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Narratives

Anecdotes and Simple Observations are Dangerous; Words and Narratives are Not.

Heather Lanthorn's picture

In a recent blog post on stories, and following some themes from an earlier talk by Tyler Cowen, David Evans ends by suggesting: “Vivid and touching tales move us more than statistics. So let’s listen to some stories… then let’s look at some hard data and rigorous analysis before we make any big decisions.” Stories, in this sense, are potentially idiosyncratic and over-simplified and, therefore, may be misleading as well as moving. I acknowledge that this is a dangerous situation.

However, there are a couple things that are frustrating about the above quote, intentional or not.

  • First, it equates ‘hard data’ with ‘statistics,’ as though qualitative (text/word) data cannot be hard (or, by implication, rigorously analysed). Qualitative twork – even when producing ‘stories’ – should move beyond mere anecdote (or even journalistic inquiry).
  • Second, it suggests that the main role of stories (words) is to dress up and humanize statistics – or, at best, to generate hypotheses for future research. This seems both unfair and out-of-step with increasing calls for mixed-methods to take our understanding beyond ‘what works’ (average treatment effects) to ‘why’ (causal mechanisms) – with ‘why’ probably being fairly crucial to ‘decision-making’ (Paluck’s piece worth checking out in this regard).

Outlaw, Sheriff, Posse...Showdown

Sina Odugbemi's picture

In countless movies about America's wild, wild west- - think about the many classic westerns you've seen -- the story follows a familiar pattern. There is a town known as, say, Tombstone where law-abiding citizens go about their daily lives. Outlaws ride into town. They steal, pillage, plunder, kill and maim. Then they ride out of town -- hard. The sheriff, furious, gathers a body of armed citizens on horseback. They are known as the posse. The posse rides out of town, determined to catch the outlaws. It is a hunt. The posse hunts down the outlaws, and there is a showdown. The bad guys are killed or unceremoniously hanged. Justice is deemed served. The sheriff and his posse ride back into town as the music picks up. Citizens welcome them joyously. They are heroes. The moral order is restored, and all is well.

Since the unceremonious dispatching of Osama bin Laden and the huge, visceral reactions to the event by the citizens of the United States - also known as 'a fist pump' moment -- I have been thinking about all my favorite wild, wild west movies. The modern posse is, of course, no longer a group of citizens, but Navy SEALS with superlative skills. And the modern outlaw is a terrorist from another tribe but one able to kill thousands. And the sheriff? Well, who would have believed who the modern sheriff turns out to be!