fit too well. It was too much what people wanted to hear. I've suspected others, but that was one I was sure of from the start, and pegged at the time.

This is one reason why I don't watch television. It consists almost entirely of familiar narratives, played over and over, incessantly. In the most popular one, something evil comes along and hopes to prey on something innocent, and heroes violently destroy it, in the nick of time. Over and over and over. American kids watch tens of thousands of these narratives. And you wonder that, confronted with a threatened innocent, they look around for a weapon and an evil predator to kill? And that they're in a terrible hurry to do it? The story is irresistable. They actually think -- or rather feel -- this is how the world works, that this is a reasonable response to evil. The fact that they've never seen it happen in real life matters not a whit. The story is king.

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