Blog and opinion
5 March 2019 • Dave van Ginhoven
Suspension of this Belief
My wife and I recently decided to catch up on some movies. The Oscars had come and gone and we’d only seen one of the nominated films (#wakandaforever), so we were worried we’d fallen out of touch. Once we got started trying to watch some more respectable cinema than our usual superhero sagas, I found something else to worry about.
It started with Bohemian Rhapsody. It was fun and introduced my kids to some great music, but I found it unsettling because of the way the film completely restructured the facts and events of Freddie Mercury’s already interesting life, just to make the film’s climax more dramatic. It bothered me even more to find out that it wasn’t the only Oscar film under fire for alleged inaccuracies. Of the 5 Best Picture nominees that were based on true stories, all 5 have been accused of changing those stories to some extent, and it got me thinking.
This is nothing new and I’m not naïve enough to think the words ‘based on a true story’ actually assure accuracy. Movies always simplify stories for the audience and a good story usually requires some suspension of disbelief – thinking too hard about any time travel story will send you down a rabbit hole with only an Austrian bodybuilder for company – but I’m starting to wonder where the line is. How many details can you fudge in the name of narrative? How far can you bend the truth before it breaks?
This goes beyond the movies and into the real world, where people can vote based on a made-up story and not get the real facts until it’s too late, where newspapers use the National Student Survey to report on the quality of our institution even though quality is not what it measures, where I’ve had students who believe crazy conspiracies about how everything is controlled by a progressive billionaire, the Illuminati or some other sinister society, and where parents are putting lives at risk because of stories they’ve heard about vaccinations that are even less credible than the third act of Bohemian Rhapsody.
This isn’t new either. Smart storytellers have always been able to seduce people into overlooking the facts. But I’m concerned because today, you can actually get those facts with minimal effort and it doesn’t matter. It only takes a second to find out that the anti-vax movement is based on a debunked study, but even when real information is available, people stick to their stories. We have more access to information than ever and yet so many of us are poorly informed that it scares me.
That’s why I think we need to talk about something else that isn’t new: critical thinking. The ability to separate fact from fiction has been part of education forever but is more important than ever as we face today’s information overload. That’s why it’s frequently listed among the top 21st century skills sought by employers, and it’s why we have to work harder on it.
We need to do more to help students stop and think about the stories they hear and to ask more critical questions. I’m not sure how, but I think we might also need to start with ourselves and the stories we consume. It used to be a common complaint that “everyone’s a critic,” but these days, I think maybe everyone needs to be.
But that’s just one guy talking.
Dave van Ginhoven is a senior lecturer at European Studies, which he’s happy to promote to anyone who will listen. Before that he used to be a journalist and a Canadian. He loves to talk, but don’t take him too seriously. He’s only one guy.