Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Need For Narrative

Abstract statistical information does not sway us as much as the anecdote - no matter how sophisticated the person. Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Journalists must have a narrative to market their wares. Media outlets, mainstream or otherwise, don’t attract readership with lists of unassembled facts. Conservatives can complain about the bias of the prevailing narrative, but it bears mentioning that some sort of narrative must exist, or no one will buy it.

The journalist must make connections between bits of data to even remember the events long enough to report them. We just don’t tend to remember isolated facts without a lot of effort. Our brains seek out connections for reasons of efficiency. The more facts, the greater the need for narrative.

We hire many people to provide a narrative for us over the course of our lives. We expect teachers to be able to summarize knowledge, and give us the important bits in some learnable form. We go to the doctor to see what diagnosis, what narrative, he gives to our individual symptoms. There is in that sense nothing shameful about a journalist trying to put the unfolding events into some understandable form. That’s her job.

Because all narratives are at best an approximation, we all get used to ignoring pieces that don’t fit or cramming them into shapes that will fit. It may be imprecise and lamentable, but we could hardly think at all if we didn’t do so. Philosophers – Bertrand Russell, for example – might maintain that there are no categories of objects, only indivdual examples, but we couldn’t get through a day if we didn’t categorize. Nor could Russell have.

Narratives increase in deception the more raw data they leave out or reinterpret. Their approximation of reality becomes rougher and rougher until they are not only calling blue “green,” but calling it “yellow.” That analogy would likely work better starting from the other direction, in which reality is some shifting, unstable color such as “what the outside of a peach is” which we cram into simpler but inaccurate categories such as yellow or red.

Hence the moronic political false-choice arguments along the lines of “You must think peaches are all red, then, you fascist.” Come to think of it, most political arguments usually have at least one participant trying to oversimplify into deceptive categories.

The overriding goal of much conservative discourse over the past decades is to point out that the common narratives of just about everything have always been somewhat off, and are now more than 90 degrees off.

Darn, now I’ve gone and depressed myself.

No comments: