I have been thinking about the roles stories play in our lives.  By story, I mean an account of past events or the evolution of something.  Of course, a story can also be an entertaining account of imaginary or real people and events.  Many stories provide a combination of explanation and entertainment.

Stories usually have a time frame.  Stories about the past are called history.  Stories about the present are termed news.  Stories about the future may be forecasts or science fiction.  Sources of historical stories may have to be trusted to be believed, as one can seldom “know” they are true.

The types of stories include personal, family and professional.  Stories can address events in neighborhoods, towns, cities, states, and countries.  Religion is laced with stories, as are sports.  Religious services and sporting events tend to be stories in themselves.

Stories serve a variety of purposes.  They can explain what happened, provide guidance on what you should do, and possibly provide predictions of what will happen. Stories can educate in terms of what you need to know and entertain, providing enjoyment.

Stories providing guidance might be rule-based, e.g., the Golden Rule.  Guidance might be expressed as step-by-step procedures, i.e., do A, then B, then C.  Methodologies are less prescriptive, i.e., consider X, then Y, then Z.  Often the guidance is implicit and must be inferred.  Religious leaders and sports coaches may help with this.

Are stories useful?  Stories are a primary way of communicating social and cultural norms.  People understand and remember stories much better than abstract principles.  Family stories can enable people to know the events and connections that knit the family together.  Stories can be quite entertaining, jokes being an exemplar.

How can one know if stories are “true”?  This is tricky.  Did the Holocaust happen?  Did the Apollo astronauts really land on the moon?  Did 911 happen?  There are people who believe that these three things did not happen, or were just staged.  I believed they happened, but have no empirically-based knowledge.  I just believed what I was told.

One might argue that things experienced with your own eyes are real.  However, everything I “know” about these three things is due to television or published materials, not first-hand experiences.  Not much of what any individual knows is based on first-hand experiences.

I had just finished reading a chapter of a children’s history book to one of my young children.  I said to her or him, “That wasn’t just a story.  It really happened.”  They responded immediately, “How do you know that?”  I said that I did not really know, but believed it was true because I trusted the source of the information.

“How do you know who can be trusted?”  They are leaders or teachers who would not mislead us.  “Well, how do they know what happened many years before they were born?”  They trusted somebody else.  I realized their observations were correct.  I believed someone who believed someone else, who believed someone else, etc.

We cannot really “know” the truth of all the stories we have come to believe.  Most of the confluence of stories that influence our lives are, in effect, taken on faith.  However, what if we move beyond assessing whether all stories are true to simply determining which stories are false.  We can refute stories that available data contradict.

This approach is premised on people paying attention to and understanding available data.  Unfortunately, the motivation, knowledge, and skills to do this are far from pervasive in our society.  One third of Americans lack numeracy skills to make calculations with whole numbers and percentages, estimate numbers or quantity, and interpret simple statistics in text or tables.

Beyond these skill deficiencies, there are the psychological biases and heuristics identified by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and other researchers.  For example, people ignore base rates, e.g., the probability of being struck by lightning.  They base probability estimates on their abilities to imagine outcomes happening.  They pay too much attention to statistical noise.  They seek information that confirms preconceptions.

Social media has greatly exacerbated these limitations.  Hordes of self-proclaimed pundits broadcast every story imaginable, targeting those who ardently believe their versions of reality.  In this way, erroneous beliefs are repeatedly reaffirmed.  Marketing research and political polls assess these beliefs and target products and services accordingly – and target political appeals as well, seeking money and votes.

We could ignore this misinformation, chalking it up to first amendment rights.  However, when these story tellers undermine public health and wellness, you have to pause and reflect on the state of affairs.  Are there any limits on freedom of speech and the consequences of what people say and advocate, as well as how they behave?

Do the unvaccinated have the right to cause the increasing deaths of children?  Do politicians have the right to ban protective measures?  People in “stand your ground” states have the right to shoot people they perceive to be threatening.  Might this type of thinking evolve to the point that drivers have the right to kill pedestrians that they perceive to be threatening?  Clearly, social values and norms should limit such behaviors and need to be revisited.  However, consensus in this arena is rapidly diminishing.

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