Narrative Fallacy and “Why?” Questions

Those of you who have read The Black Swan know of Taleb’s term narrative fallacy, a tendency to overweight the stories we use to summarize facts. Taleb makes the point many times that humans like to make up causal stories and treat them as true, which is one reason why people tend to ignore randomness.

To make things worse, complete stories, ones with more details tend to be more convincing. We thus not only gravitate to stories, but stories with embellishments. Are there better (and more likely to be correct) ways of satisfying our curiosity?

Andrew Gelman gives us a bit of a hint:

Many years ago, Don Rubin convinced me that it’s a lot easier to think about “effects of causes” than “causes of effects.” For example, why did my cat die? Because she ran into the street, because a car was going too fast, because the driver wasn’t paying attention, because a bird distracted the cat, because the rain stopped so the cat went outside, etc. When you look at it this way, the question of “why” is pretty meaningless.

Similarly, if you ask a question such as, What caused World War 1, the best sort of answers can take the form of potential-outcomes analyses. I don’t think it makes sense to expect any sort of true causal answer here.

3 Comments  »

  1. zach says:

    yet, when I bring up to people that narrative fallacies are committed by every history textbook, I get very skeptical responses.

    “Of course the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand caused WWI. Of course the attack at Pearl Harbor instigated American entrance into WWII. Of course the rise of contraceptive use during the late colonial period led to the decrease in birth rate in census data.”

    I think the problem, of course, is not that narratives are untrue, just that we are not nearly skeptical enough about them. Especially in history studies, the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy reigns supreme.

    • olimay says:

      The problem is the mistakenly given importance to some factors over others because those factors are important to the telling of the story. Taleb loves narratives and fiction, as a way to talk about deeper truths, but not as a tool to analyze facts. Narratives, actually, are anti-analytic by nature.

  2. These groups were regularly infiltrated, and members, once arrested, easily gave up their comrades.

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