Early last week I read Brian Dunning’s Conspiracies Declassified: The Skeptoid Guide to the Truth Behind the Theories. I used to listen to Skeptoid over a decade ago, enjoying Dunning’s research into the facts behind popular theories and unsolved mysteries. I was left disappointed by Dunning’s attempt to distill that research into book form, though, because Conspiracies Declassified consists of straightforward debunking, with a concluding section on conspiracies which turned out to be true. Most of the subjects will be familiar to ordinary reader, as they include the likes of the Roswell incident, Area 51, Flat Earthism, vaccine denial, 9/11 truthers, and so on. There are also more esoteric theories included, like a reddit claim that Finland doesn’t exist. Dunning’s takedown of these topics is pointed to the point of dismissiveness, and it has the sense of preaching to the choir even moreso than the awkward and redundantly-titled 50 Popular Beliefs People Believe are True. It doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the Skeptoid podcast over the years, but the book is too brusque and void of footnotes to sway those who might be on the fence about its topics.
More interesting by far was Johnathan Gottschall‘s The Storytelling Animal. Gottschall has the fascinating specialization of ‘literature and evolution’, and I stumbled on his book on sale when Suspicious Minds prompted me to wonder if there was a book written on humanity’s obsession with story. There was and I could have it for $1.99. It was fate, obviously. In The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall argues that humanity is to Story as fish are to water: it’s not only in our nature to constantly tell stories, we are formed by stories. A compelling narrative doesn’t just grip our mind in the figurative sense: the same areas lighting up in our brains if we were to experience the events in novels light up as we read them. This mirror-neuron effect not only allows us to sympathize with people socially as we relate different experiences, but allows the brain to ‘practice’ feelings. ‘Practice’ is also one strong contender for why we have dreams: dreams about threats, fears, and dangers and the challenge to overcome them predominate in observed species. Although we rarely remember the overt happenings in dreams, it is believed that the rehearsals of doom allow our brain to prepare itself for things that might happen, so we are not completely unhinged by the unexpected. Moving beyond neurology, story is central to religious and political order. On its subject alone, this book had the potential to be one of my favorite books of the year, but Gottschall only offers readers a taste of his other academic work: it’s as though we were treated to a bite of a prize dish and then had it taken away. Presumably this is because it’s written to a lay audience, but there are also some more substantive issues, like an internal contradiction: after dismissing claims throughout the years that fiction can be corrosive, Gottschall in a later chapter touts fiction’s ability to alter culture by habituating the reading mind to other norms. If culture can be altered, it can be altered for good or ill — and though we have improved in craft in recent years, our stories have definitely become far more putrid, saturated with graphic violence and often bordering on the pornographic. Although this book was disappointing given its potential, the premise is so broadly appealing I still say it’s very much worth reading.