As learning professionals, we’re always looking for ways to create engaging materials for our learners. We often do this with stories, which can be powerful memory aids. It’s also imperative that our materials are precise and up to date. Since we are models of integrity and accuracy, we need to spot falsehoods before they make it into our materials. One way of spotting pseudoscience and falsehoods is by assessing if they're "story-shaped."
Stories surround us. We see them in the books we read and the shows and movies we watch, but we also see them in games, commercials, and even in how we interact. We're so tuned into stories that we'll root for an actor who's been out of the limelight for thirty years to win the Oscar because we love a good comeback story. We'll see someone being reckless and proud and say to ourselves, "That person is headed for a fall," because we've seen that story play out before. We’re familiar with TV shows where someone is hit by a bus while whistling on their way to work, and we worry the same may happen to us. These are what authors like Kurt Vonnegut and Neil Gaiman call "story shapes." They're when events follow the familiar rise-and-fall pattern of a good story.
We're so good at recognizing patterns in stories that it's common for us to project a story shape onto something that doesn’t exactly take the form. For every arrogant person who gets put in their place, many do not. Most of us make it to work just fine each day, whistling or not. The brain loves stories, so we're constantly on the watch for them. Thus, sometimes we spot something that our brain WANTS to follow a certain story shape, but doesn’t actually do so.
One way to detect pseudoscience or outright falsehood is to analyze the underlying story that we’re trying to align with an anecdote. What story is it trying to tell? How well does it fit the story shape? And does it tell that story a little too perfectly? If so, we should look at it with a touch of skepticism and do further research to ensure it's true.
Here are some examples:
- Einstein was bad at math. This anecdote, first published in Ripley's Believe It or Not in the 1930s, is a great story about triumph and overcoming odds. It’s a great story, but Einstein was a prodigy at math, even as a child. (Source: history.com/news/9-things-you-may-not-know-about-albert-einstein)
- We only use 10 percent of our brains. We use this factoid talking about untapped potential—about how we could be capable of so much if only we got out of our way! In truth, depending on the task, we use different parts of our entire brain throughout our day-to-day lives. (Source: psychologicalscience.org/uncategorized/myth-we-only-use-10-of-our-brains.html)
- Technology is changing our brains. Many people ardently wish this to be true because it confirms a story they want to tell themselves. Our brains are in decline, and we should put screens aside before it's too late. While technology may actually be strengthening certain pathways in our brains, no permanent change is occurring. (Source: scientificamerican.com/article/are-digital-devices-altering-our-brains)
When we want a story to be true, we'll find evidence that helps prove it's true. So when you find yourself in front of an anecdote telling a great story and want to include it in your learning materials, ask yourself: What story am I trying to tell with this? And does it fit that story TOO perfectly? Not every anecdote that tells a good story is false, but if it fits in a nice and neat story, it's worth researching to ensure it's true.
If you'd like to learn more, check out my session Friendly Skepticism: Protect Your Learners From Pseudoscience (Without Losing Friends) at the ATD 2023 International Conference & EXPO May 21–24 at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, California.