What Can We Learn from Stories? A Lot if They are Congruent with the Data


Tyler Cowen once said this of stories:

“As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you’re telling a good vs. evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more.”

I’m sympathetic to this interpretation.

Stories, like status, often make us dumber.

That being said, I find stories to be very useful in elucidating the emotional components of policy.

Often times, even if I know all the data, I don’t truly “get it” until I hear a story that makes the data come to life.

Now the key here – and I wish every journalist at every paper in the world would get this – is that the best stories follow a fact pattern that the data suggests is common.

Far, far too often, journalists do the opposite. They tell stories as a counterweight to the data.

This consistently happens when reporters cover New Orleans education reform.

Journalists will write something such as: “New Orleans has seen unprecedented gains in student achievement” and then tell a story of a student who is struggling.

This risks leaving readers with the exact wrong impression, as the story is inevitably mentally stickier than the data.

So here’s my plea to journalists.

Tell us great stories.

Just make sure they are aligned with, and not inapposite to, the data.

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