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Storytelling: The Anti-Science

Story is the antiscience. Why? Because while science generalizes, stories individualize. That’s the idea of How Stories Mislead Us:

Story-telling, Cowen notes, is the antithesis of scientific thinking. Stories, as all those how-to-write advice books keep telling you, are about individuals. Data denies this individuality. When an insurance company predicts that 400 people will die in traffic accidents over a holiday weekend, they’re viewing all drivers as interchangeable: […]

By their nature, then, stories invite us to look for unique causes—aspects of Joe’s character, unfortunate timings (going for a drink right after that break-up with Jane), tiny details (like the last drink he didn’t want but his friend was buying). That’s just the detail that is left out when we consider facts without narrative.

So science is a method for finding generalizations that can be used to explain what people-in-general experience, while narrative is a means of creating unique accounts of what I experienced, in all its fine-grained difference from what you did. Scientific reasoning and story-telling pull in opposite directions. This, as Cowen notes, creates a peculiar problem for those of us who create narratives about science. We’re using stories to explain anti-story thinking.


narratives are simple. What is ambiguous, inexplicable and accidental tends to get filtered out of them, leaving an impression that the world is more orderly and predictable than it really is.

Do you agree with this? I don’t – rather, it really depends on the design of the narrative. Have you ever watched a movie or read a book, and you kind of wondered: well, who’s the good guy, who’s the bad guy in that story?

There is no doubt that in many cases, particularly successful Hollywood blockbusters, the line between good and bad is drawn vividly – the villain and the hero. But there are many stories that allow for a more differentiated view, and in fact, I would argue that stories can make ambiguity understandable in a much deeper way than facts can.So stories incline us to blame (this didn’t just happen, it’s their fault) and to hubris (I know the real story, I don’t care what other evidence you want to present). Then, too, we don’t have a lot of different forms for our stories. Under all their variety are a few structures that occur again and again. So thinking in narrative encourages us to see disparate experiences as if they were the same (as in, “I’m turning into my mother!” or “Afghanistan is Vietnam all over again!”). And, of course, stories compel our attention and emotions, so people who tell us a powerful story can manipulate us.


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