Why I Ran Out Butt-Naked Into The Street On Tuesday Night

Morgan Freeman: The Quintessential Narrator

If you saw me sprint out of my house smartly dressed in my birthday suit, wouldn’t you want to know why? I suspect that not only would you be curious, but you would also have a “hunch” or a theory.

Within seconds a crowd would gather and start sharing hypotheses. At some point, one of the theories (the most exciting one)would gain a significant number of followers and transform into a known fact.

If I later came back home and found the crowd still animatedly discussing the event, nothing I told them would change their opinion on why I ran out butt-naked into the street. Why? Because their story would be better and more interesting. The truth almost always loses to an intriguing lie.

The Sweet Art of Predicting Donald Trump

Before the primaries in the American election of 2016, journalists and pundits predicted Trump would not get the GOP nomination. He did — they gave reasons why.

Before the elections, journalists and pundits predicted he would lose. He didn’t — they gave reasons why.

Every step of the way they have been wrong, and every time they have been wrong they have known exactly why. It is as if the less they know about the future, the more confidence they have in their predictions. And the more their predictions are disproved, the more insight they seem to gain into why their theories were so off-base.

This is a perfect illustration of narrative fallacy — a storytelling habit we find ourselves unable to drop when confronted with situations where we either know nothing or have incomplete knowledge.

Narrative fallacy has been defined as “our need to fit a story or pattern to a series of connected or disconnected facts” (Nassim Taleb). I do it all the time — it’s a disease that sorely affects know-it-alls.

People Don’t Run Out Butt-Naked for No Good Reason

Our brains are wired to narrate. For every effect we conjure a myriad of possible causes, and effortlessly. In fact, it takes more willpower NOT to narrate.

If I run out into the street bare-assed, no one knows why I am doing it but they will all have stories to tell. That I am cuckoo. That I have always had a few screws loose. Someone will note that I was dumped by my girlfriend or that my cat committed suicide last night … Narrative fallacy.

Of Prejudice, Charlatans, and Suckers

Narrative fallacy explains the indestructibility of prejudice: racism, classism, tribalism … Kenyan illustration: if a Kalenjin is involved in a scandal, someone will find a way to narrate Ruto into the story. Global illustration: the comment section of any article about Donald Trump. If you are prejudiced, anything done by the person you hate/disdain will be coloured by your prejudice, and you will effortlessly fit their actions into a narrative that confirms your opinion of them.

If we all minded narrative fallacy, there would be less fake news. Motivational books would be more trustworthy. We would not be easily suckered by advertising. We would write less but write the truth, or the best version of the truth available to us at the moment.

Socrates’s Fortune Cookie

Socrates was declared the wisest man alive by the oracle of Delphi. When Socrates did his investigations, he discovered that he was not the most creative man in Athens, he was not the most skillful in a craft, and not even the most knowledgeable. But when he talked to the poets, the artisans, the merchants, and the politicians, he discovered that they all believed that they knew a lot. They had answers to everything. Their undeniable knowledge and skill in their respective crafts deceived them, and they believed they knew many things as well as they knew their professions.

So Socrates concluded that if he was the wisest man, it was only because he was aware that he knew nothing. This used to confound me. Now I know that Socrates was a man mindful of narrative fallacy! He didn’t make up theories about what he didn’t know (and if he did, I bet he had the humility to keep in mind that they were only theories and not proven facts).

Progress as the Fruit of Truth

When humanity began to be mindful of narrative fallacy, we invented the scientific method. Previously we explained all the mysteries of nature through religion, mysticism, and myths. The scientific method pays no heed to storytelling, only to what can be proved. I wish newspaper editors were as judicious in demanding that their reporters check their narrative fallacies as they are in instructing them to check their sources — the news would be much more reliable.

Being aware of narrative fallacy brings us closer to the truth and away from self deception. Let’s be more mindful of the narratives we form, the stories we tell. Narrativizing is an unconscious habit, but I assure you, it’s dangerous.

Aside: Why is Morgan Freeman the featured image of this essay? What does Morgan Freeman have to do with any of this? Nothing, but did you know that Morgan Freeman is the first image that pops up when you google “narrator”? Besides, if Morgan Freeman was the internal voice that narrated this essay about narrative fallacy in your head as you read it, that’s just a bonus.