Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Catherine Speaks

Catherine Johnson, who contributes frequently to Roger L. Simon's blog, wrote a post the other day which was so informative I felt it was worth preserving here where I could find it again.

<< Obviously I think about this kind of thing all the time, because I write about the brain.

I found the research Brooks cites fascinating because it confirms research in neuroscience showing that the human brain is built to think in narratives.

The left-brain, which is our conscious brain, creates smooth, coherent narratives out of the myriad facts & sensory data coming at it.

If a fact doesn't fit the narrative, the left-brain re-shapes the fact until it does, or edits it out altogether.

(I don’t think neuroscientific research has spent much time yet focusing on the other option, which is to change the narrative to fit the facts. So this isn’t the whole story, but it’s a big part of it.)

When we complain about the MSM here on Roger's blog, very often what we are complaining about is the “liberal narrative.”

John M had a hilarious post (he may not have thought it was funny!) about how we'd reached the point where we were going to have to find whole football stadiums full of ricin-filled missiles aimed directly at the U.S. for the MSM to believe Saddam had WMD.

He’s right about that, and it’s a classic example of left-brain spin.

According to the liberal narrative, Saddam did not have WMD in the run-up to the war.

Well, obviously a ricin-filled explosive contradicts this narrative.

So what do you do to make it fit?

You put it through the minimizing machine: The shell was old, the amount of ricin was tiny, the people who used it didn't know what was in it, maybe it came from Iran not Iraq, and so on.

You re-shape the fact to fit the narrative.

That is the way the human brain works, and everyone does it.

The left-brain is the b***t artist.

The right-brain, which is not conscious and does not have language (though it’s involved in communication), is the reality principal.

Here is a nice statement of these principles:

the left hemisphere [creates] a coherent, stable narrative or interpretation, sifting through the massive array of detailed inputs, ordering them and folding them into an existing worldview, ignoring anomalies or distorting them to fit. Gazziniga argues for a very similar role for a left hemisphere "interpreter", which tries to make sense of the present in relation to the past of a nervous system, in some cases resolving anomalies by reconstructing the past. In Ramachandran's view, the right hemisphere plays the role of revolutionary, questioning the status quo and drawing attention to anomalies. The right hemisphere keeps the left's story-telling in check.

All this said, Hugh Hewitt’s objections are apropos for the simple reason that the fact that all brains create narratives does not mean that all narratives are equal. Novelists and historians both create narratives, but one is fictional and one is not.

My own sense has been that the conservative narrative on Iraq is both more accurate and more open to revision than the liberal narrative. Of course, that could be my deluded narrative-about-the-narrative (meta-narrative!) but even if it is, it doesn’t change the point. Some narratives fit reality better than others, and a majority of Americans have felt for some time that Republicans are “better on defense.” I have come to agree.

Today the liberal narrative is: Saddam didn’t have WMD, didn’t have a connection to al Qaeda, and was not a threat to the U.S. Period. These propositions are taken as fact.

My own version of the conservative narrative is: Saddam may have had WMD in the run-up to the war, may have been connected to 9/11, was probably involved in the first attack on the WTCs, would have acquired nuclear weapons eventually that would have allowed him to dominate the Middle East and deter us, and was a current and future threat to us, to his neighbors and to Israel.

Every point in my narrative may be wrong, but every point is also provisional.

When it comes to a murky country like Iraq, I’m willing to bet that a provisional narrative is the superior narrative.

Since I write nonfiction, I constantly have to figure out whether what I’m saying actually is nonfiction.

The best rule I’ve come up with is to politely question everything I think I know, as well as everything experts think they know.

A scientist I used to work with told me that when he writes research papers, he doesn’t put a single sentence down on paper without asking himself, “How do I know this?” and “What's my evidence?”

I’ve read only one peer-reviewed article of Paul Wolfowitz’s, but it gave the impression that he was using the same rule. And I became a fan of Rumsfeld’s when he made his “unknown unknowns” observation. That is the sound of a man questioning what he knows.

I would like to see schools teach this particular “meta-cognitive” skill more than they seem to do now.

I would like to see schools teach students not to “question authority” but to “question narrative.”

This way of putting it sounds ludicrously New Agey, but in fact what I’m talking about is teaching students to identify the implicit argument made in any text including their own, and to notice whether that argument has been supported.

I’d like to see students ask themselves, “Does this author know what he thinks he knows?”

And: “Do I know what I think I know?”

That might help.

(Or it might not. This opinion falls into the known-unknown category.) >>

Some time back my former student Steve Smith made the comment that he increasingly saw the world as a set of "narratives" people tell themselves. It seems he was right.


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