The mind is an amazing thing. It loves a story, and will see one even if none exists. I’m enjoying Stranger Things 3, having watched the first four episodes… At one stage, in a clever little nod to realistic skepticism, Hopper tells Joyce she is experiencing apophenia, when she sees magnets falling off her fridge both at home and at work. Of course it is all part of something bigger, and with a formula that works as it has for the two previous seasons, by episode four all of the familiar and new characters’ plots have begun to converge, more reminiscent of a Dean Koontz novel than one by Stephen King. It’s the perfect example of how we think the world should work, and that’s probably one of the reasons the show is so good. (Apart from the excellent writing.)
But the real world doesn’t work like that. Our lives are not part of some greater plot, and life is meaningless until we create meaning for ourselves. There’s no shady government organization behind everything, no god or devil pulling our strings, and signs of climate change really are signs of climate change exactly as scientists have told us, rather than signs of “end times” as some people would like to believe. We also see agency where none exists. For example, many people ascribe their children’s autism, diagnosed around the same time as their childhood vaccinations, with the vaccinations themselves. Of course this is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. It makes as much sense as blaming the diagnosis on the sun rising that morning. But believing it involves a convenient narrative, with an antagonist covering up the truth, and heroes, brave people fighting the system.
It’s probably easier to believe in fiction rather than truth. Maybe that’s why people believe in conspiracy theories? As I found a couple of months ago, people would rather believe that evidence of climate change is evidence that Satan/god is punishing us, or that a rogue planet is approaching Earth and being somehow covered up by NASA. It’s easier to believe that someone, anyone is in control, rather than face reality. Truth is not stranger than fiction; maybe it’s scarier. But that’s only because there is no narrative, no plot, no point, no one watching over us and no one responsible for our mistakes other than ourselves.
In reality, unlike fiction, even our behaviour is not according to some plan. Maybe that’s why employers latch on to pseudo-scientific personality profiles, keen to believe that employees’ behaviours are all part of some kind of scripted personality. But that’s not how the world works. People in real life don’t always act consistently. Smart people can give you terrible advice. People constantly act “out of character” because character is dynamic and changes over one’s lifetime and is not some prescripted, predefined construct. Also, people often say pointless and completely inappropriate things, things so far removed from anything at all that such statements would never be found in fiction.
I like to tell people about the time I was mugged in my early twenties. I worked late one night, and walked home through a subway under a railway station… In the subway, I was trapped by four young men, two in front of me and two behind me. When I realized what was happening, I spun around as they grabbed me, leaving my jacket in their hands, and it slipped to the floor as I slipped away. But once out, I turned foolishly to pin one of them against the wall and began punching him, only to be gripped by the other three from behind and dragged back into the subway. Once there, I still told them I would take the money out of my wallet and give it to them rather than let them take my wallet, because I didn’t want to get a new ID, bank cards and so on. Having done that, I turned to go. Then to my surprise, the main mugger, the one I had pinned to the wall, got my attention. “Wait!” I turned. “Don’t forget your jacket”, he called out. “Thanks,” I responded as I retrieved it and left. Muggers in fiction don’t do that. But reality is not like fiction.
In fiction, we always know who the bullies are. In real life, bullies and other abusers, people with narcissistic or borderline personality disorder, are brilliant at playing victims. They don’t just exploit and abuse others, but also gaslight them. That’s just on a personal level. More broadly, how many people believe in “white genocide” and “false rape accusations”? How many believe that feminists are the “real” bad guys? In real life, the bad guys almost always win; they almost always convince most people that those who stand up to them are the real oppressors. Right now I’m on a 30 day Facebook ban for being “racist” towards white people.