Saturday, March 24, 2012

What's the Story?

When I grow up I still want to be a novelist.  And a playwright.  But the kind of storytelling I've mostly done--journalistic storytelling-- remains a satisfying form.  I've realized that in a few ways recently.

One of the primary ways we think we know things is through the findings of science.  While much of that is accurate in a practical sense, a lot of it pretends to be sure of more than it actually can be sure of.  This is most evident in the lesser sciences such as economics and psychology, at least as they are practiced today.  Through narrow and dubiously designed experiments, psychologists pretend to be able to say all sorts of things about human behavior, human nature and how brains work.  These assertions get these folks tenured positions, books and TV interviews in which they purport to know a lot more than they do.  Their arrogance is amazing.  Especially since they must ignore the limitations of their experiments that have been defined repeatedly, most recently in a book I've just started reading by Jerome Kagan, called Psychology's Ghosts.

But I don't need to refer to this thoughtful and eminent authority--these limitations are maddeningly clear to me.  For one thing, they purport to say universal things based on "experiments" involving the behaviors and responses of mostly North American university undergraduates who volunteer to be subjects, perhaps for small amounts of money.  But there are broader objections.  I think especially of a panel discussion in Seattle I believe, but carried on C-Span, involving Jane Jacobs, who to my mind was one of the great minds of the 20th century, upon the publication of her final and prophetic book, Dark Age Ahead.  The friendly host made an offhand comment, saying something to the effect that although much of her evidence was "anecdotal," it was nevertheless intriguing.  It was not long before he was sorry he'd said it.  She honed in on this point with great precision.

Because it's a common charge: the only true evidence is scientific observation, especially from experiment, or statistical.  Other sources such as "anecdotal" or self-reporting (introspective) is less reliable.  Jane Jacobs strongly disagreed, and she was so eloquent that I went back and transcribed what she said:

“Our science began comparing two things to each other, [to find things like] the temperature needed to melt water. That was science for centuries. It’s easy to compare two things, it’s much more difficult to compare 3 or more. It’s “bivariant comparison”—it's very reductive, you have to leave out everything but 2 things, and real life is not like that. Real life attaches anything to everything else. We have begun to learn that in biology...In due course along came ‘disorganized complexity,’ like insurance actuarial tables, or marks a child gets in school—anything that is explained in a graph with a bell shape, or seems to be explained by statistics. Things belonging in this class are based on the law of averages. So many important things are left out in these comparisons, too. They are not really very clarifying in most cases, and are actually counterproductive in a good many others.

How has the human race been getting along all these centuries and millennia, sufficiently well with such bad inputs from the real world? I think we have been doing it with stories. Stories are a means of showing how everything is attached to everything else. Our stories on based on these multiple attachments, and what they mean. We love stories, as human beings. It’s the way we understand the world, very largely. One trouble is, instead of respecting our own intuitions about these things and our own abilities to analyze them and appreciate them, we have only? as some kind of second class intellectual operation. Scientists themselves despise anecdotal evidence, and everything that is a story is called anecdotal evidence, and not valued, and yet you can’t understand the world without anecdotal evidence.  Scientists may think a.e. is not important enough to occupy their time, but I think a.e. is important enough to occupy anybody’s time, beginning with very ancient poetry and up to film documentaries, which we’re learning to value more than we used to.”

Novels and other forms of fiction employ storytelling often without reference to facts derived from science (experiment, statistics, etc.), those these may be implied (and in some genres, like science fiction, employed directly though perhaps extended beyond the current science.)  But these "scientific" forms disdain story (although not in explaining themselves, when they most often employ metaphor.)  Journalistic storytelling combines "scientific" fact and anecdotal information. 

Further, journalistic storytelling depends on testing both kinds of information.  For instance I might ask experts (and often, different kinds of experts) the same question and see how many sets of facts I get.  When the facts--the numbers, the interpretations--start to converge, or at least the disagreement among them sharpens--then I know how to evaluate and use these facts.  The facts are also tested by what people say, by anecdotal and introspective evidence, which in turn are tested by the facts.  The interplay of all of them is part of the story, and sometimes the story itself.

From the experience of high school debate as much as the anticipation of being caught out in print, I learned to be skeptical of facts and how they were ascertained.  From reading and writing fiction and plays, I learned elements of storytelling.  These combinations make this a form that is somehow more comprehensive.  Journalistic storytelling may not have the depth or resonance or provide the aesthetic pleasure of great novels or great drama.  But it does have an aesthetic that I've found pleasing to work with.

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