Almost astoundingly recently, human beings didn’t know much of anything about how and why the natural world went on around us.
For millennia, we imagined lightning to be the anger of gods, the weapons of demons – in 1752 Benjamin Franklin proved that lightning was made of electricity (a concept humanity already understood thanks to static and friction). For the first time in a quarter million years of human history, humanity had a natural explanation.
The cultural image of Franklin’s key on a kite belongs to every American school child now. But for tens of thousands of years, human beings had explained lightning to each other. The terrifying cracks in stormy skies were seen as divine retribution in Andean culture and among Bantu tribes, where individual farmers and herders are struck by lightning relatively often. In Russia, people banged on pots and rang church bells to scare away storms.
Unleashed by the Enlightenment, science and reason began to shed light on the dark recesses of the mysterious natural world.
The Newness of Knowing
The germ theory of disease – the idea that people get sick because of bacteria or viruses that multiply in our bodies – has only been with humanity a bit longer than the fax machine and the submarine.
Louis Pasteur revealed germ theory to the world not by thoroughly educating people about the tiny bugs infecting their food, but by freeing people from them. His process of Pasteurization (heating to kill off microorganisms, then sealing airtight) kept food and wine from spoiling, and kept people from getting sick. He developed the first vaccines for livestock. Pasteur’s version of how the world works, even if the average person never fully understands it, rises above storytelling and superstition. It is testable, and its results can be implemented reliably. After millennia of guessing, Pasteur’s explanation was proven right because it worked: it led to antibiotics, antiseptics, sterile operations, water purification, and thousands more tangible improvements.
Franklin didn’t just identify lightning strikes, he invented the lightning rod to protect buildings by routing the charge into the ground. The real import of scientific discoveries is that testable claims give humanity new powers. When you finally correctly identify the cause of something humanity is facing, you finally have a chance to propose solutions that might actually work.
But humanity has wondered and hungered for explanations a lot longer than we’ve had scientific means to test what caused lightning and the plague. And before scientific explanations were available…we simply made them up.
Our brains have hardwired themselves to be hungry for explanation, and meaning, as a survival instinct. To provide such explanations, storytellers emerge in any cultural group to make sense of the chaotic world, and put together the pieces that seem to fit.
The storyteller’s plausible explanations and entertainment value to the tribe usually earned him a share of the hunt or harvest. Together we collaborate, make meaning, select the symbols and signs we use to tell each other stories about why things happen.
In the absence of a true scientific method, we are prey to whatever storyteller can lie most seductively. Your crops died because your neighbor’s wife had given you the evil eye. One man fell ill because he was sinful, or worthy of punishment, or being tested, or because of that tribe over there. We developed stories of gods and spirits whose heartbreak made the seasons change, and original sin to explain hardships, and vengeful spirits who brought storms or jealous gods who led invading armies. Storytellers taught us how to react to things.
We had only fallacious authority to rely on, and when the explanations were malleable, they routinely bent to better suit the storyteller’s own interests. As the storytellers evolved and civilizations accrued enough resources to employ more full-time storytellers, those tales became institutions. Ignorance is governed easily by fear. Fear of hell, fear of excommunication, fear of exile. Among other kinds of primates, social banishment can mean literal death. We have taught ourselves not only to fear certain things in our environment, but to fear each other’s scorn if we fail to measure up to some ideal of social conduct. A young orangutan who crosses the dominant male of his tribe has no hope of finding either mating partners or the safety of the group. If questioning someone else’s explanation might make us literally unsafe through social exile, we will accept inferior and inadequate explanations and tamp down the questions in ourselves. We are content to live in ignorance, in the security of a group, rather than in isolation – some may say individuality – with integrity and the fearless pursuit of knowledge.
Our drive to survive through social conformity – to belong, even if we are wrong – can be a powerful enemy in the pursuit of genuine truth. Our communities raise us with a series of stories, symbols, schemas for understanding the world, and thought-terminating cliches for the sake of blunting our innate hunger for explanation. “He works in mysterious ways,” and “It’s always been that way,” and “Everything happens for a reason” do offer a pale comfort, much in the way whiskey will calm the pangs of grief or rejection. As explanations, they’re just good enough to take the edge off the need to know. The catchiest sedatives will be remembered and repeated.
Fortunately, some minds persist in asking “why” anyway. Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin and thousands of other thinkers refused to accept thought terminating cliches and supernatural stories. Testable knowledge works whether you believe it or not, and we get antibiotics and generators.
Superstitious and supernatural explanations, because they do not correctly identify causes, invite us to ‘solutions’ which don’t address the problem at all. Humans have discovered and replicated true things by non-scientific methods. Ritual hand-washing before meals made you less likely to die, whether your culture understood germ theory or not. People used salt and spices to keep food from spoiling without knowing why it worked (spices are antimicrobial, and in the absence of refrigeration, the spicier you can eat your meat the less likely it will kill you, which is why we see spicy cuisines concentrated near the equator).
If your community is facing drought, storytellers invoke special rituals or prayers for rain, choreograph rain dances, place pollen in the hair of the dead before burial, even sacrifice children on an altar, in hopes that storm clouds can be coaxed to gather. None of these practices actually bring more moisture into the air, however. The story is wrong, so the solutions are wrong.
“In dark ages people are best guided by religion,” wrote German philosopher Heinrich Heine, “As in a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide; he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see. When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind old men as guides.”
When we have better paths to evidence and knowledge, relying on storytellers leads us astray.
Times of Trouble
In times of trouble, people are often led by fear, and fear makes them clamorous for strong leaders and simple stories. The priest and the politician arrive to offer explanations, and usually very shortly after, to sell absolution at a price.
In 2020, with news reports promising a massive pandemic which would kill millions, we felt fear, and we demanded simple explanations. The vagaries of computer modeling and epidemiology (themselves stories with a mixture of truth and fictional elements) were too complicated. Opportunistic storytellers gave us aphorisms and thought-terminating cliches to soothe our worries with: “Two weeks to flatten the curve,” and “We’re all in this together,” and “If it saves just one life.” A set of strict rituals was recommended to fight the fearful specter from the story. Closing our schools and businesses, disinfecting our groceries, wearing cloth masks, spending unprecedented trillions of dollars in business bailouts and ‘stimulus’ spending. The effectiveness of such methods in actually preventing infections, or improving outcomes, was almost beyond mention. The storytellers assured us that the rain dance steps went just like so, and any deviation from the ritual would result in calamity. Every cruelty and consequence was justified, to ensure the ritual would succeed. Those who questioned the simplified story were shunned.
The great promise of such overreach by storytellers and ritual builders is that some people will see through the stories they are being sold. When the dances and sacrifices are finished, and the rain does not come, we may at last have reason to question our own credulity. Storytellers, busybodies, and petty dictators gave themselves the starring role of the story, positioned to rescue humanity from a novel menace, and utterly failed to do so.
Unfortunately, human progress isn’t linear. Faced with the failure of one narrative, or the hypocrisy of one storyteller, we may quickly hurry into the arms of another, which offers no more truth.
What is most difficult, and most critical at such times is to question the validity of self-serving storytellers themselves, and go in search of more objective ways of understanding the realities around us. Strangely, in an era of exhortation to “trust the science,” science’s central premise seems to have been lost. The scientific method encourages questioning of every explanation, including its own, in search of an objective truth. But human beings developed this explicit method because it is very much not how our minds usually work. We are born the prey of storytellers. We must grow up, choosing to reject simple stories, and to think and reason for ourselves.
A New Enlightenment
Reasoning, and intellectual development of the self, offer the only path of escape from the human livestock farm. Mesmerized by stories, we are corralled and milked for our taxes and tithes, failing even to notice as the gate is shut behind us. To break the prisoners out of complacency, we must first show them their slavery: we must make the shackled look at their wrists, and help the yoked regain feeling in their necks.
It is essential, so it cannot be impossible.
Of course, no expense will be spared by the powerful to prevent such an awakening, constituting as it does a mass intellectual jailbreak from the shackles of authoritarian thinking. They will call us heretics and witches, rebels and traitors, dissident and dangerous. They will smear those who might lead a popular awakening, or worse, as seen in the case of Fred Hampton, who genuinely presented such an alternative narrative to communities of color, or Edward Snowden, who peeled back the mask of power ever so briefly. Every outrage and atrocity will be excused for those who question power too eloquently, as a warning to all whose voices may threaten to stir the herds from their prescribed pastures.
Even in an age abundant with information, many people continue to rely on simplified stories. Opportunistic vultures are drawn to the carrion of credulity, vulnerable to charletons and con-men who say they can explain it to us. Cowed by their confident assertions, we consign ourselves to the ritual roles assigned to us, regardless of whether enacting them seems to make any improvement in our material lives.
We are a species primed for the shackles of superstition, and our complacency presents a grand opportunity to the unscrupulous speculators and storytellers who hold us back from real knowledge. If we agree to live in ignorance we are condemned to be led by those who can manipulate our fear to their own enrichment.
If we take responsibility for our own pursuit of truth, we have the capacity to liberate ourselves from the lightning demons and the rain-summoning rituals. Not every truth can be seen with the microscope or telescope, but the tools of discovery actually come later. Intellectual development begins when we look past the manipulative storyteller, and set our eyes on the search.
This article, Superstitious Storytellers, was originally published by the American Institute for Economic Research and appears here with permission. Please support their efforts.