We're a little crazy, about science!

Day 263: The Reliable Narrator Fallacy

tell tale heart

True! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

In a story such as the tell-tale heart we give the narrator our trust because we have no other account. Meanwhile, our nameless narrator tries desperately to convince us that he is sane, “Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing.” Because he, and he alone, is telling us his anecdote we have no one to corroborate. Furthermore, because we have only his version, we are left to wonder if maybe… just maybe, it was true. This is a work of fiction after all, so why would we limit ourselves into thinking that the truth lies solely in what we consider to be reality? “If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body.”

Yet, we live in the unprecedented time of the misinformation age. We are forced to discern what is truth and what is not. Often, due to the nature of our being, we are left trusting the narrator. “My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears…” More to the point, we trust the narrator because it is what we want to believe. “I found that the noise was not within my ears.” When we are thrown into tumultuous expanse that is life by the mere virtue of birth, it is natural to find comfort in the simple explanations.

Science has progressed at an astounding pace and yet, basic education has stagnated. The average person is left with few explanations for things like how vaccines work or where COVID-19 came from that make sense to them. Thus, people turn to narrators who are explaining the material in an easy to absorb fashion. It’s no surprise then, that we are left with a subset of people who would rather trust a narrator that is telling them a story, factual or not, they can grasp.

“It grew louder –louder –louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled.” A hidden truth can make a person feel special, like they alone hold a secret key to the universe that they were perceptive enough to find. It is unfortunate that we as scientists are not taught how to narrate to this group. To show them that while the secrets of the universe are complex, anyone can understand the broad strokes. Like a person who has no artistic skill can still admire the work or skill and talent of a painter.

It’s difficult to change the mind of someone who is unwilling to hear you. “They heard! –they suspected! –they knew! –they were making a mockery of my horror!-this I thought, and this I think.” However, by making your work more accessible to the people outside of your chosen specialty you are giving them a chance to see that the truth doesn’t need to be simple for it to be understood. They too can partake in the secrets of the universe without needing to fully and completely understand the details.

When we strive to be more accommodating for the people around us, everyone can be free to enjoy the science we work so hard to understand and secrets we unravel along the way. “Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! –tear up the planks! here, here! –It is the beating of his hideous heart!” Of course, I’m just the narrator for this tale, so why should you trust me? I’m quite mad you know. Oh, you can’t help that. We’re all mad here…

cheshire cat

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