Illustration for the Russian Fairy Story "Maria Morevna"

Captive to the Bias of an Attractive Narrative

We’ve heard it many times before. Confronted with a daunting medical and scientific challenge, someone comes along to tell us that they can whisk away all that complexity. “I call it a beautiful puzzle,” said one person recently. He was describing how it really won’t be so hard to tame the coronavirus pandemic and get back to business as usual. This is but one example of the hypnotic effect of an attractive narrative. By tapping into strong emotions, it serves to sway and thus bias our thinking about a scientific question.

Seeking Prevention and Treatment for COVID-19

Both hope and fear have a grip on us in the midst of this pandemic. We fear for our livelihoods and for the lives of people whom we love. We hope for a solution – a vaccine or a treatment that will save us from our predicament. And thus we are especially vulnerable to the bias of an attractive narrative.

In an interview with Bob Garfield, organic chemist Derek Lowe explained the trap:

There’s a narrative bias in journalism and indeed I think in the human spirit. We want stories. We want things that have a beginning, a middle, an end, a hero, a villain, a big wrap up where all the loose ends are put together.

The coronavirus doesn’t care. The cells dividing in the dish don’t care. The mice in cages don’t care. The world doesn’t care how great an inspiration this was or how beautifully it all fits together. We’ll look at an explanation that someone has for virus therapy and it just hangs together so beautifully. Honestly, the more beautifully it hangs together, the less likely I think it is to be true. It’s messy. A lot of really compelling storylines are wrong. So I would advise people to get ready for that.

In other words, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Attractive But False Narratives in Obesity

Obesity is a subject that rouses great passion. And thus it makes people ready to buy into false but attractive narratives about it. The list of these is almost endless. Low fat foods were going to solve the problem. Until they didn’t.

Sugar is toxic, said Robert Lustig almost two decades ago. Thus was born an article of faith that stimulates heated debates. So all kinds of sugar detox strategies became ragingly popular. Low-carb and keto diets are fading a bit, but they’re still pretty popular. Taxes on sugary beverages and foods have slavish devotees. Whenever we utter a word suggesting they might not be a panacea, it feels like we’ve insulted the Queen. “This reminds me of similar responses from tobacco companies,” is typical of the blowback we receive.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have an enthralling narrative from Health At Every Size® advocates. They tell us that obesity is “not the health risk it has been reported to be” and diet culture is the real enemy. Losing weight will wreck your metabolism because of weight cycling. Just like any attractive narrative, the HAES® narrative has many pieces that are important and deserve attention. But it also has some presumptions and myths sprinkled in.

The Antidote

The antidote to an intoxicating narrative is objectivity. What do we really know to be true and what is actually just a presumption? But that’s not enough. We must also be curious to fill the gaps in our knowledge – curious enough to test presumptions we hold dear.

Narratives can be powerful. However, they are helpful only if they survive the test of critical thinking.

Click here for more on using narratives in science communication. For perspective on how narrative information can skew medical decisions, click here.

Illustration for the Russian Fairy Story “Maria Morevna,” by Ivan Bilibin / WikiArt

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April 11, 2020

One Response to “Captive to the Bias of an Attractive Narrative”

  1. May 11, 2020 at 4:46 pm, Allen Browne said:

    “Narratives can be powerful. However, they are helpful only if they survive the test of critical thinking.” – Yup!!!