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The Danger of Narratives

April 22, 2010

Over the last several years, the word “narrative” has been increasingly used in political commentary, usually to describe a phenomenon on the opposite side of the ideological aisle: “a new narrative is emerging on the right,” some pundit might write in a New York Times op-ed.

This used to annoy me. Why do “narratives” matter, I’d wonder. Isn’t it facts that we’re supposedly interested in?

Of course, this was only so much naïveté. Narratives are important determinants in what we think and how we think about just about everything in the world. They’re a bit like scientific theories: narratives are, at their core, statements about what is and what is not important.

The visible spectrum of light ranges from approximately 400 – 789 terahertz, from red to violet (or the other way about, if you prefer). Light frequencies above or below this range are called “infrared” or “ultraviolet,” and are invisible to our eyes. This range is often described as the “visible spectrum,” which is a rather chauvinistic way to think of it, since many animals are able to “see” frequencies that fall outside this spectrum.

But in order for us to be able to make any coherent sense of the world around us, we need to apply filters to the light information entering our eyes; otherwise, we would be effectively paralyzed. Fortunately, our eyes pick up “important” visual information about the world and ignore the stuff that doesn’t help our brains construct the mental three-dimensional model of our environment that we normally take for granted. We don’t need to “see” the infrared heat coming off prey as we track it through the woods, nor do we need to be specifically attracted to a particular type of flower to find pollen.

There are good evolutionary reasons for this, since it is crucial to be able to filter out information not related to the task at hand. Indeed, the spectrum of disorders known as autism can, according to researchers, be understood as a lack of the ability to apply these filters to the surrounding environment.

Analogously, we apply “narratives” to our understanding of the world, in order to filter out information that does not help us make sense of our environment. George Lakoff wrote extensively about the issue of narratives – he calls them “frames” – in his book, Don’t Think of an Elephant.

Perhaps the best illustration of the concept of narrative – just to nail down the issue – is history. Capital “H” History is the study of the human past, but we have countless histories to read, and each one constitutes a particular story (or narrative), predicated on an idea about what really matters. So far, this is pretty ho-hum stuff. But when we think about alternative narratives of history, problems immediately begin to arise: how is it, for instance, that American children can be taught for generations about how “in fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” that Columbus was the discoverer of America, and thus a national hero (earning a federal holiday in his name), all the while remaining ignorant to the fact that he was the author of a genocide perpetrated against the native Arawaks (treated in detail in chapter one of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States)?

The Columbus-as-hero narrative filtered that grisly bit of information out of the general public awareness for centuries, and even now, bringing up Zinn’s alternative account of American history in certain company will earn you unfriendly glares and possibly cost you a return invitation.

I wrote above that narratives were a bit like theories, and to a certain extent, they are: they both shape and frame the world around us, allowing us to “see” or understand the important causal elements in the world around us. But – crucially – they differ in a fundamental respect: narratives are established first, then supported post hoc by evidence, whereas theories are only “established” (or provisionally accepted) after good-faith attempts to disprove them.

Briefly, the “scientific method” works like this: a researcher looks at a set of data, and comes up with a statement that she believes explains a specific phenomenon within it. She then determines a hypothesis – a testable statement that “flows” from her theory. She might think, for instance, that an increase in the population in a has some corresponding influence on the population of b. Her next step is to test the alternative hypothesis – she tests the hypothesis, in other words, that would invalidate her theory. Should this alternative (or “null”) hypothesis turn out to be invalid, she can provisionally take this as support (not proof) for her original theory.

Historians – and, indeed, the authors of any narrative – do not have the luxury of laboratory conditions under which to “test” their “theories” of how the world works. Instead, they must make that determination based on their reading of sources and their own experience of the world around them, making the creation of narratives much more subjective than the establishment of scientific theories. “I live in America, and at one point, America was unknown to my antecedents in Europe; therefore, whichever European discovered America and opened it up for colonization must have been a key historical figure.” There is really no way to test this statement against a null hypothesis, and in any event, it is true. There’s plenty of evidence to support this idea. However, when we approach Columbus from this perspective, certain of his less-glorious achievements, such as the wholesale slaughter of the Arawaks, tend to be ignored in order to support the “emerging narrative.”

All this is to say that we must be careful to check ourselves for what is being called “epistemic closure” in a currently-raging online debate. Our understanding of the “facts” is highly dependent on the narratives we have accepted as authoritative. This is why well-meaning people find themselves swayed by paranoiac movements such as the “9/11 Truthers” or the “Birthers” – they have, even without realizing it, accepted certain presumptions as true (“George W. Bush knew about and/or colluded with the Sept. 11 terror plot” or “Barack Obama is not American”) and have proceeded to gather evidence to support them, post hoc. Not all narratives are created equal.

This post has already gone on for far too long, so I will close with this: in order to effectively navigate the chaos of seemingly-contradictory “facts” and narratives that populate current affairs, we must first be aware of our own tendency to think in terms of narratives, and second, be willing to engage at least in the thought experiment of trying out the narratives that characterize the views of others. Which narrative, we might ask, takes into account the larger set of data? Which ignores more? And which – to tie this all into this blog’s namesake – makes the most unnecessary assumptions?

Doing this will not eliminate the tendency of both extreme sides on any debate to talk at cross-purposes, “like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps,” to crib a phrase from P.G. Wodehouse, but it will allow us to take on a role less like that of Aunt Agatha and more like that of Jeeves.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Nick F permalink
    April 29, 2010 1:31 pm

    Good, thought-provoking stuff, dude. Although, I find the title a BIT melodramatic. 🙂 Might as well say “the dangers of understanding”, “the dangers of thinking”… It seems to me that narratives/stories are the preferred, standard, and unavoidable(?) method for human beings to comprehend meaning. I see fact and meaning as not the same thing. I see a gap between fact and meaning (that gap may be a small one indeed), one that must be crossed by interpretation. In other words “storytelling”. Even in something as black and white as math. When a good story accurately represents the facts, that’s insight.

    Regarding Chris Columbus, what is the question here? Since I don’t think you’re disputing that in 1492 he sailed the ocean blue, are you really talking about narratives? Or is this more about the popularity of one narrative over another? Why do people remember THIS rather than THAT? In general, I think most people only want to remember one thing. One thing to hold onto. Whether you’re Columbus or Roethlisberger… Same. People boil it down. They leave things out. Now, I think there’s plenty of room for error and dishonesty in what stories people decide to believe in. But I think this is not a choice of fact versus story, but story MORE in line with the facts (or better explains the facts) versus story LESS in line with facts.

    I disagree with your assertion that the story always exists before the facts. With your background as a journalist, I found it surprising that you said that.

    Especially in realms of human action (like history), naked facts can be hard to come by. The grey area of motivation and intention provide more than enough room for armies of lawyers, historians, novelists, and filmmakers to make their livings interpreting, deifying, and vilifying anyone and everyone depending on their inclination (or who’s writing their paychecks).

    • May 3, 2010 9:01 am

      Thanks for the thoughts, Nick. To take your points in order…

      I agree with your ideas about the difference between “facts” and “meaning.” That’s exactly what I was trying to get at with the comparison between “narratives” and “theories;” facts are basically just data points that don’t really carry much inherent “meaning” outside the framework of a narrative, just like data doesn’t do much on its own outside a theory.

      With respect to the Columbus example, I’m not disputing any of the relevant facts — just that the elementary school version of the story neglects certain facts about his story because they necessarily complicate the story. I think it’s more or less by nature that we prefer (especially as youngsters) to think of historical characters as being kind of binary — “good guys” or “bad guys” — because that’s just an easier way to sort out the world. My point in bringing up the example was just to point out the complexity of the truth, and why it’s important to be aware of the facts that don’t always shore up the existing narrative.

      Your point of disagreement is well-taken. I didn’t phrase that very well, and it’s not exactly what I meant — narratives don’t always exist before the facts; but we tend to establish what ought to be a “provisional” framework very early on, and then “weight” new facts based on how well they fit into the existing narrative. That’s just confirmation bias, which we’re all prone to. It’s easier to discount certain facts than to make a major shift in the way we understand a certain “storyline.”


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