Convenient fictions

We protect our little fictions, like it’s all we are.

Little Fictions, Elbow

The phrase ‘inconvenient truth’ has become synonymous with climate change, thanks to the film which documented American Vice President Al Gore’s attempts to raise awareness of global warming. An inconvenient truth is a truth we would rather not acknowledge, but must do so anyway. Accepting such truths means we must take action which we would rather not take; curtailing our lifestyle in immediate ways to avoid a catastrophe which may not even occur within our lifetimes. The incentives to refute the hard facts are strong, leading many to remain in denial despite compelling scientific evidence for our self destruction.

But when it comes to self-deception, there is a concept which I find more intriguing than inconvenient truth, that is the ‘convenient fiction’. I believe it is far more prevalent than the inconvenient truth and plays a more interesting role in our psychological make-up.

A convenient fiction is an idea that is not true, but it is advantageous to operate as if it is. It is a known falsity: an opportune untruth.

There are two subtly different versions of the convenient fiction. The first, which appears to be the common meaning, is the opposite of the inconvenient truth. It is when an individual or group accept as true something which is not because it is useful for them to do so. This implies self-deception, or an attempt by someone else to deceive us because it is convenient to them that we believe a lie. Non-scientific explanations of climate change which seek to deny the impact of human actions on the environment are a convenient fiction for some.

We lie to ourselves, and about ourselves, all of the time. However, we may accept convenient fictions without lying to ourselves. We can be quite cognisant of an idea’s wrongness, but know it serves a useful purpose to us anyway. This second meaning is different to the first in that we are aware of the falsity of the idea. Being aware of the fiction places us in control – we choose to act as if an idea were true because doing so is convenient.

To illustrate the difference between the two versions of convenient fictions, let’s consider the concept of the ‘unified self’.

People, as well as things, appear to have character – high level attributes that help us understand and relate to them. A character is a coherent set of characteristics and attributes that apply to appearance and behaviour alike, cutting across different functions, situations and value systems – aesthetical, technical, ethical – providing support for anticipation, interpretation and interaction.

Janlert & Stolterman, 1997

Intuitively, we think of ourselves and others as possessing a unified identity to which we attribute characteristics. We may describe people as being ‘kind’, ‘reliable’ or ‘deceitful’, as if there is a consistent entity to which these attributes are attached. However, neuroscience has uncovered a more fractured self, our brains working more like a committee than a single person. Beneath the ‘us’ we present to the world is a constant internal conflict where competing versions of ourselves seek to dominate.

The unified self may be a fiction, but to what extent is it a convenient one? Thinking of others as a single being helps us to predict how they will behave and interpret their motivations, which is necessary if we are to interact constructively. We do this by attributing traits to others which are heuristics for what we can typically expect from them. Thinking of ourselves as a single being is also pragmatic. Our self-concept is a shortcut to how we respond to the world which reduces the need to evaluate our every action. If I consider myself to be a courteous person than I will hold a door open for others when I pass through. It is not helpful day-to-day to acknowledge my conflicted selves, one of which really hasn’t got the time for such niceties.

I suspect that most people have not questioned the unified self theory, let alone engaged with the evidence that it may well be a fiction. For them, this fiction is accepted unknowingly.

But there is another group of people who will know to some extent that the unified self is somewhat of an illusion. They may even believe that there are benefits to seeing through the fiction, particularly when trying to understand what appear to be inconsistent and irrational behaviour. Nonetheless, they may continue to operate willingly under a false idea of self as it offers advantages in everyday life. It just may be useful to continue to think of others as having a unified self and single identity. They will continue to say things like ‘John’s a nice guy’ or ‘Janet’s always been smart’. Generalisations help us navigate a social world.

Whether or not we are conscious of convenient fictions does matter, however. An awareness of the extent of the fiction allows us to reflect and make choices about whether to continue to operate under a false concept. We can decide when to adopt a more truthful model of reality, or a model that is still fictional, but brings greater insight and utility than the fiction we bought into before. The story of Adam and Eve was a convenient fiction which, for a time, helped us comprehend the origins of life on Earth in a way which complemented our belief in a Creator. Over centuries, humanity has (with the exception of a hard core of Creationists) become conscious of the story’s falsity, and eventually replaced this convenient fiction with others. The history of human thought is the history of successive convenient fictions.

I became interested in the idea of convenient fictions when writing my last book, and it has some relevance to the topics of complexity, ignorance and sensemaking which the book draws upon. Unknowable things are surrounded by convenient fictions. So too are complex things. This is because we create stories which attempt to explain what we do not fully understand. Our minds have evolved to do so.

The school system is complex and there are large gaps in our knowledge about how the system works and how we can act to shape it. Therefore, convenient fictions proliferate.

Memory (in the way we conceive it) is a convenient fiction. The simplified models which we base our practice upon have proven useful in shaping our behaviours, despite being poor descriptors of actual neurological processes. Working memory does not exist as a ‘place’ in the brain and we do not ‘write’ information to long term memory, however it is convenient to an extent to imagine that this is what happens. If these fictions help us do things that work then so be it. Truth is a goal in the long term, but subservient to pragmaticism in the short term.

Other convenient fictions which we tell ourselves in schools are that you can measure learning, that you can track progress, or that you can tell if someone is a good teacher by observing their lesson. You can’t really do any of these things reliably but it might be convenient to behave as if you can. There is an ever-present tension between truth and function. The question is whether we should abandon practices when we become aware that they are false, or when acting as if they are true no longer serves a useful function. Convenient fictions may serve purposes which we don’t fully understand and abandoning them in the name of truth has its risks.

This insight has caused me to view various common practices in schools differently. I have been quick, as have others, to point out the falsity of the ‘flight path’ model of progress which dominated in English schools for many years – and is still prevalent throughout the system. But I have come to question whether flight paths may be the most convenient fiction, at least in some contexts. Abandoning flight paths upon reaching the ‘enlightened’ understanding that they represent a false model of learning and progress is intellectually compelling. But it may also prove functionally damaging, particularly if there is not an alternative fiction which will demonstrably bring greater benefits. You may tell me that a superior model exists in the form of ‘the curriculum as the progression model’, but this too is a convenient fiction. I am happy to accept this fiction if you can demonstrate to me that it is functionally superior, but not merely on account that it tells a greater truth.

Convenient fictions serve a purpose for a while. The fictions which dominate are those that are expedient to all parties, which best explain complex phenomena, and which speak to our desire and ability to make a difference. They fill a gap in our knowledge and provide the comfort of knowing, or at least believing we do. We protect our little fictions until we are compelled to reject them as no longer fit for purpose. But in the meantime, they are all we have and all we are.

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