November 03, 2008

Story time

These dogs are arguing about politics.

El Cabrero's late father, the bad joke magnet, used to tell one about a rural resident who called the sheriff's department because there were 20 dogs carrying on in his yard.

"Are they mad?," the dispatcher asked.

"Well, 18 of 'em seem pretty upset."

No matter what happens tomorrow, some dogs are going to be upset. And one thing that will undoubtedly happen is that the post-mortem explanation industry will kick into gear to explain WHY THINGS HAPPENED THE WAY THEY DID. Most of them will be absolutely convinced of the validity of their explanation.

We can't really help it. Ever since people have been able to talk, they have made up explanations or stories--mythological, logical or otherwise--to explain things. We are driven to come up with a narrative or story that sounds good and connects events together in a way that makes sense.

That is to say, we torture the data until it confesses.

The problem is that while we're addicted to our narratives, there is absolutely no necessary connection between our explanations and what really happened.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, calls this the narrative fallacy, which

is associated with our vulnerability to overinterpretation and our predilection for compact stories over raw truths. It severely distorts our mental representation of the world; it is particularly acute when it comes to the rare event.

Once again, a little skepticism is called for, not only about the stories we hear from others but our own as well.

That's my story and I'm sticking with it.

BY THE NUMBERS, here's a look at the current US economy, courtesy of the Economic Policy Institute.

WATER could be the new oil.


WHY DO WE BELIEVE in weird stuff?

GEORGE ORWELL gets a tip of the hat here.



Anonymous said...

Too true, El Cabrero. As both a history student and lover of literature, I'm tortured over how to feel about it. We rarely if ever have accurate narrative explanations of things, but we do get some fabulous stories. And then there is the part where the stories come closer to The Truth than if we were able to nail down facts. Hmmm.....

El Cabrero said...

The good thing about myths and literature is that they're stories and we know they're stories. It's the other kind that can get us in trouble. Thanks!