Comforting Illusions

“William Sloane Coffin tells the story of a scientist from Harvard flying on an experimental mission in a private plane over the lake country of northern Alabama, measuring with elaborate instruments the fish populations of various lakes. Sighting two fisherman out at some remote lake he had just surveyed, the scientist figured that as a favor he would land his plane on the water nearby and tell them that his instruments had discovered that there were no fish to speak of in those waters and they would have better luck if they went on to another lake. So despite the delay, he landed near the anglers and explained the bad news to them, expecting grateful thanks. They were outraged, instantly, and told the scientist in rich Southern expletives where he could take his plane and his instruments and what he could do with them, whereupon they baited their lines once again and kept fishing. The scientist flew off, much abashed and much puzzled. ‘I expected their disappointment,’ he said later, ‘but not their anger.’…But of course we all react that way to unpleasant truth much of the time: it upsets our preconceptions and our comforting illusions and therefore angers us, and often as not we choose to ignore it. None of us wants to be told, even though deep down we may know it, that there are no fish.”

—Kirkpatrick Sale, Human Scale