by Flemming Funch, 12 Jan 1995.

Sometimes it doesn't matter if a story is "true" or not. Or, rather, the purpose of a good myth or a good metaphor goes way beyond the mere recounting of clinical facts.

Some people who are scientifically trained might take offense to stories that are not historically correct, or that don't correspond to physically verifiable facts, or that don't correspond to the authoritative version of how things are. The rationale that goes with that might be that our picture of reality is best constructed out of a precise and objective examination of what went on in the past. That has value, of course, but we might just as well look at it the other way around.

Our collective reality is to a considerable degree shaped by our myths and dreams.

That is easiest to see in regards to the future. If enough people believe that something can be done and that it is desirable and that the resources are there to do it, and they enthusiastically go about creating it, then they have a high probability of succeeding. A much higher probability of succeeding than a group of people who didn't believe it was possible or didn't care.

It is not just a matter of whether they did the "correct" analysis of the past to arrive at the proper thing to do. The future is not created by the past.

Most great inventors, explorers or paradigm shifters didn't care about conventional wisdom. They didn't necessarily agree with the "facts". They had a dream and they set about materializing their dream in reality. Or, another way of saying it, they saw something that nobody else could see, and they persisted until others could see it too.

Likewise, myth and belief has a big place in shaping the world we live in. Myths might limit our perception of the world, or they might enable us to see things we wouldn't otherwise see.

Much of our officially taught history is probably greatly misleading or wrong. But as myth it still shapes what people believe about the world.

Most people don't know that at the end of WWII the offer of unconditional surrender from Japan was repeatedly rejected until such time when the atom bomb had been finished so that the whole world could be shown its power in action. But the official story says that the bomb was the last resort, reluctantly used to persuade the ferocious enemy to surrender. Well, either story could be a myth, I don't know, I wasn't there. But they have drastically different effects on the mass beliefs about how the world works.

I am mostly interested in the holistic effect of stories, in how they affect people and actions and results.

There is more to stories than just countable historical facts. There is an emotional content to anything that happens and any story that is told. There are principles at work and principles being described.

Sometimes a "fake" story will better capture the sentiments or the inner mechanics of an event.

In 1851 Chief Seattle was forced to sell the land of his ancestors by Puget Sound. I wasn't there, so I don't know if he gave a speech. If he didn't, he should have. Maybe he did give a moving speech and nobody was there to record it. At any rate, the speech that was accredited to him is very moving and is about the most compelling argument for environmental consciousness I've heard. As such, it is true, even if it were actually written by a dynamite screenwriter.

Another story that I find compelling and useful is that of the "Hundredth Monkey". Occasionally when I post it, somebody will post a laconic message claiming that it is "wrong", meaning, I suppose, that it is fancifully exaggerated compared with the actual scientific study. Maybe it is, but that is not the point at all. Well, I would prefer that it is correct on all accounts. However, the main point is that it illustrates a principle in the universe. The principle doesn't get voided because some detail of the story is related wrong. The principle doesn't get voided even if the story were totally made up. I can see the principle working around me, I don't need an authority to tell me that it is so. I do prefer if there are studies backing it up, though, but their absence do not change the mechanics of the world.

We are often so pre-occupied with "facts" or "potential facts" that it might spoil our view of the whole picture. It doesn't take more than a vague suggestion that "Michael Jackson is a child molester" and somebody's career and fortune takes a drastic turn.

What I advocate is to always aim for the whole picture, which includes not only scientific facts, but also what people believe and feel and dream.

- Flemming