We Have A Storytelling Problem

Or so Malcolm Gladwell asserts in an overall very average book, Blink, containing this little gem: we tell ourselves lies. He explains that we are too quick to come up with explanations for things we have no explanation for. He then discusses several examples. Both examples that stuck with me came from a sports researcher. The researcher filmed and broke down the body movements of athletes digitally. From his many studies he discovered two facts that contradicted two well known popular explanations for famous sports stars’ success. In one, he discovered that Andre Agassi does not roll his wrist when he hits a forehand. Agassi, in fact, only rolls his wrist after the ball has been hit. Yet if you ask Agassi why his forehand is successful, he confidently explains that it is because he rolls his wrist over the ball when he strikes it.

The second example is that of Ted Williams, who explained that he looked the baseball onto the bat. He meant that he tracked the ball with his eyes until the moment he made contact and he asserted that was what made him such a prolific hitter. However, this sports researcher proved that was impossible. The ball is too close and too fast in the last five feet before it hits the bat for our eyes to track it.

Thus, Gladwell asserts, we are confident in explaining things in the wrong way when we find no sensible explanation. He of course continues to explain why this is. I however, want to discuss how this happens in religion and Mormonism specifically. Steve has recently written an interesting post asking why bad things happen to good people. Of course, this is a question that has resonated, at least, through modern society. And often there simply is no answer. However, that doesn’t keep us from positing very intricate and oft times convincing reasons. Sometimes we do have the explanation. More often, however, I think we are simply fulfilling our very human need to explain, to tell the story, to make sense of the events in our lives, even when we don’t really have the answer–or worse there is no answer.

The desire to answer why and to invent the answer is not unique to Mormons, religionists, or the laity. Science often posits explanations that turn out, in the long run, to be quite fanciful and dead wrong. We are driven for answers, for explanations.

My preferred method to find out as many answers as possible and to avoid the imaginary answer is to adhere to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to turn to science for questions the Gospel does not attempt to answer (is light a wave or a particle, what happens at the speed of light, can you pinpoint the location and velocity of a particle, etc.). This approach has it drawbacks. But I think it avoids some pitfalls of inventing false answers.

However, I realize I still have a lot of explanations for events, explanations that are unsupported and probably wrong. And then there are the events I simply cannot or do not explain. Why did my little nephew die last year? I don’t know. Some have asserted that he was called on a mission, called back home. I personally find that answer very problematic for many reasons. In the end, we simply don’t know. And perhaps that is even more unsettling than a lie.


  1. a random John says:

    Actually I don’t doubt that Ted Williams was able to track a ball better than most. I any case, if Ted’s mental model of how he hits give good results, then perhaps it is a case of milk before meat. His idea of what was happening was just “milk” and it worked for him.

    On the topic of hitting, I saw a recent program on the US women’s softball team in which they practiced watching the ball by firing tennis balls at them. The tennis balls had numbers on them and the goal was to be able to hit the ball and call out the number. The idea being that you watched the ball more closely if you were trying to discern a number. Their research show that this led to improved hitting. Now the idea that they are watching the ball better is probably a simplification of some sort, but a usefull one all the same.

  2. I too am troubled by the tendency to explain each and every unexplainable experience with some supposed awnser. I do admit at times I quietly find reasons for things happening or not happening in my life. A hard week I experienced recently led me to a greater appreciation of having those around me who care, and the organization of the RS. While I can not assert that my struggles occured strictly for this lesson to be learned, the quiet realization of what I do have entered my mind.

    This may be a poor example, but I find a difference between searching and assigning purpose to each and every event in life (ie: the overwhelming concensus that the older of my two cousins killed by a drunk driver had to go and take care of his little brother as he did in this life), and the quiet personal inspiration or revelation of purpose in ones life.

  3. HL, you’re just trying to skew poll results! Nice post.

    Of course, skeptics say that all religion is a lie we tell ourselves when we can’t handle the ugly ‘truth’ of reality. Thus the importance of distinguishing between concepts received through the Spirit of God and notions that just make us feel better. Not an easy distinction, but an essential one if we’re to choose.

  4. “My preferred method to find out as many answers as possible and to avoid the imaginary answer is to adhere to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to turn to science for questions the Gospel does not attempt to answer”

    I like this approach as well, but sometimes the Gospel (and science) can be so darn vague. There is a lot of wiggle room to interpret events, even when you are humbly and faithfully following Christ’s example (or quantum theory). I get a bit lost figuring it all out without my imagination.

  5. HL Rogers says:

    Steve, the old religion as crutch scenario I think is an important one. I agree that it highlights the point that we need to be able to discern between explanations or concepts from the Spirit of God and prophets from “notions that make us feel better.” In fact, I would posit that this is one way the restoration sets us apart from other religions and that if (better really to say “when”) we mix concepts from true sources with explanations that merely fill the void we have diluted Mormonism, diluted the truth, and we have lost a little something.

    Of course, the devil is always in the details and as Tess points out the restored gospel can be vague, or perhaps is often vague on purpose. I think a good barometer is how do we deal with the vague points. One helpful tool, for me, is to dismiss the explanation that seems the best or that gives me the answer I most want and see what I am left with. Of course, if we have a lot of self-control we simply look at a lot of events and respond: there is no explanation.

  6. Steve Evans says:

    Well, as we saw in my wallowing thread on punishment, we are very prone to say that there simply is no explanation for events. Perhaps overly so — early church leaders rarely equivocated on why bad things happened to good people. Look at the sermons of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young et al: when the saints suffered, it was often a chastisement/punishment. I can’t think of a time where an early church leader would say “we don’t know why this happened.”

    Nowadays, the opposite seems to be the case: I can’t think of an instant where a modern (20th C) church leader has indicated a purpose behind a negative (or positive event). Can you?

  7. a random John says:


    Your comment brings something to mind. I am sticking with the “milk before meat” idea here, and I wonder if that is the situation again. There are two ways of explaining bad things:

    1 – It is punishment for a specific offense. That way we can correct the offensive aspect of our lives.


    2 – Life is like that. Bad things happen even if we are good, and life is structured that way to mold us.

    Now which is milk and which is meat? I’m not sure. I know which is easier for me to understand, which really isn’t indicative of anything. Both are probably only approximations of what is really happening.

  8. HL Rogers says:

    I cannot think of a one and am reminded of Elder Ballard in Our Search for Happiness where he says some tragedies just happen.

    But my response to the Kirkegaard question of would you kill someone if God told you to? Only if I’m a prophet. You let that ideal slip and the next thing you know you’re slipping drano into the girl next door’s wheaties and have started your own fundamentalist splinter group. By which I mean, I think explanations often hinge upon authority. This does not explain why Brigham Young always had explanations and Pres. Hinckely does not give any. But it seems to get at why prophets in the scriptures often have explanations for events that others do not. Though I still think there are a lot of events in mortality for which there is no explanation. I wonder if that conception is a 20th century taint–sort of a choas theory or modern meterology or a quantum physics permeating my religion… I don’t know.

  9. Interesting though to see that phenomenon. I wonder if I am reading that into church history, and really church leaders were less confident about theodicy and bad things happening than I think.

    Good to hear that you are considering murdering children, HL.

    I wonder if we decline to attribute certain events to divine origins out of an effort to preserve our own image of God, rather than reality.

  10. cosmic turtle says:

    “My preferred method to find out as many answers as possible and to avoid the imaginary answer is to adhere to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to turn to science for questions the Gospel does not attempt to answer.”

    Wait until everyone, or maybe everyone’s children’s children, realize that science is cutting-edge mythology.

  11. “Thus, Gladwell asserts, we are confident in explaining things in the wrong way when we find no sensible explanation.”

    I would have to say Gladwell does not offer a “sensible explanation” here. In fact, from the two examples given, it is not that these sports techniques are incapable of a sensible explanation, it is simply that the perception by the athletes of what the technique is, differs from what technology shows the technique to be. It is not that they “find no sensible explanation” for the technique but rather their explanation, i.e., their perception, is somewhat incorrect.

  12. Zerin, the problem is actually that what appears to be a sensible explanation amounts, in the end, to little more than a superstition. Thus, his point isn’t to sensibly explain things. His point is that much of what passes for epistemologically adequate explanations are just superstition. He’s undoubtedly correct, and this is why science is very hard and religion is very easy.

    Good post, HL.


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