Thursday, May 09, 2019

Gullibility and Skepticism; Fiction and Non

Americans think it's good to be skeptical. It shows insight, sophistication, wisdom, and superiority.

It's definitely not good or cool to be gullible.

This works out just fine when you get a phone call saying your car's warranty is about to expire, or your bank account needs to be reset.

In other venues, it gets weird. Post a photo or video online of a chipmunk peeking into a security camera and a host of commenters pipe up with skeptical snorts of "Photoshop!" and "obviously fake!" We assume they want to show how astute and discerning they are, but we note that they have time to watch and comment, which tells us a lot about them and a possible lack of sophistication in their lives.

I think: this is not a scam to get your passwords. Just enjoy the video.

It also gets weird when you're writing fiction. You would think that if you're writing non-fiction, then of course you have to stick with the facts. But if you're making up a story you can include whatever you want.

This might work with fantasy, but I'm starting to think that most fiction is more restrictive than non-fiction, not less.

Today we had our bi-weekly fiction group meeting. One contribution included a long-ago character who was given a bizarre treatment for a tropical disease. I won't say more than that because you need to buy the book when it comes out.

The rest of us were quite skeptical of this part of the story. Really?? we said. What about this complication, that result, and this detail over here? 

It turned out that the writer has actual historical documents verifying this event.

Oooo-kaaay, we said. Well then.

Real life provides plenty of stories that are hard to believe but verifiably true. But you couldn't get by with putting them in a work of fiction, I don't think. Such as my friend Donna's unusual handicap:

For my whole life I've had trouble recognizing people, especially people I don't see every week. Watching movies I've never seen before is incredibly frustrating because all the actors look alike. I have never been able to recognize people at graduation -- all those hats, or swimming. A couple years ago I took an online test and discovered I have a condition commonly called "face blindness" where I don't recognize faces -- I compensate by recognizing people by a million other characteristics including hair, voice, etc. Sometimes I resort to recognizing people by what type of shoes they wear (really!). When someone changes my cue (gets a haircut, or whatever) then I'm sunk until someone tells me who the person is. Knowing it's an actual thing doesn't make it easier than it was, but at least now I know what's going on and I can laugh at some of the things that have happened to me, like the time in grad school that I was getting to know two cute guys (one at school, one at church) only to discover, after maybe 6 weeks, that they were the same person! One day the guy from church showed up at school and as we were walking and talking he casually opened the guy from school's locker! That's when I figured it out.

Wouldn't it be fun to put that in a novel? But all those astute readers would say pffft, too implausible!

Last year I flew to Minnesota and took a shuttle to St. Cloud. The driver was a great storyteller and kept us entertained with local lore. I posted one of his stories on Facebook:

"So I got this friend Mike who’s a big blond Norwegian. He was in the military and learned to do welding on these nuclear submarines, and he’s kept up his credentials, so he works for the electric company nine months out of the year and takes three months off so he doesn’t go up to the next tax bracket. That’s when he goes hunting. He’s a big quiet guy, you can’t get six words out of him if you try. 
‘Hey Mike! How you doin?’
[Slow low voice] ‘Fine.’
While he was in the military he married this Korean woman named Chuni, and Chuni’s maybe 5-4 and 120 pounds soaking wet, with rocks in her pockets. And she’s a talker, and she loves to play bingo. She just loves her bingo.
So one time Mike was off hunting for five days and while he was gone Chuni went to St. Cloud and played bingo. She was coming home at maybe 11:00 at night and all of a sudden she hits a deer—an 18-point buck. It was huge. The biggest deer you ever saw. 
She didn’t hit it broadside or it would’ve killed her. The front right of the car hit the neck and broke it. She could still drive the car.
Well Chuni knew Mike carried rope in the trunk so she looked and sure enough, there was 100 feet of rope. So she tied up the deer’s feet and ran the rope up over the car and back under and tied it to a fencepost. Then she pulled forward slow and hauled the deer to the luggage rack. Tied it down and went home.
When she got home she knew a deer needs to be hung up so she strung the rope over the basketball hoop on the garage and tied up the deer under the antlers and backed up until it was hanging there.
[The driver explained it better but I don’t remember just how she did this.]
Then she dragged the picnic table over and laid out all the knives. By this time it was 3 in the morning, so she went to bed.
At 6 in the morning Mike comes home. He’s been out for five days hunting, didn’t get a thing. He pulls in and there’s this enormous deer hanging on the garage.
So Mike told me, 'You know, da h**k with dese expensive huntin’ trips. From now on I’m just sendin’ Chuni to Bingo.'
. . .
The head was too messed up to stuff, but they were able to mount the skull with that big 18-point rack. It’s hanging on their living room wall, and Mike put a plaque underneath that says, 'CHUNI’S DEER.'"

Predictably, two commenters out of fourteen said something like, "This is a made-up story, right?"

My question is: does it matter? And if so, why? I had my own reasons for assuming it was at least mostly true: first, the utter plausibility of the slow-talking Norwegian Minnesotan, and then the Korean wife, which you don't find in a normal Minnesota story. That combination rang true for me, but it was a good story and that's what mattered most.

That's how I want people to react when I tell or write a story.

It's different when it's my brother Fred. When he tells one of his yarns, I listen with sharp skepticism from the first word on, because I got so sick and tired of being all awed and taken in by his amazing stories and then chagrined and humiliated at the punch line, when it was finally obvious that he was working me like a fish on the line the whole time.

The shuttle driver told another story that was just as interesting but actually verifiable online:

"Do you see that sign for Flying Cloud Drive? Do you know what that's named after?
Ok, so the main Twin Cities airport used to be out at Shakopee, and it was called Flying Cloud Airport.
Where the main airport is today was all part of Fort Snelling. In 1946 they kept the cemetery part of Fort Snelling and sold the rest to two guys who wanted to build a racetrack. So they built a replica of the Indy 500--the 2 1/2 mile track, the bleachers, everything. 
Well by about 1956 they had gone bankrupt and the racetrack just sat there.
Now we get snow and ice around here sometimes as you may know, and one time in 1956 there were two commercial airliners coming in to Flying Cloud and it happened to be all socked in with snow. These guys radioed each other and said What do we do? because they were running low on fuel.
One of them said, "I think I saw a long straight stretch on that racetrack."
So they both landed on those long straightaways on that racetrack.
So then someone in the city got the idea to turn that area into the Twin Cities airport. Today we have four runways. Two of them are the remnants of the two long sides of that racetrack.
The first time I told that story, I had a passenger who used to be a stewardess for Northwest Airlines and she said, 'Yep, that's true. I remember when it happened.'"

That would also make for an interesting plot device in a novel, and it would seem totally made-up until you went to Wikipedia and looked it up.

My conclusions: we all pride ourselves on our finely-tuned skepticism, but we probably come to the wrong conclusions quite often about what is true and possible, and what is not.
Also: writing fiction requires an annoying amount of sticking to what the average person considers possible and believable.


  1. 1. I first heard of face blindness by reading the late Oliver Sacks' case studies. Then I discovered that an old friend had it. We met for lunch, and he only knew me because I made full eye contact upon entering the cafe (not a usual thing between strangers here in Minnesota). For more such neurological oddities and plot material, try Sacks' book "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat."
    2. Again, as a Minnesotan: The deer story was totally believable. Almost too much so, it borders on archetype. :) Then again, no one believes the true story of a former co-worker of mine, who was late for his shift because he got his fish house stuck between two trees.

  2. This subject has various nuances...

    One thing that makes me suspicious that the story is not true is if it's an implausible yarn with no names, places, or other specifics to make it possible to verify the details. However, your story about "deer-hunting" wouldn't have passed the test but it was probably true. If you would publish these two stories, you could publish them together, with some background about why you think they're probably true???

    Also, I have noticed that there is often a clue in first-person stories that they are actually fiction, like someone addressing the author by "name" and it's not the same name as the author.

    Some time ago I read a story about 9-11. As I recall it told of the last-minute conversion of an injured person in one of the towers who died shortly after that. That time there were enough details that I checked it for accuracy. Sure enough it was merely an "urban legend" that someone had innocently passed along, thinking it was true. LRM

  3. Truth is often stranger the fiction.Is one of my husband's sayings .

  4. I found this really interesting :-)

    I think it is part of the victim blaming tendency in our culture: people are blamed for being taken in, rather than being blamed for telling lies. As someone with a disability which would fit happily into the book "the man who mistook his wife for a hat", I've suffered a lot from it. The paradoxical thing is that the (many) people who blame me for "pretending" are in that very fact making a demand that I should pretend - because the only way of making my disability fit their unsophisticated ideas of how it should look and work would be to make out that I can't do things I can in fact do.

    Scepticism also tends to be applied in only one direction. I have fun telling people that I'm too sceptical to completely disbelieve in ghosts, though I'm very sceptical about any individual claim of haunting. This is because declaring when you haven't got an explanation that you know for certain what it can or can't be is actually quite a leap of faith, and certainly not one I think can be justified within what is supposed to be a scientific epistemology.

    When one gets into the methodology of the study of history the plausibility stuff gets very interesting, because if someone wrongly says something plausible, people may believe it without checking, whereas something fantastic people might well disbelieve and not write down despite the fact that it is true. I remember one occasion where a friend who was slightly involved in politics had a politician suddenly be randomly and unaccountably rude to him on an encounter in the street. But everyone else I heard discussing it started to try to impose logic on it and started repeating it in connection with his political involvement, which didn't match what I'd heard him say - which was that it had been totally random and not connected with anything he was actually doing politically. Also, in academic scripture study people tend to get quite weird - for example, I've come across people apparently saying that something can't be true because it only appears in one source (e.g. one of the Gospels). Most things that are true never get written down at all! While personally I'm quite happy with the theory of scripture study - I'm not troubled by whether or not Jael or Samuel actually used those words on that occasion (well, the words given pre-translation), or whether this or that is a story told to make a true point rather than being historically true (except for essentials like the Resurrection) - I struggle to make all that much sense of it in practice due to that sort of thing, which is scepticism completely misapplied to the detriment of real knowledge rather than in its service.

    By the way, I'm considering self-publishing. As someone who's partly taken that route might you have any advice as to what to look for or avoid in self-publishing services?