This morning I was reading the blog of Paul Krugman, one of the few economists that I read as much as I can (which, alas, is not as much as I should). In the article, titled “No Bain, No Gain,” Krugman offers a response to those who say Barack Obama should focus on criticizing Mitt Romney’s current policy proposals rather than focusing so much attention on his time at Bain Capital. According to Krugman, Obama’s attack is right on target because the two issues are linked, i.e. Romney’s history at Bain provides a genetic link to his current proposals. In addition, and perhaps of even more importance, is the fact that policy discussions simply don’t resonate with the public. The focus on Bain creates a story which holds real promise to take root in the soil of the public mind. This is how Krugman puts it:
“running on the real policy issues by itself isn’t going to work. By all means, run on the real issues — but do so by creating a narrative, a pattern that registers with the public.”
This is a great piece of advice, and not just for political campaigns. Indeed, naturalists have long sought to create precisely that, a narrative, a pattern that registers with the public. The narrative goes roughly like this:
Benighted peoples of the past lived in a world of twilight in which every strange shape and unexplained movement was attributed to a strange, spiritual agency. And the way to flourish in this twilight world, so these benighted peoples believed, was to placate the spiritual agencies behind the strange shapes and unexplained movements. So they developed elaborate rituals and beliefs as guides for relating to the shadow spiritual world around them.
Then the light of dawn broke over the landscape and science began to illumine the landscape. The people rubbed their eyes and squinted in the morning light. And as their eyes adjusted they began to see that the strange shapes were in fact mere jumbles of rock, the unexplained movements mere shifting of branches.
One group, let’s call them the Brights, made the obvious conclusion: “Oh those strange shapes and unexplained movements were really just rocks and branches. Let’s follow the light as it continues to spread across the twilight. No doubt all the other unexplained shapes and movements will also turn out to be perfectly ordinary after the light illumines them.”
But others were not so sure. Let’s call them the Darks. “True, those are rocks and branches,” the Darks admitted. “But what lies behind the rocks and branches? What gives the rocks their shape and the branches their movement? The spiritual agencies are still there.”
As for the frontiers of the morning light the Darks said: “Don’t be so sure the light will illumine everything. Part of the landscape will always remain in twilight.”
As the Brights listened to the tortured rationalizations of the Darks they realized that, ironically enough, the Darks could be right. Part of the landscape could remain in perennial twilight. And that part would be the Darks themselves, and that by their own choice.
With that the Brights shook their heads sadly, and then turned to follow the spreading light of dawn.
This tale is told in various forms. It is found in Antony Flew’s “Invisible Gardener” and Daniel Dennett’s “Cargo Cults” and Bobby Henderson’s “Flying Spaghetti Monster” and Carl Sagan’s “Demon-haunted world.” Each reinforces the other by creating a loose architectonic narrative, a pattern that registers with the public. Most of them have enough truth to root their plausiblity in reality. And together they create a plausibility structure that makes militant reductionism and lopsided skepticism, arbitrary humanism and unquestioning scientism, seem as obvious as saying that the sky is blue.