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Story and Evidence, a Response

A certain English Atheist named Dave, having found out about my collection of short stories through the venerable PZ Myers (a huge fan of mine, by the way), has written a response to something I was quoted as saying.  Before I respond to his response, I would like to thank him for giving me the courtesy of a heads up, alerting me to his post.  Also, it was a breath of fresh air to see something thoughtfully done- with just a couple of slams out of dozens of decent remarks.  🙂  I will attempt to return the favor in this response.

Right out of the gate, we have our first hint of the problem.  Dave writes, citing Myers quoting me,

PZ’s finished his review of Horvath’s Christian fanwank, and ended with this quote from him:

“Let’s face it,” Horvath says, “People are moved as much by Story as they are by Evidence. And we’ve got the best Story in town.”

By appearances, it would seem that the entirety of the Dave’s perceptions of my comment, my perspectives, and my stories, are derived from the telling of PZ Myers.  Did he check out the context in which I was originally writing?  Did he note, for example, that PZ Myers got even this wrong, supposing that I was referring to my stories?  Myer’s statement literally just before this was, “Here’s what Horvath says about his stories.”  Truly, I never considered the possibility that someone might stumble over the word “we’ve”, as Myers clearly has.  No study guide can help smooth over that kind of sloppy reading!  But what did Dave come away thinking?  Did he wonder to himself why ‘Story’ was capitalized and ponder what I was referring to as the ‘best Story’? 

It is difficult to say.  He jumps off this opening quote into some interesting discussions conceding my point that in fact stories can be moving and motivating.  Some good stuff in there.  However, he seems to have drawn the conclusion that I am putting Story in opposition to Evidence.  His concluding paragraph reads:

Being moved by stories is great, but not being more moved by evidence shows a lack of imagination in my opinion. As for Hovarth [sic], it appears that he would rather teach you nothing by separating stories from evidence, which makes me wonder if any of his stories would help you learn anything new at all, apart from his narrow world view.

Now, the thing that struck me the most about this conclusion is just how far from the evidence this assessment strays.

Is it too much to ask to have the allegedly evidence driven skeptical community actually keep themselves within the bounds of the available evidence?

Does my quoted text say that we are not moved by evidence?  No.  Does it say that we are more moved by Story than evidence?  No.  The word ‘more’ is not even present.  Based on what, exactly, does he base his feeling that I wish to separate stories from evidence?  A snippet extracted from a longer text by someone overwhelmingly hostile to Christianity?  Yea, no bias there…

Isn’t there something in skepticism about taking into account bias when evaluating testimony and submitted evidence?

Or does this turn out to be a case where if a Christian says it, doubt it, but if a skeptic says it, believe it, as he is utterly immune to bias and therefore can be trusted in his all his characterizations?  (ha!) Dave then proceeds to wonder if there is anything new to learn at all in my stories (apart from the narrow world view!) begging the obvious question… did he actually read them for himself?  If Mr. Myers flubbed something as simple as the word ‘we’ve’, believing I was speaking of my own stories when the very quote he cites clearing indicates that I have more than myself in mind, might we wonder if he got anything else wrong?  Or even everything else?

Ascertaining who the “we’ve” refers to probably would be somewhat helpful in properly interpreting the purpose and target audience of the stories, and PZ Myers, though linking to the source text, doesn’t actually explain the nature of the text.  Mr. Myers seems to think that the atheist community was the target of the source text and the stories themselves.  In fact, the source text was a press release delivered to a specifically Christian audience.   This text clearly indicates that the stories are geared to Christians as much as anyone else:  “even Christians will discover that there were points we misunderstood or were mistaken about. What will our response be?”

It may very well be that Dave did go to the source and also that he himself read the stories themselves.  Still, I think that if he had, his entry would have been much different.  I can’t get over the fact that I was slapped with the label of having a ‘narrow world view’ yet the only evidence provided in the article comes from an astoundingly hostile ‘critic’ who, as I’ve shown, botched the only piece of ‘evidence’ Dave actually provided that could justify this characterization!

How can this be?

I think it goes to my larger point.  Story moves.  Yes, Story can move more than evidence.  And yet even if that is the case, nowhere do I suggest that I think that is good!    Indeed, this whole event illustrates just how unfortunate it can be when evidence is divorced from Story.  Oh yes, there is a Story here.  There is a Narrative.  This Narrative is one that Myers and his many fans are drenched in, so much so none of them actually need evidence to know that me and my stories are [fill in your favorite pejoratives here].  The Narrative fills in the gap.  It is the skeptical storyline:  Christians, dumb.  Christians, blind faith.  Skeptics, geniuses.  Skeptics, reason and evidence.  Nothing more needs to be said because everyone is already agreed on how the story ends, anyway.  The ‘evidence’ ends up being just a ‘literary’ flourish that adds little to the accepted Narrative.

This Narrative appears to be driving Dave’s response, though to his credit, he is exceptionally mild and measured compared to many of the other responses I observed.

I dwell on all of this because of Dave’s statement:  “[It] makes me wonder if any of his stories would help you learn anything new at all…”

Well, the simple lesson of all the stories is embodied in the paragraph of the press release about how we react to being refuted and shown to be completely wrong or misguided.  We humans have a habit of justifying ourselves to the bloody end.  This may be our undoing.  That was the one of the things I wanted to explore in my stories.  Whether it is new to you or not, I don’t know, but it was a theme that permeated all three stories.

But in a surprising twist, it seems as though my stories can help people learn something new- and this, without reading them at all!  And that is this:  drawing conclusions without checking the facts for yourself and trusting the portrayal of a hostile presenter is not only unwise and bad form, it is completely at odds with a perspective that supposedly embodies checking facts and testing testimony!

You see, even the staunchest adherents to reason and evidence can be caught up in a narrative that causes them to form conclusions that are not supported by the available evidence.  This is a lesson I did not expect my stories to teach at all, I confess!  This purpose for them never crossed my mind.   Of course, just because a lesson is offered, doesn’t mean that anyone learns from it…

Yes, my friends, let us all be skeptical.  And let us recognize the human capacity to be carried along by Story and put our blind faith in people, whether they be professors, parents, churchmen, politicians, scientists, whatever.  Even if they do not mean to deceive, we can still be burned.  Don’t we know that?  Perhaps we do, but sometimes a little reminder can’t hurt.

As it happens, I do believe that Christians have the best Story in town, but it is precisely because I believe that it is true and that the evidence supports it.  Story and Evidence need not be incompatible.  Indeed, the best stories are the true ones.  Yet let us not forget that evidence does not speak for itself.  It requires a human mind to perceive it, weigh it, and contextualize it.  And humans are fallible, stubborn, and easily led to believe the things that they want to believe and fiercely antagonistic to things they don’t.  This is instinct.  Part of our nature.

And depending on which Story turns out to actually be true may be our undoing.

Isn’t anyone interested in which Story I’m referring to?

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2 Responses to Story and Evidence, a Response

  1. Thanks for the reply – I’ll respond properly in due course, but will take the time to read the stories. I’ll also need to clarify what my post was, as Anthony’s interpretation is not what I was trying to say, mea culpa, will (hopefully) explain my thoughts better.

  2. Look forward to it, EA, but no rush. I know we’ve all got lots on our plate. Peace.

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