Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen

Earlier this month at the mid-Atlantic TEDx in Baltimore, blogging economist Tyler Cowen gave a 16-minute talk about the dangers of narrative. He spoke about the oft-discussed universal stories we use to make sense of events, such as the quest, a stranger comes to town, comedy, and tragedy.

But he quickly dove into why he distrusts the very stories that move us most, suggesting the cautionary remedy of imagining our IQs dropping 10 points every time we take a simple narrative at face value.

The full talk is available online, but here are a few of the highlights from his lecture:

“The good and bad thing about stories is they’re a kind of filter.  They take a lot of information, and they leave some of it out, and they keep some of it in. But the thing about this filter, it always leaves the same things in. You’re always left with the same few simple stories.”

“What kind of stories should we be most suspicious of? Again, I’m telling you, it’s the stories very often that you like the most, that you find the most rewarding, the most inspiring. The stories that don’t focus on opportunity cost or the complex unintended consequences of human action. Because that very often does not make for a good story. So often, a story is a story of triumph, a story of struggle. There are opposing forces which are either evil or ignorant. There is a person on a quest, someone making a voyage, and a stranger coming to town. Those are your categories, but don’t let them make you too happy.”

Cowen’s blog, Marginal Revolution, is devoted to “small steps toward a much better world.” Sustaining that theme, he does not actually recommend that we “burn Tolstoy.” Cowen comes across as part contrarian, part town crier, but he makes a point here that is useful for narrative journalists: the real world is often messier than the stories we tell ourselves about it.

A succinct understanding of story is important to be able to explain (and even sell) a concept to an editor, but I think we’re mistaken if we never give a story a chance to evolve and become more complex.

What does that mean for journalists? A recent example is a St. Petersburg Times project, “For Their Own Good,” an investigative report about abuse at The Florida School for Boys. Reporters Waveney Ann Moore and Ben Montgomery had a ton of material on what seemed to be multiple staff members’ regular policy of beating boys bloody during the 1950s and 60s.

They had their tidy, compelling story, and they could have stopped there. Instead, they looked further back, and forward, and found that the same story emerged cyclically every few years in relation to the school. The public expressed outrage, some changes were made, and a few years later, revelations of abuse would emerge again.

In all, they found a century of abuse, making the point that real reform had never taken root. Their project turned from a simple exposé of bad conduct by a few administrators into a broader indictment of public inattention. They kept on the story after the initial project was published, uncovering additional disturbing material about the current situation at the school.

In a recent interview, Montgomery said, “I view this whole year-long project—all 10 stories, or whatever it ends up being—as one big narrative.” A little messier, maybe, but a more honest—and more complete—story.

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