7/9/09

We Like Stories

Earlier this week, a dear friend forwarded me a picture with a caption that many of you have probably seen. It shows Michelle Obama serving meals at a soup kitchen, mugging for the camera as a man takes her picture with a camera phone. The Headline over the picture says something like "Michelle Obama Serves Meals at a Federally-Funded Soup Kitchen." Underneath is that ubiquitous paraphrasing of that credit card commercial:

A bowl of soup - $0.00

Having Michelle Obama serve your lunch - $0.00

Taking a picture of a homeless man getting a free meal at a federally-funded soup kitchen taking Michelle Obama's picture with a $500 Blackberry - Priceless!

I have paraphrased the text, but this is the gist of the message. The message of this short, quite effective little picture & text is quite clear and needs no explanation from me.

This little gem of propaganda led to an interesting exchange between my friend, who endorses the message, and myself. I want to say at the outset that my friend is one of the most compassionate people I know. She has worked in social services all of her life and is devoted to improving the lives of the disadvantaged.

When she sent the original email, her only comment was "Doesn't this just piss you off?"

My response was short - "No, why should it?"

Her terse response was - "Yeah, I guess it is OK for this guy to eat on my hard earned tax money."

Our back and forth after this involved some discussion of social issues which are not germane to the point I want to make here. The point I want to make here is how easy we are to manipulate.

I wrote her back saying my initial response to the picture/text was to look for some attribution to connect to the photo. I could find none. No attribution of the photo appeared in the post. You don't know who took the picture. I could find no story about the event in any media. The only articles I found were responses to the picture/text itself. I could find no information on who the 'homeless' man was, if indeed he was homeless, no information on whether he was actually there to get a free meal, whether the Blackberry was his or not, nothing on this man's situation.

I was also bothered by the stress on this being a "federally-funded" soup kitchen. I know something about federal food distribution and nutrition programs, and I am pretty sure that the federal government does not fund soup kitchens or food banks. These are routinely all privately funded. We haven't funded soup kitchens with federal money since the Great Depression. I may be wrong about this. I could find no evidence of such funding on a web search, so I researched the particular soup kitchen where this incident took place. I found out it is Miriam's Kitchen, it is in the basement of a Presbyterian church in northern Virginia, and it has run for a couple of decades on private donations.

I made these points to my friend in my next e-mail. She conceded my points, but made some points of her own. One of them was "How do I know the man was NOT as presented in the picture/text?" Her other point was that even if this particular story was not true, it does nothing to alter the basic truth of the message it makes. She goes on to draw on her experience in social work to say that she has known hundreds of people who are living on government hand outs and we should be working to empower them instead of giving them things.

It is here that I saw the parallels between her arguments and those of so many of the theists I have engaged in conversations about god(s)/goddess(es), faith and religion over the years.

I responded that I don't know if the guy was what the pic/text said he was. I had done my research, found one glaring deception which really destroys the whole point it attempts to make, and nothing about the man himself. Based on the one big deception, I have good reason to doubt that the man is what the pic/text says he is, but I can't say for sure because I could find no reliable information on him. No information, in fact, except what the pic/text provides. Sound familiar? I went on to note that the burden of proof is not on me, I am not making any definitive claim about the man's existence. I can't prove a negative. The burden of proof is on those who are making a positive claim as to the man's situation, not on me.

Also familiar from my encounters with theists was her defense of the main point of the pic/text even if it was a fiction. There is something about a story that resonates with our pre-existing ideas of how the world works, even if the story has no basis in real events. We like stories more than we like statistics, evidence, and reason. Her claim about all the people she has worked with who were jacking the system at her (and their) expense is no doubt true. I have worked with the same type of people for a long time. I asked her if she had any hard stats on how many people jack the system as compared to the ones that are truly disadvantaged and legitimately need help. This is a hard area to get hard stats on. I suspect that it is a continuum that would be hard to set definite borders around. This does not change the fact that her view is based on personal, anecdotal evidence, and I can make counter arguments based on a different perspective on the situation.

The main idea I was trying to make is that she likes the story's message, even if it is fiction, because it fits with her experience and world view, and I don't like the story because it is evidently false and is an attempt to manipulate opinion. It is not that I don't like stories, too, but I try to base my world view on fact, evidence, and reason. I don't know how successful I am at this, but I try. It is hard, because we all like stories more than statistics. We evolved that way. We all like stories that confirm our world view more than we like evidence that contradicts it.
Recent neurological experiments back up this claim.

As Stephen Jay Gould and others have noted, it is not religion itself which is our enemy, it is irrationality.

Mims