#Reviewing The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough

The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough.  Alex Evans. London: Transworld Publishers, 2017.

The question of narrative has moved to the centre-stage of strategy.
—Lawrence Freedman, The Transformation of Strategic Affairs

Stories have become “one of the most prominent currents in late twentieth century life,” spawning a wide range of theoretical and empirical investigations.[1] Many authors have demonstrated how this “storytelling revival” is germane to the issues explored in The Strategy Bridge.[2] The question when reading a book such as Alex Evans’ The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough is whether this is another such work; and whether it is useful for strategists, even if not written for strategists.

The author, a Senior Fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, has been engaged with climate change policies for decades. The book—which is really more like a persuasive essay—is written for those in the public policy world with an activist bent and a global perspective. According to Evans, it was born out of his frustration with the inability of rational arguments to change policies. The book is based on the premise that his position is already sound and reasonable. What is required is a different tactic for communicating that position. His solution is to tap into the power of stories, which traditionally helped humanity make sense of the world and its responsibilities therein. Unfortunately, as children of the Enlightenment (and, much further in our ancestry, Plato), modern Western society has long disparaged the biggest and most meaningful stories—myths.[3]

Across four sections, each with three to five short chapters, Evans offers examples of how to fill the “myth gap” in regards to global climate policy. Some of the existing stories do not induce the type of behavioral change he advocates. For example, the myth of inevitable collapse claims no amount of human agency will solve the problem. More promising alternatives come from a synthesis of traditional human storytelling and modern communication technologies—a point he leaves underdeveloped. Almost all of his illustrations are drawn from mass-media sources, political-opinion pieces, think-tank papers, and so forth. While this makes the book an easy to read primer on the current politics of the issue, it also makes the work perishable.

Overall, the work is internally consistent, if somewhat superficial. It contributes little to the larger conversation on climate change and will not help defense professionals understand its security implications. Furthermore, The Myth Gap is not a source for understanding the strategic utility of stories. Despite forming the basis of his argument, Evans never delves into the rich scholarship on narratives, myths, and storytelling. There is a single work cited, Jonah Sachs’s Winning the Story Wars, itself a decent synthesis on narratives and marketing, but none of the field's foundational authors are mentioned. How can you write about myths without Joseph Campbell, the classical name in the field, narratives without Walter R. Fisher’s Human Communication as Narration, or stories without the works of psychologist Jerome Bruner appearing in some way? The equivalent is writing about military strategy and leaving out Carl von Clausewitz. Even if the Prussian’s ideas are contested, his voice still resonates as a seminal voice in the dialogue.

For this reason, I recommend Strategy Bridge readers look elsewhere if they want to increase their own narrative intelligence. For a short introduction to the topic, written for a popular audience, see Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal. For a more comprehensive overview, see the aforementioned authors or Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories. While I know of no monograph-length publications dedicated to the application of storytelling to strategy, three worthwhile books make indirect contributions: Charles Hill’s Grand Strategies is about how the stories of great literature influenced strategists, Stephen Denning’s The Secret Language of Leadership is just one of many recent works on how large organizations can leverage stories for strategic change, and Peter Schwartz’s The Art of the Long View advocates scenario-based planning using stories to “dream effectively” about the future.[5] Once armed with greater understanding of storytelling, one might consider coming back to Evan’s work for two reasons: first, as an opportunity to apply narrative theory, and second, to learn more about a geopolitical issue that is sure to impact future military operations.

Jason M. Trew is an officer in the U.S. Air Force, a senior pilot, and a graduate of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS). He is currently a doctoral candidate studying the history of technology at Auburn University. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: A 19th-century Greek vase depicts a scene from Homer’s “The Iliad.”  (PBS.org/Getty)


[1] Gary D. Fireman, et al, as quoted in Haven, Story Proof, 103.

[2] Simmons and Lipman, The Story Factor, xiii. As examples, see the fiction selections in Aaron Bazin's "What Successful Strategists Read,” the two chapters in Ender’s World that describe how the bestselling sci-fi work applies to military doctrine and education, Diane Maye’s “Fiction for the Strategist,” and my own modest effort on the use of fiction in professional military education, “Heroes for a Wicked World: Ender’s Game as a Case for Fiction in PME.”

[3] Roughly half of The Republic is devoted to disparaging the art of storytelling, whether in the form of poetry or rhetoric. It is, in fact, the component of the work Plato is most satisfied with: “Of the many excellences which I perceive in the order of our State, there is none which upon reflection pleases me better than the rule about poetry” (Plato, The Republic, trans. Benjamin Jowett, 10.595a).

[4] If Evans were more familiar with the theoretical literature, he would have probably avoided the question in the subtitle. “What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough?” is not a sufficient question once one understands that logic or evidence alone is never enough to form sound arguments—premises must be true and the logical reasoning must be valid. Despite Plato’s protestations otherwise, human reasoning starts by evaluating all communication as a story—that is, on the basis of coherence and fidelity—and only shifts into methodical logic once it categorizes the story as a particular type of story, amenable to reason. For more, see Fisher’s Human Communication as Narration (1989).

[5] According to Schwartz, stories about potential future scenarios are “the most powerful vehicles...for challenging our ‘mental models’ about the world” and can be used as a building block for designing strategic conversations...[that] lead to continuous organizational learning.”  Also, “stories help people cope with complexity.” (The Art of the Long View, xv, 38)