Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Kangaroos are dangerous animals.  You can, however, avoid danger if you know  the signs. Joe Nichter, a frequent traveller, writes about discovering this in a trip to Australia:


While I was there, the local aborigines taught me a lot about the magic of the Kangaroo, and most importantly, how to tell when they’re going to attack you. Surprisingly enough they are actually VERY dangerous, but fortunately for us they go through a checklist before they attack.

The first thing they do is smile. Well no, not really but that’s what it looks like. Actually they’re baring their teeth just like a dog, but because of their facial structure it appears as though they’re smiling.

The second thing they do is double-check their pouch for baby Joey’s. As it turns out they’re very responsible parents whether they have children or not, they check anyways. There’s something to be said about that.

And third, they look over both shoulders, checking behind them as they lay their very large tail down on the ground. It acts as a “kick stand” (which I believe is where the term came from) as they lean back and lay into you with a battery of high speed Kangaroo Karate kicks.

They average about five to seven solid kicks before you’re knocked out of range. I spoke to a local man who holds the distance record: an adult Kangaroo kicked him fourteen feet. He’s a bit of a celebrity who’s very popular with the ladies. He has a shirt and everything.

None of this is true. Our critical thinking faculties are often disarmed by good stories. In fact, they only really come into effect when we’re suspicious of something or when it disagrees with our world view. The danger is when we ‘want to believe.’

Narratives are far more important to humans than facts. We are a consciousness inhabiting a body from moment to moment and what makes us seem like a unified self, unlike a series of Doctor Who-esque reincarnations over time, is the narratives we tell ourselves. We hold our ‘selves’ together with stories. The unreliability of our memories is well documented, and we generally edit  narratives to make them fit better with our beliefs about what should have happened, not what did happen.  

When I find myself watching shows like the X factor (usually if I visit my parents) I’m always amazed by the way personal history is edited to fit the present. Contestants say things like ‘I’ve been singing since I was little’, as if this was in someway unusual among children. But this temptation to repurpose our histories to make a better narrative about our lives, one in which everything we’ve done has lead to this unique moment, is powerful. How many people have you met who have ‘ended up’ as EFL teachers (like myself) but who then mine their history for moments which make their present situation seem somehow predestined. For example, the creator of Genki English, Richard Graham tells us: 

I first started teaching when I was 16. I was the first student in the UK to take the Advanced Level examination (the exams English students take at 18) in Music with my instrument as being [sic] the synthesiser…Anyway I had to teach myself how to play and being an enterprising 16 year old I figured that loads of kids were wanting to play synths instead of the “boring” (ok, it depends on your point of view!) piano. So if there were no other teachers out there then why not start teaching it myself!

always wonder what this story would look like had the 1980s never finished and Graham had made it as a star synth keyboard player instead being an EFL teacher. I imagine the ‘synth’ part would be turned up high and the teaching part turned way down low.

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This overly long preamble brings me to today’s topic. Did you know how many common English phrases have sinister histories?

Did you know, for example that the nursery rhyme ‘Ring of roses/ a pocket full of posies/ Atishoo Atishoo/ we all fall down’ was created during the plague of London? The roses relate to the red ring of infectious sores which signalled the beginning of the infection. The posies were, at the time, considered a treatment. The sneezing indicated a worsening of the symptoms and I don’t need to explain the falling down.
And how about that “rule of thumb” actually refers to an old English law which permitted a man to beat his wife with a stick ‘no thicker than his thumb’.
Did you also know that ‘one for the road’ has a similar macabre history? Condemned prisoners would be taken through the streets of London to be hanged. The prisoners ‘on the wagon’ would not be allowed to drink but occasionally guards, feeling pity, would let the men stop at a pub, for a final drink (one for the road) before their execution.
When you came into the house you would notice most times that the floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, that’s where the saying “dirt poor” came from. The wealthy would have slate floors. That was fine but in the winter they would get slippery when they got wet. So they started to spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on they would just keep adding it and adding it until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. So they put a piece of wood at the entry way, a “thresh hold”.

Read more at http://www.snopes.com/language/phrases/1500.asp#BObWjPQO399ZZ30C.99

When you came into the house you would notice most times that the floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, that’s where the saying “dirt poor” came from. The wealthy would have slate floors. That was fine but in the winter they would get slippery when they got wet. So they started to spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on they would just keep adding it and adding it until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. So they put a piece of wood at the entry way, a “thresh hold”.

Read more at http://www.snopes.com/language/phrases/1500.asp#BObWjPQO399ZZ30C.99

When you came into the house you would notice most times that the floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, that’s where the saying “dirt poor” came from. The wealthy would have slate floors. That was fine but in the winter they would get slippery when they got wet. So they started to spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on they would just keep adding it and adding it until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. So they put a piece of wood at the entry way, a “thresh hold”.

Read more at http://www.snopes.com/language/phrases/1500.asp#BObWjPQO399ZZ30C.99

All of these are great stories and yet none of them are true. They are false etymologies but they survive because they are really good stories (more here) and good stories are always more interesting than boring old facts. If you’re not convinced ask yourself why politicians always back up numbers with tales of ‘a family man from Kansas told me…’ and so on. Our brains react to stories not abstract numbers, which is why the anecdote “it worked for me” is so powerful.

Our narrative drive is so strong that we ignore statistical likelihoods in favour of anecdotes. Many people are more scared of shark bites than Louis Suarez bites though the latter is more statistically probable. (This example isn’t, in retrospect, a very good one. See comments section for a discussion of this point). 

So ‘debunkers’ beware, recent research shows that not only are people unlikely to be swayed be facts, the ‘backfire effect‘ often means a person’s views will be reinforced by a evidence which contradicts their personal narrative. 

The sceptics job is a thankless one. as Dave Wilton writes in ‘Word myths’:

Anyone who has any experience debunking legends or pseudoscience knows that the task is often an unappreciated one. People do not like to have their beliefs questioned or to have good stories spoiled.