When did you first hear about Santa Clause? Was it from a Christmas movie, a bedtime story, or perhaps through whispers from a close friend? For many of us, the narrative of Santa Clause and his noble annual journey to bring joy to children across the globe reached us before we formed any notion of the factual truth of whether or not he really exists. To many children, the miraculous tale of global circumnavigation and gift-giving rings just as true as those of lunar landings or arctic expeditions do.
But what makes the tales of Apollo 11 or Robert Peary’s trip to the North Pole factually true. Is it as simple as us having a picture or journey log of each event? Or is it the existence of people who can testify to have had truly experienced each of their respective objective events? If you believe that factual truth is based on the former, then would a picture of the big man in the jolly red suit, alongside the naughty or nice list, suffice? Or if you side with the latter interpretation of objective, factual truth, would you be content with an eye-witness who swears on their life to have seen a reindeer sled in the sky?
As it turns out, separation of narrative truth vs factual truth is not as clear cut as it may seem. After all, photos can be doctored, videos can be edited, and human memories are unreliable at best. So how can we interpret information from friends, family, or the media, without getting lost in an infinite descent of deciphering the truth in every detail? What does it mean for a story to simply sound true? Perhaps more interestingly, how is it that narrative truth, without any factual truth, can impact our universal experience more so than any facts or figures can?
At the end of the day, as much as we like to believe that we create our beliefs and ideologies around factual truth, narrative truth might have a far greater impact on who we are than we would like to admit. Despite how many times I’ve told my mother the safety of airplanes, she still experiences a very real and visceral panic attack in response to her internal narrative of plane safety crafted from tragedies and tales overrepresented in the media. Likewise, even though I’d like to believe that I am a real and material being, it is clear that Santa Clause has had a far more tangible and measurable impact on the world we live in than I probably ever will.
With fake news and anti-science movements on the rise, the question of how both narrative truth and factual truth changes our opinions and beliefs matters more than ever.