The Narrative of Narratives

A couple of years ago, when I read David McRaney’s second book, You Are Now Less Dumb, with its long section about human beings’ ‘narrative bias’, in which everything must be understood as some kind of story, this was a revelation. (Blog post about it here.) This explained various biases toward ideas like “everything happens for a reason” and why when disasters happens, the faithful become even more faithful, because God must have a reason.

Of course, this is a delusion. The universe is not a narrative, and things happen at scales very small and very large which do not operate in any kind of cause-effect relationship that we humans perceive on our interaction with our environment at the scale at which we live.

It may just be confirmation bias, but I don’t think so: the idea of ‘narrative’ is becoming a cultural meme.

First, from the New York Times Magazine a couple weeks ago: When the ‘Narrative’ Becomes the Story by Mark Leibovich, which focuses on political narratives.

When did a plain story become a perpetual narrative? It used to be that after something happened, our leaders, or would-be leaders, would simply debate whatever occurred. It was not always elegant or polite. But the exercise was at least direct. Politicians would unfurl their platforms and attacks and (if they wanted to get all lofty about it) their ‘‘visions.’’ The media would cover it, and then we could all go on with our lives without having to endure an endless belch of rapid reactions and step-back analyses.

Now we must fashion ‘‘narratives.’’ It has all become so faux-momentous, especially in the dispiriting potboiler of our national politics. There might be ‘‘counternarratives’’ to a ‘‘false narrative’’ that feed a ‘‘meta-narrative.’’ The horrific shootings in San Bernardino were barely more than a few hours old when a headline on the conservative website Breitbart was crowing that the mass shootings ‘‘Destroy Leftist Narrative After Leftist Narrative.’’ After the attacks in Paris, President Obama spoke not just of defeating ISIL but also of undercutting ‘‘the ISIL narrative.’’

Second, Time Magazine’s double issue for Dec 28/ Jan 4, about “The Year Ahead”, has a section about Media, by James Murdoch (the CEO of 21st Century Fox), with this subtitle: “Storytelling — both fiction and nonfiction, for good and for ill — will continue to define the world”.

We have examples of transformative storytelling all around us.

Storytelling isn’t always positive. In the midst of the chaos of Iraq and Syria, ISIS masterfully tells its story of blood-soaked vengeance against supposed oppressors in their own lands and those from the West. Its stories sow the seeds of unspeakable atrocities from Raqqa to Paris.

Entrenched and compromised interests spin the fiction that science is more divided than united, and they sow seeds of uncertainty on issues of unquestionable priority: namely, the survival of our species on this planet.

In 2016 and beyond, those who wish to create a better world will have to make storytelling the center of their efforts, not an afterthought. It’s clear that economic and military might will always be the key levers of statecraft. But more than ever before, swift and dramatic change is being driven by powerful narratives that crisscross the world at the speed of a click or a swipe.

We will have to see if 2016 will be a year in which stories of anger, grievance, resentment and scapegoating of the “other” are ascendant, or whether stories of the power of love, empathy and hope for a better future rule the day.

Third, a book review from the weekend’s Wall Street Journal, a paper I don’t normally read but which was free at our hotel in Hollywood this past weekend. It’s a review by Alan Hirshfeld of a book by Randy Olson, Houston, We Have a Narrative (which, despite the review credit, has a paperback edition available for less than $20).

The idea here is that science hasn’t appealed to ordinary folk because it doesn’t have the strong narrative (that religions do).

In “Houston, We Have a Narrative,” Randy Olson, a marine biologist turned Hollywood-based filmmaker and communications consultant, perceives a “narrative deficiency” in the way science presents itself. It is scientists’ feeble storytelling, he claims, that induces yawns in the bulk of society and skepticism, if not outright hostility, in the rest. Whether or not such a blanket assertion is correct, Mr. Olson’s remedy makes sense: To better communicate, researchers should try to distill their work into its story-like essence, ideally a single sentence or perhaps a paragraph, from which can be assembled an engaging, mostly non-technical narrative—a human-interest tale built on scientific facts.

The book’s three-part structure is explicitly modeled after the classic Hegelian triad of thesis/antithesis/synthesis. The “thesis” section posits the aforementioned narrative deficiency in science reportage, while the next section shrugs off its “antithesis” label and elaborates on the narrative techniques that scientists might adopt. Under “synthesis” are anecdotal assessments of these techniques and several case studies, as well as a summary recommendation that scientists create group story-writing circles.

Despite my earlier comment about the idea of narrative as becoming almost a cultural cliche, I am inclined to think the idea of narrative is a cultural imperative, especially as it applies to science and how humanity understands, through science, its place in the universe. Is science fiction a narrative that enables humanity to understand its place in the universe? I’m thinking yes, to some extent, but not entirely. In any event, I am thinking that anyone who might ponder writing a book about how the evident truths of science apply to how humanity understands itself needs to understand how narrative, like sugar, helps the medicine go down.

This entry was posted in Narrative, Science. Bookmark the permalink.