There are two different uses of the word myth:
- A falsehood, as in “the weight loss myth”
- A story with metaphorical truth even if not factually accurate
I spend time on this blog debunking factual myths like Newton’s Apple, even for things as boring as mythical numbers in schedule estimates, because I have expertise and believe people who read my blog want to know the truth. While complete ignorance is neutral, faith in a lie is dangerous. I don’t want the suspension bridge I drive across to be built on a pet theory. People with knowledge should be compelled to use what they know to question, poke and prod the darkness, especially the darkness snakes sell as light to fools.
But I do love the metaphorical truths found in mythological stories. The winged story of Icarus and Daedalus isn’t true in aerodynamic fact but contains powerful truths about ambition and trust. Few great works of literature are true in a factual sense, but their freedom from facts allows the expression of emotional or philosophical truths in ways factually based stories can’t. Picasso said “Art is the lie that tells the truth” and that’s what he meant. It’s not a justification for lying on your business plan.
Factual myths are very hard to kill. Simple lies are more popular than complex truths.And the most common factual myths have nuggets of truth in them, just enough to get past most people’s BS detection systems. Newton was never hit on the head by an apple. It’s one of the most popular stories in this history of science, yet it’s a fabrication. And science is a community of practice obsessed with factual certainty. How could this survive for so long?
The answer is the people most inspired by a story are the least interested in challenging it, and the most interested in spreading it. Apple Inc. chose its name after Newton’s apple, but never bothered to check the veracity of the tale. Why? Probably because they liked it and the popularity of the tale was part of the attraction. Popular lies grow into legends, and everyone wins in the spreading of a legend, everyone except the people who care about facts. I do like legends for their metaphorical truths, but it’s dangerous to confuse those with factual truths. Marketing and advertising live in the grey between what’s true and what’s a willful lie.
Does the true story of Newton, or anyone, matter? It depends. If you’re a fan and it you simply want to feel good about your fandom, then perhaps truth doesn’t matter. But if you are serious about achieving yourself, truth is essential. To achieve greatness the precise factual truth about what a hero did or didn’t do matters. I’m convinced these truths, if told well, always have more inspirational power than false legends. But not everyone agrees with me. I wrote The Myths of Innovation to sort out the history of ideas for people who want to stand on the true shoulders of giants, not the made up fantasy stories we’ve popularized. But as popular as the book has been, it will never be as popular as books that promise to teach you the magic secrets of geniuses in five minutes.
Falsehoods never go away completely. The ones that last are too fun, and too convenient, to kill. While Snopes.com will always be popular, it will never popular enough to eliminate the need for its existence. It’s too easy to bend legends to the needs of the teller and the listener. Few people are motivated to seek sources to verify what they see, hear or read. This is why legends grow in size with age: there are fewer and fewer people who witnessed the events around to question the tale. But I believe it’s progress to examine these stories anyway. It’s the duty of people with knowledge to use it to shine light on darkness. I know I will never eliminate the lies, but I must use what I know to help as many others find their way as I can.
History reveals itself to be a sloppy garden of truths, myths and lies, and it requires endless tending. Serious writers are the gardeners of ideas and must garden not just for the present, but for the future.