Thursday, February 19, 2015

Stories, Data, and Truth

It was an excellent little article, an exploration of the struggle many Americans have with science.  On the one hand, we say we love it, because science is awesome and nifty and stuff.  On the other, we seem to have trouble processing science as a decision-making framework.

When presented with scientific findings, we are perfectly willing to ignore them, or find reasons to just keep on blundering along.  Science tells us that the universe is 13.9 billion years old, and does so definitively.  But we ignore it.  Science tells us, with charts and graphs and clear deductive reasoning, that homo sapiens sapiens evolved.  But we reject it.  Science coughs and suggests, strongly, that perhaps it might be a mistake to turn our planet into a superheated, carbon-choked Venus.  But we listen to the lies told by the folks who sell us gas instead, because we like our big SUVs.  Science sees us choosing not to vaccinate, and struggles not to punch us in the nose for being such complete morons.

It's a clear dissonance.  The question: why?

Part of it, I think, has to do with the way we human beings understand our world.  We are creatures of story.  Our stories define us, give us a sense of ourselves, and give us a sense of purpose.

And this, as the article describes it, is part of the problem.  For our understanding of what is true, the article laments, we rely on "stories rather than statistics."

We prefer our truths told as tales, not as data points.  So we'll base our decisions on anecdotes, which as we really should know, are not reliable reflections of broader realities.  That story spun out by the mom at your preschool whose sister knew a woman whose kid started showing signs of autism after he got his MMR shots?  That has more value than the reflections of a thousand researchers, God help us.

And that's problematic on a deeper level, not just because anecdotal evidence causes us to make stupid decisions, or to spin out tales that are fundamentally ungrounded in reality.

It is problematic because if we set the storytelling part of our humanity aside, we cease to be human.

None of us understand our lives in terms of statistics and data points.  That is not what gives us our personhood, what establishes who we are.  Narratives create both individual identity and community cohesion.

Deeper still, narrative establishes purpose and moral ground, in a way that science simply cannot.  Storytelling creates meaning, and establishes the valuations that determine how we choose to act on the information we're encountering.  The deepest and most transforming stories don't even need to have actually happened to create moral purpose.  The stories told by my Teacher, or the wisdom fables of Aesop?  They didn't happen, and yet they frame existence in a way that creates identity.

The purpose of science is establishing what is or is not empirically true in our material reality.  That's the point of scientific method.  What it cannot do, and has neither the tools nor the desire to accomplish, is make any meaningful statement about how that information should be used.  Data is simply the ground for gathering more data.  Knowledge serves only knowledge.  And that path, clinically removed from its impact on persons and living systems, is a dangerous one to journey.

So where, in this dialectic tension between these two very different ways of knowing, lies the synthesis?  How do we integrate the data into the tale, and the tale into the data?

It lies, I think, in being willing to listen to the impacts of our stories on reality.  If the purpose of the story we're telling is radical compassion for neighbor and stewardship over creation, the report we'll get back from the data will go one way.  If the purpose of the story we're telling is material power, profit-maximization, or the glazed-eye pursuit of a snarling, fever-dream delusion, the data will report back another way.

Ye shall know them by their fruits, as the Teacher once said, in a pause between stories.