The "Problem" With Stories (Or, Why Tyler Cowan Proved Himself Wrong)

My friend Alec sent me this TED Talk by Tyler Cowen, who tells us that "stories" end up destroying the details; they manipulate and dilute the historical importance of things that happened. In some portions, he actually argues that the use of "stories" to understand or learn about events makes us stupider. "You lose 10 IQ points every time you use the good vs. evil story," he says.

Here's the talk. This blog post will make a LOT more sense if you watch it. It's long -- 16:32 -- but a good talk, and the focal point of my points below.

(Can't see the video above? Click here )

I understand where Cowen is going here. He's saying that forcing events into a narrative trims them too neatly and discounts the fact that there is often, if not always, ancillary data attached to things that happen that affect it. To reduce timelines of events into stories -- either by streamlining them to talking points, or to embellish them or shape them into more entertaining or engaging tales -- devalues the truth.

Okay. I get that. And I can completely see how an economist will draw that conclusion. To become an economist, you have to devote a massive amount of time studying trends, data, facts, figures and other input which relies heavily on exact accuracy. Numbers don't tell the same story when trimmed, changed or embellished. Five is NEVER four. Ever. It cannot be.

And while our human brains like to diminish the impact of error in numbers by saying "well, 3,855,657.78 is ALMOST four million, so it's close enough..." This drives math brains crazy. It's not close enough. There is no such thing as "close enough" in math. It's the hardest lesson for humans to learn -- five is not four. Three is not four. Four is four. Rounding is not math. Rounding is actually a contextual move, not a data analysis move. We borrow from the "english" portions of our brains, rationalize a need to clean up a number, and then move back to math.

That said, it drives my anthropological brain CRAZY when I heard Tyler Cowan diminish the importance of "story" to the human condition. I get his point -- that to become agnostic to life is to live a more full life, to be at peace. To summarize the conclusion of his talk, he argues that accepting that life is a "mess" and not some story you have to live out, fufilling the archetypes of hero and villian, or quest, or drama, will lead to a happier and more open life. Without the trappings of what we feel we should do based on what we perceive the situation demands of us, we can actually relax and enjoy floating down the stream of life, and "story" destroys this. It forces contexts which don't naturally exist into understanding and action.

This is called morality, and it is the building blocks of culture. Without context, life is meaningless. And the quest for meaning in life is what has driven the human condition throughout its history.

By even suggesting a world that he'd like to see exist based purely on acceptance and "agnostic" behavior, Tyler Cowen actually betrays his entire point. He's experiencing a human moment -- he's wishing. He can visualize and conceptualize a world in which he no longer feels adherant to a pretext. And in that, he's told himself a story. He's written for himself a plotline of a life where there is no plotline. He's actually creating a hero's journey on an ultrameta level - the journey of a man seeking a life without a journey.

And if he succeeds in his daily thought patterns of scrubbing his mind of the daily consideration of the boundaries of human narrative, he will -- on a level higher -- succeed on his personal hero's quest of changing his life. And if he convinces you to do the same, well... That's yet another quest he's succeeded in.

Without these notions; without this exact context -- that life is more than a series of events; that there's meaning to it all -- we're automotons. We are robots. We are data processing units and nothing more. It's the emotion we infuse in our actions which drives us to aspire to greater.

Without a sense of right and wrong, no action has meaning. It's useless to hold doors open for ladies; it's ridiculous to give a loved one presents. There's no anticipation to reach the goal of any quest. For example, there is no impeteus to acquire, say, a college degree. Even in Economics. And there certainly isn't a need to go publish your big important thoughts, especially in a publication as prestigious as the New York Times. After all, life isn't a story. The importance of your journey to the point at which you're talking at TED and writing for the Times is now lost. So why aspire?

And even the most gothic, nihilistic and dark of us aspire. If we didn't have at least some notion of that which we are missing out on, we couldn't be sad. We couldn't write manic poetry in black ink on black paper in an all dark room while wearing our press-on Vampyre Fayngs about the endless nothing our lives are. The mere thought that you can contain the concept of "endless nothing" as you understand it proves that there's a boundary outside of which life has meaning. Which means you aspire, whether you like it or not, to greater.

Sure, reducing the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree transforms a series of nuanced events into a parable. But that's the point of context -- what does it matter what the temperature was the day Washington chopped the tree down? Was the sky partly cloudy? What color pants was he wearing? Did he happen upon the tree, or set out to chop that sucker down?

All of this is important, sure... In the context of which you want it understood. It all becomes a part of the narrative. And stories about history aren't meant to include every ounce of raw data - they're meant to illustrate purpose for the cycles of life we all experience.

Without stories -- both in our daily lives and in our understanding of history -- life loses context. A contextless life is rote and directionless. And without direction, there is no society. There is no advancement in technology or theology or political science.

Or Economics.