Data vs. Stories: Incalculable Consequences
"Be suspicious of stories," warns economist Tyler Cowen. Stories lower “your IQ by 10 points or more,” by seducing you into simplistic “good vs. evil” thinking.” Life is too messy to “filter” through the limited plots of stories, so Cowen relies on data and “a matrix of computation." This story-versus-data frame is increasingly influential in our data-driven times.
But wait, isn’t economics full of simplifying, filtering stories? The free-market sort only have mono-motivated characters and a single plot, wherein self-interest guarantees the best of all possible outcomes. These homogenizing Utopian yarns of “econo-monism” ignore the “thousand other springs” that animate us, sometimes “counter to self-interest.”
Economics is also riddled with good vs. evil thinking and oversimplifying errors. Heroic saviors like competition guarantee no savings, sometimes increasing costs for all. Casting inefficiency as a sin obscures that it’s really a trait of processes, not a goal in itself. Is achieving a bad end, like destroying the ecosphere, more efficiently, necessarily good? Econo-monism’s stories lower IQs enough that “tragedy of the commons” logic seems rational. Can self-interest that is self-destructive be rightly rational?
Cowen fears that emotional seduction by stories usurps rationality, contributing to the everywhere evident comedy of “rational actors” acting irrationally. Econo-monism resolves this ambient anomaly by the “revealed preferences” subplot. An unconscious rational preference for that overpriced trinket was revealed by your buying it. In econo-monism, since we’re rational actors, all we do must have been done for rational reasons. That’s worse than jumping to conclusions; it’s jumping back to your own assumptions. Weak ideas that economists use among themselves needn’t worry us. But publicly preaching econo-monism’s parables can create bad pop-economics, like the history-defying faith that cutting taxes generates growth.
Cowen’s story-versus-data frame creates two risks. First data often isn’t simple or neutral. It needs, guess what, explanatory stories. Metrics can be amoral in physics, but social science data often aren’t value free (economics itself was once called “moral science”). Second, the story-versus-data frame dismisses whatever isn’t, or can’t be, captured in data. But “not everything that counts can be counted” (and vice versa).
Cognitive science is re-learning what the humanities have always known: “the human mind is a story processor.” To understand a thing is to have a story about it. Narrative and numbers are both powerful thinking tools. But the seeming objectivity and precision of data are limited. So be skeptical of claims that we can count on data and computations to add up to wisdom. Or we may risk incalculable consequences.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.
Don't underestimate the power of play when it comes to problem-solving.
- As we get older, the work we consistently do builds "rivers of thinking." These give us a rich knowledge of a certain kind of area.
- The problem with this, however, is that as those patterns get deeper, we get locked into them. When this happens it becomes a challenge to think differently — to break from the past and generate new ideas.
- How do we get out of this rut? One way is to bring play and game mechanics into workshops. When we approach problem-solving from a perspective of fun, we lose our fear of failure, allowing us to think boldly and overcome built patterns.
Controversial map names CEOs of 100 companies producing 71 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.
- Just 100 companies produce 71 percent of the world's greenhouse gases.
- This map lists their names and locations, and their CEOs.
- The climate crisis may be too complex for these 100 people to solve, but naming and shaming them is a good start.
The surprising results come from a new GLAAD survey.
- The survey found that 18- to 34-year-old non-LGBTQ Americans reported feeling less comfortable around LGBTQ people in a variety of hypothetical situations.
- The attitudes of older non-LGBTQ Americans have remained basically constant over the past few years.
- Overall, about 80 percent of Americans support equal rights for LGBTQ people.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.