OPINION: Narrative and Story

(a rant about truth)


There is reason to suspect that the status-quo-for-as-long-as-it-works worldview is starting not to work. The truer this is, the greater the disservice done by defenders of the status quo, of course.

One measure of when the status quo becomes dysfunctional is when its defenders feel compelled to start being dishonest. Because of the deep coherence of truth, in the modern world science and technique will inevitably begin to reveal the flaws in question. Accordingly the status quo position no longer benefits from the deep coherence of truth, and is forced to retreat to sowing confusion.

Sowing confusion, of course, requires a much less disciplined (and more insolent) sort of intelligence than does battling confusion back. One can appeal to various emotion tugging images and twists of phrase.

The technology of bypassing the frontal processing and appealing directly to the amygdala, the sensations, the mysterious core of our being, of touching the heart, is well advanced. This can be bent to good or ill, and this amazing amplification needs to be considered as we reconsider how to behave in the crowded future. For instance:



We live in two worlds at all time. One world is “the story”; what we actually believe to be happening around us. Cultures are efforts to collaboratively extract a plausible version of “the story”.

Then we have “stories”; these include “true” stories that are not fair representations of “the story”. A “true” story can deliver a false impression.

Viewers of An Inconvenient Truth were left with an impression that that any day a wave would inundate South Florida (“the Big One” writ Eastern), swallowing it into the sea, so that everything from Fort Lauderdale to the keys would never be heard from again except as an oil slick. (Yes, they will indeed be dammed or they will be damned, but it won’t happen overnight.) Every word spoken by Mr Gore in the movie was true, and the response he called for from the public is, most of us would say, not just needed but understated. Still, the impression he left was exaggerated. True statements constructed a false narrative.

Mr. Gore: This brings me to the second canary in the coal mine, Antarctica, the largest mass of ice on the planet by far. A friend of mine said in 1978, “If you see the break up of ice shelves along the Antarctic Peninsula, watch out, because that should be seen as an alarm bell for global warming. If you look at the peninsula up close, every place where you see one of these green blotches is an ice shelf larger than the state of Rhode Island that has broken up in just the last 15 to 20 years. I want to focus on just one of them called Larsen B. I want you to look at these black pools here. It makes it seem almost as if we are looking through the ice to the ocean beneath. But that’s an illusion. This is melting water that forms this pool. If you were flying over it in a helicopter, you’d see it 700 feet tall. They are so majestic, so massive. In the distance are the mountains, and just before the mountains is the shelf of the continent. This is floating ice, and there is land based ice on the down-slope of those mountains. From here to the mountains is about 20 to 25 miles. They thought this would be stable for about a hundred years, even with global warming. The scientists who study these ice shelves were absolutely astonished when they were looking at these images. Starting in January 31, 2002, in a period of 35 days, this ice shelf completely disappeared. They could not figure out how in the world this happened so rapidly. They went back to figure out where they had gone wrong. That’s when they focused on those pools of melting water. Even before they could figure out what had happened there, something else started going wrong. When the floating sea-based ice cracked up, it no longer held back the ice on the land. The land-based ice then started falling into the ocean. It was like letting the cork out of a bottle. There’s a difference between floating ice and land-based ice. It’s like the difference between an ice cube floating in a glass of water, which when it melts doesn’t raise the level of water in the glass, and a cube sitting atop a stack of ice cubes, which melts and flows over the edge. That’s why the citizens of these pacific nations had all had to evacuate to New Zealand.
West Antarctica Land Based Ice

I want to focus on West Antarctica, because it illustrates two factors about land-based ice and sea-based ice. It’s a little of both. It’s propped on tops of islands, but the ocean comes up underneath it. So if the ocean gets warmer, it has an impact on it. If this were to go, sea levels worldwide would go up 20 feet. They’ve measured disturbing changes on the underside of this ice sheet. It’s considered relatively more stable, however, than another big body of ice that is roughly the same size. Greenland
Impact of 20 Foot Rise in Sea Level

In 1992 they measured this amount of melting in Greenland. 10 years later this is what happened. And here is the melting from 2005. Tony Blair’s scientific advisor has said that because of what is happening in Greenland right now, the map of the world will have to be redrawn. If Greenland broke up and melted, or if half of Greenland and half of West Antarctica broke up and melted, this is what would happen to the sea level in Florida. This is what would happen in the San Francisco Bay. A lot of people live in these areas. The Netherlands, the low-countries: absolutely devastating. The area around Beijing is home to tens of millions of people. Even worse, in the area around Shanghai, there are 40 million people. Worse still, Calcutta and, to the East Bangladesh the area covered includes 50 million people. Think of the impact of a couple hundred thousand refugees when they are displaced by an environmental event and then imagine the impact of a hundred million or more. Here is Manhattan. This is the World Trade Center Memorial Site. After the horrible events of 9/11 we said never again. But this is what would happen to Manhattan. They can measure this precisely, just as the scientists could predict precisely how much water would breech the levy in New Orleans. The area where the World Trade Center Memorial is to be located would be under water. Is it possible that we should prepare against other threats besides terrorists? Maybe we should be concerned about other problems as well.

Was the misimpression deliberate? I don’t know. I can imagine that Gore never noticed that the time frame was elided, and that this is the sort of error of judgment that his politically inclined staff might make.

Was it in some way helpful? If so, I would say, the conditions would have to be seen as exceptional for an erroneous impression being propagated to be helpful. While these are strange times and strange debates, I would regretfully say, all things considered, that in my opinion it was not helpful.

Reasoning in this way, using “stories” rather than “the story” is what I call, here “a narrative”. A “narrative” is the implied story as opposed to the explicit one. Choosing true facts and ordering them to yield a certain result is normally considered “a narrative”.


Most of us believe that there is on some sense a “true story”, a set of statements about the world that is useful and that we can approximate with increasing skill. (We would not be interested in science if we did not.) We may then wish for others to know the “true story” as best we understand it. And “the story according to Michael Tobis” is the facts of the matter, as understood by mt, presented as honestly as possible, by mt, to reach a particular audience.


“Narrative” ordinarily refers to any story intended by its teller to be believed by its audience. But for the purposes of this argument, I would like to reserve “narrative” for any story, intended to be believed, which differs substantially from the most honest (comparable in form and duration) account of what the tale-teller believes to be true. If we need an inclusive word, let’s say “history”. A “history” may be either an attempt to “tell the story” or an attempt to “portray a narrative”.



The truth can be bent. “Observational climatologists conspired to hide a decline in temperature measurements.” Er, sort of, but, no, pretty much not. Stretched. “Most evidence points to Saddam Hussein possessing instruments of mass destruction and being willing to use them in a holy war against the west.” Um, “mostly false”. Or Rick Perry speaking matter-of-factly about “Obama’s war on Christianity” which is a brazen lie. Also a stupid one(*) , but that is neither here nor there in the present, er, story.

But the truth can also be abandoned for the freedom of pure fantasy. Nobody, not even a three-year-old, thinks of a Power-Puff Girls episode as “true”. It is just “a story”, with delights and amusements aplenty.

This sort of fantasy bleeds into non-fantasy literature; stories told that MIGHT be true, stories told so as to appear to be true, brief vacations into another person’s life, often and best told with higher artistic purposes than mere diversion. Non-fantasy literature set in a plausible future is a special breed of story which I would call “hard SF” or “speculative fiction”, though a more mellifluous name would be good.

The most extreme example of fiction is fiction written entirely to elucidate a principle. I imagine the reader will have no difficulty coming up with one from their own childhood, whether from a religious source, or Aesop, or indeed many of the innocent sitcoms us boomers can still recall as fresh.

The greatest teachers have used parables through the ages. In this case the entertainment value of the story is secondary, the purpose of the story is to convey understanding about the world, and most of the delight is in the resolution. Which then wraps around to “jokes”, and from there to “leg-pulling” which is an innocent form of lying in service of a joke.

The trickiest category is “historical fiction”. This uses settings and histories of the past interwoven with imagined stories. The intention here can be quite benign or explicitly and viciously revisionist. James Michener wrote plodding middlebrow fiction as an excuse for his endless studies of history and geography. He would tell several stories of a place and its inhabitants spread over centuries, giving a painless history lesson in the process. (***)

All of this tangle of narrative carries varying relationships to truth, to ethics, to emotion, to belief, to volition, to action. It is easy to end up in awful tangles, once you accept the “narrative” narrative, trying to decide what to say when. There are times for eloquence, for poetry, for fantasy, perhaps even for manipulation. But when things get rough, only the truth, which is to say, a consensus to identify and act upon the truth, has the staying power to construct a sensible path.

There are those who fail to understand this. They fail to understand that while things can be more or less true, there is a stance, a relationship to truth that is not on the dial of expedience. That is an attitude which takes honesty and fidelity to the evidence as the highest possible value.  Insetad they are capable of saying things like this:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Paging Canute, Mr. King Canute



These sorts of narrative stand in a whole spectrum of relationships to the truth,  “The story as told by X” does not and cannot.

It comes down to the intention and reliability of the storyteller, and that person’s relationship to truth in relaying the history.

In some contexts, the story may be called “science”. In some cases we engage a group of professionals called “journalists” to identify those  aspects of reality most relevant to the general interest, and in other cases we engage “educators”. In America both groups are extremely constrained at the present time, and for a professional in those disciplines to make a good faith effort toward “the story” as they understand it as opposed to their institutionally constrained narrative is to flirt with severe consequences.

Consequently “the story” is just one among many histories. If the histories available cohere in certain ways, that is a useful guide (see Annan’s climate cluster), a useful approximation of the real world. If however, there is too much noise, the combined result is cacophony. We begin operating in the dark. Some would prefer that. When the status quo becomes rotten, darkness and confusion become the weapon of the status quo.

The business models of extant media are, alas, inherently tied up in the status quo. So they can’t help much.

We need a new consensus. We won’t get that without appeal to the story, the closest approximation to truth we can muster. We won’t get the story without new media. The purpose of the new media cannot be merely to announce a new consensus or promote its leadership. We are beyond that, too wise and too cynical. The purpose of the new media must be to stitch a new consensus together.


The journalistic community on the whole seems to think of the decline of science journalism as a minor consequence of the larger struggles in the industry. But that is a non-reality-based worldview.

A public which has a weak grasp of the genuine physical, chemical and biological constraints of their existence cannot make sensible decisions. Copenhagen and Durban, for some of us, constitute unassailable proof of this. And a journalistic community too focused on symbol to the exclusion of substance (fires and floods are not coveted beats) cannot deliver.

But science journalism cannot be a trivial and peripheral offshoot. This is because science is the process of grappling with the evidence and identifying the truth. The habits of testing ideas and finding them wanting, the experience of the great universal coherence of physics, these are the only hope for the emerging global consensus. We cannot agree perfectly on principles, but we must begin by getting a grip on the facts. Science journalism is key, not just because science is key, but because the habits of mind of science are key, in turn because the coherence of truth is key.

The arts must work in service of science, the emotions in service to the mind, not the other way around. That’s why we have cortices, after all.



  1. Thanks for that excellent essay.

    You ask if the Al Gore sea level story was helpful. For me it was not. At the time I was a lukewarmer, believing in the reality of climate change but not its alarming magnitude. To maintain that perspective you have to believe that the people who raise the alarm are exaggerating or deceptive. Gore provided supporting evidence for that view for me. The evidence to the contrary (that the scientists were not biased toward alarmism) was available at the time but I chose to ignore it. My confirmation bias was so strong that that is the only bit of Gore's Inconvenient Truth that I remember.

    Luckily, I had come to my senses by the time Climate Gate erupted.

  2. Good post, but the concluding remark that mind and emotions are somehow distinct is peculiar.

    I certainly hope you're right that science journalism can actually make a difference, something that I'm doubting these days. I'm afraid it's much more likely that extreme events will make the difference.

  3. (I'll focus more on the US, since I think MT is talking about the situation in US, rather than other countries.)

    It took nothing less than the tragic self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi to wake up the conscience and reason of the Arab world and trigger the Arab Spring. The majority of the US, just like Tunisia pre-revolution, is asleep. And I don't know what it'll take to similarly wake up the conscience and reason of Americans (though I sure hope it doesn't include self-immolation).

    And unfortunately the mainstream media, like the rest of the US population, is also fast asleep. Any gentle attempts to wake them up and alert them to the need for change will only provoke hostility. That's the way the media have always worked, and how dare you uncultured, unsophisticated brutes try to tell us journalists what to do!

    So... well... I don't know. Either the US will wake up in time (and along with it, the conscience and reason of the media), or it won't.

    -- frank

  4. Increasing evidence points to the unreliability of eye witness accounts. Mike Gazzaniga [my TA for Roger Sperry's psychobiology class] points out we have an internal story teller which weaves a coherent account of events from our perceptions.

    So perhaps a distinction between emotions & facts is less easy to maintain than one might first suppose.

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