Stories

October 5, 2009

I’m currently reading Tyler Cowen’s book, Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World.  Cowen is an economist and blogger at Marginal Revolution.  In the book, Tyler takes a look at how we order information to meet our needs and wants and uses autism as an interesting device to explore those needs.   

In Chapter 6, he writes about the power of information contained in stories.  Most respond to stories better than unconnected facts.  I can’t remember who said it, but someone said, “I tell them stories and let them figure out what it means.”

Cowen also identifies several problems with the story-based method for relaying information.  Problem #1: The Stories are Too Simple:

Media coverage brings similar problems of oversimplification.  The tendency is to fit all facts into a format of a story, usually with a memorable protagonist, even when the reality is more complex.  Haven’t you noticed how many movies and TV shows offer an underdog struggling against the system and receiving ultimate vindication? It makes for a good tale. Yet this isn’t always the most appropriate or the most accurate way of organizing information.  The media is good at portraying heroes and villians and conspiracies, while it is bad at giving people and understanding of abstract or unseen social and economic forces.

He then goes on to give an example of a CNN.com story of an autistic child that was upset that his family home burned down from a wildfire in California.  The story fed into the stereotype of how autistics are dependent on their daily routines.  Cowen wonders why the obvious question isn’t asked, wouldn’t anybody that lost all of their possessions in a fire be upset?  Isn’t that normal?

But asking that question would destroy the premise of the story, namely that autistic children cannot adjust.

I think it might be more than destroying the premise.  I think deadlines in media contribute to the oversimplified stories.  Bad journalism and editors also contribute.  There are only so many good journalists and editors our there, and there are a lot more news sources.  The story I use to frame that up is to consider the NFL.  There are 32 teams, but only 5 or 6 great quarterbacks at any given time, which is hard to believe considering the sorting systems we have in place for the NFL (high school, club and college athletics).

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