The Fundamental Tension between Stories and Statistics

by Shubha Bala, associate producer

The DodecahedronMy favorite dog-earred, page-stained book growing up was The Phantom Tollbooth. I must have read over 40 times about Milo’s quest through the Kingdom of Wisdom to reconcile the rulers of Dictionopolis, the lover of words, and Digitopolis, the lover of numbers. The conclusion of this book, and of John Allen Paulos’ recent post in The New York Times, is that both language and math should reign equally.

Paulos, a mathematician and professor, argues that while narratives and statistics play important roles, people approach them both with different mindsets:

"Despite the naturalness of these notions, however, there is a tension between stories and statistics, and one under-appreciated contrast between them is simply the mindset with which we approach them. In listening to stories we tend to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained, whereas in evaluating statistics we generally have an opposite inclination to suspend belief in order not to be beguiled."

He goes on to demonstrate this tension by citing examples of statistical errors that are completely natural in storytelling, like the conjunction fallacy.

Journalism, to me, seems to be the attempt to reconcile that tension by finding common space between the data and the narratives. Do you think there is an inherent difference in how we mentally approach statistics and stories? Or is it a tension which can be bridged?

Image above: The dodecahedron, from the children’s book “The Phantom Tollbooth,” has 12 faces each showing a different emotion. (illustration by Jules Feiffer)

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