Historians have an increasingly strong incentive to tell dramatic stories which gain attention and make ‘impact’. But anyone in the business of reporting on reality – scholars, scientists, journalists – ought to be suspicious of narrative, even if they use it. So should those of us who consume these reports. Just because information is conveyed in narrative form doesn’t make it false, but it does mean that it’s going to seem more true than it is.
Stories are reality filters. By definition, they leave out information – all the messy stuff that doesn’t fit – and draw attention to what the storyteller wants us to notice. In that sense they are like ideologies: both are methods of rolling and shaping the hot metal of reality into smooth ready-made shapes. Stories don’t accommodate randomness or structural forces very well; they rely on chains of causation and on individual motive. Covid-19 can’t be an accident and we needn’t bother ourselves too much with biology; it is a plot perpetrated by evil people. Bulstrode’s paper has the flavour of a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories aren’t theories; they’re stories.
Stories act like an anaesthetic on our sceptical, questioning faculties. It can be valuable and pleasurable to subdue that part of our brain, and immerse ourselves in an imaginary world; I love reading stories, including non-fictional ones.
But if you come across a history book, or a scientific study, or a news report, which tells a great story, or which slots neatly into a master-narrative in which you already believe, you should be more sceptical of its truth-value, not less. Narrative can give an illusion of solidity. When the expert narrative about the world changes, as with China (see below), we shouldn’t just conclude that the old narrative was false, but that all such narratives are unreliable.From Ian Leslie’s The Ruffian – Stories are bad for your intelligence
Hat tip: MR