Letter to Barack Obama
Dear Mr. President:
Challenging and changing people’s beliefs are hard tasks. We have a disposition to believe anything and then argue and even die for what we think is right, with or without evidentiary support.
So, you cannot persuade people who doubt your Christianity and believe incorrectly that you are Muslim, or who disbelieve that you were even born in the U.S. just by providing the correct information, “setting the record straight” and being “perfectly clear.” Succinct exposition is only half the recipe for clarity. We know this already from the evolution vs. creationism debate, a debate that will make only agonizingly slow progress so long as scientists who oppose creationism in school curricula do so only by regularly providing the correct scientific information and data in order to “set the record straight.” Not only do they consistently make poor progress, but they are neither reaching nor persuading their target audience. It is the same with you and this Muslim/Christian confusion in the American public imagination, because dispelling misinformation has less to do with the amount or quality of available information - or with the trust people have in the source of information - as it does with other complex and multivalent - and unspoken - motives.
The beliefs and ideas we espouse have more to do with the narrative form of our various worldviews than with the objectively verifiable facts. Neither information nor numbers themselves are universally constant, because each story narrative processes data to fit its own form. On a global level, each nation state has its own narrative through which to make sense of things - leader of the free world (America), birthplace of democracy (Greece, Britain), the homogenous society (Japan) - which, while being grand stories, are more or less disconnected from the facts. Within nation states, individuals adhere to smaller groups - families, churches, political parties, schools, teams and clubs, etc. - with their own contextualizing stories. It’s sad but true that our numeracy as well as our literacy and erudition are captives of the prevailing narrative forms of our groups and we are players in those stories without realizing that we are players. So we are prone to take ourselves much too seriously.
Information and raw statistics alone do not provide any meaning by themselves because we can only make information meaningful by contextualizing it in a story. It is in narrative, or story form, that we comprehend information. The universality of numbers is compromised precisely because information is bent to fit our mental models and narrative forms.
So, if a majority of Americans believe you are a Muslim - or a minority trust in your Christianity - it is less because they are stupid people, or that they are trusting unworthy sources as it is because they are viewing the world through a particular narrative that gives information that meaning. They can be pumped full of all the correct facts imaginable without it affecting their views. So to spread truth and to change beliefs Public Relations cannot simply “set the record straight” by providing more and better information. Information alone is not clear. Narration provides its own clarity.
But I could be wrong.