Storytellers and moralists

By skepticlawyer

If you’re going to win an argument or persuade someone to your point of view, it helps if you can tell a story. And by this I don’t mean any old story, but the sort of story that kept you awake at night as a kid, or made you cry, or made you afraid to turn the page because you were scared that one of your favourite characters was about to get killed. For those less into books than me, turn your mind’s eye to the best cinema or theatre to get the same effect: stories with narrative arcs and characters about which you cared, passionately.

And think, too, of what happened when you read books or watched films that didn’t make you care about the characters or narrative. Don’t be afraid to admit that so-called ‘great literature’ can fail for this reason, too, especially as people’s tastes and values shift over time. I have never got past Book III of Paradise Lost: the whole thing bores me rigid. A greatly respected literary critic friend of mine has never been able to finish Midnight’s Children. I can’t speak for her with respect to Rushdie, but Milton’s failure for me is that he doesn’t make me care about his characters or world, and he doesn’t know how to structure a story. Indeed, the best summary I’ve found of my problems with Paradise Lost is an essay suggesting that the whole poem is like a bad comic book. At least I know I’m not alone with Milton: both T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis thought Paradise Lost unreadable.

If Milton is hard for some modern readers because he ‘fails to engage’, spare a thought for the person who has to tell an important story with numbers and graphs, and where words are often just a support act. I speak, of course, of social scientists and lawyers.

Scientists learnt long ago that elegant equations and mathematical proofs bought them nothing in the way of public approbation, so those scientists with a flair for language turned to the writer’s craft, to narrative. Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Steven Weinberg, Jane Goodall: all have written beautifully and movingly about their disciplines, often in books that have sold hundreds of thousands or even millions of copies.

Social scientists and lawyers have been much slower to master narrative. People unaware of the ebb and flow of British intellectual history often think economics is called ‘The Dismal Science‘ because economists are so boring, the academic and public policy equivalent of accountants in the private sector. Lawyers have less excuse, as people with the best results in English and languages at school often head into the legal profession. Unfortunately, the ranks of writer-lawyers who address with beauty the discipline of law are thin: Cicero and Gaius among the Romans, Richard Posner and Lord Denning in modern times. And yet, those among us who have studied law know which lawyers have a way with words, because long practice means reading lots of judgments. And some judges, we are delighted to discover, can write!

Andrew Norton (a ‘numbers man’ par excellence) sums up our preference for storytellers when commenting on a list of Australia’s ‘top public intellectuals’:

Despite the diverse interests and views of the people who made it to these lists, one striking thing is that they are dominated by storytellers and moralists. They are people who tell stories about some aspect of Australian and sometimes international life or history (eg on the latest list Blainey, Inga Clendinnen, Helen Garner, Robert Hughes) and / or moralisers (eg Robert Manne, Peter Singer, Clive Hamilton, Tim Flannery, David Marr).

Social scientists, people who use statistics to explain and advise Australia, are conspicuously absent. There are no economists on the ALR list (Hamilton has an economics PhD, but that’s not the basis of his public prominence). Politicians are also rare: Bob Brown and Carmen Lawrence, moralists both, and Barry Jones, a classic case of a good memory being confused with intellectual talent. Just two people on this list have any power beyond their own words to shape the world around them: Noel Pearson and one of my bosses, Glyn Davis.

Andrew goes on to hazard a guess as to why this is the case:

The human brain is surprisingly bad at remembering numbers, and struggles to recall or even understand the analytical arguments that flow from them. Narrative is our more natural mode of understanding, and people respond better to thinkers who use it to convey their message. Similarly, right and wrong in the moral sense is something that people sense and respond to from a very early age, while right and wrong in a mathematical sense is hard to acquire and rarely provides conclusions that resonate. As Stalin is reported to have said, in one of his rare moments of insight, ‘one death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic’.

For aspiring public intellectuals, there are clear messages in all this: go for stories over statistics, and anecdotes over analysis.

As Don Arthur points out, it’s even worse for those of us who aren’t storytellers: there is empirical evidence that virtually all human knowledge is based on narratives arising from previous experience. He also observes that on the few occasions where economists and social scientists have broken out of the box and reached a wider public, they have thrown out their graphs and diagrams and gone in for the telling of stories. He nominates Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose and F.A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom as signal successes in this: signal because so rare.

In recent years, the likes of Steven Levitt and Tim Harford have also turned to narrative in order to convey some of the wonder of their discipline to a wider public, and to some extent, they’ve succeeded. Harford in particular has made economics seem cool, both through his column in the FT and the books he’s written. However, even so gifted a writer as he is always going to struggle against a moving story.

In The Undercover Economist, to take only one example, there’s an outstanding chapter called ‘How China Grew Rich’. In it, Harford seeks to explode the widespread view that sweatshops in developing countries are bad for the poor and ought to be boycotted: oppressive, unsafe, and unsanitary. His argument is nothing more and nothing less than the accepted view among economists across the spectrum, from Paul Krugman to Tyler Cowen to Steven Horwitz. Matt Zwolinski usefully summarises Harford’s case (on a libertarian blog, admittedly, but for my purposes, that doesn’t matter–the important thing to remember is its wide currency):

  1. Sweatshop labor is very often the best option individuals in the developing world have for improving their lives and the lives of their families.
  2. We know this partly because individuals reveal a strong preference for sweatshop jobs both behaviorally in their eager acceptance of such jobs when they are made available, and verbally in their response to questions by journalists and researchers. [See informal reports such as this and more formal reports such as this]
  3. And we know it partly by looking at quantitative data on sweatshop jobs vs. other forms of employment. [See Powell and Skarbek’s paper here]
  4. Because sweatshop labor is often the most attractive option that individuals in the developing world have available to them, those of us who care about their welfare and their autonomy have strong prima facie moral reason to refrain from taking those jobs away from them.
  5. Boycotting sweatshops, or imposing onerous restrictions on the importation or sale of sweatshop-produced goods, often has the effect of taking sweatshop jobs away from people (i.e. of reducing the demand of sweatshops for labor).
  6. Increasing the legal regulation of sweatshops – requiring them to pay a higher wage, to improve safety conditions, to make concessions to organized labor, etc. – also often has the effect of taking sweatshop jobs away from people. [For one recent illustrative analysis, see this paper from Ann Harrison and Jason Scorse]
  7. Therefore, we should avoid, or at least be exceedingly cautious about, boycotting, banning, or increasing the legal regulation of sweatshops and/or sweatshop-produced goods.

However, no matter how clear and reasoned is Harford’s account of China’s path to prosperity, it cannot compete with the picture above, which takes one of our most moving narratives and condenses it into a one-shot visual grab of staggering power. The narrative, of course, is A Christmas Carol, which has precursors in writers as diverse as Rousseau and Juvenal, all of whom wanted us to engage our moral sentiments when it came to thinking about people less fortunate than ourselves.

The economists and mathematicians–with their numbers and graphs–may be right, but that picture is devastating, and cannot be gainsaid.

[This is, by default, the Saturday chit-chat thread.]


  1. Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    A great image to accompany a fine insight.

    My comment is to the side. I have wondered in print how Robert Manne (and Clive Hamilton) can be ‘public intellectuals’ when what they write is sometimes so full of heart rather than head. Isn’t the role of the intellect to reason and analyse? I’d certainly accept ‘public moralisers’, and the term might well apply to me, on occasion, too. But I would think any piece of writing that is larded with adjectives and adverbs has a diminished intellectual value.

    In truth, all public intellectuals are advocates, using their analytic skills to advance a particular position (or to knock another one down). What is important is how honestly they do so.

  2. John H.
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Thank you SL for highlighting one of my favourite gripes about how Aussies perceives “intellectuals”. There is more intellectual firepower on this forum than many public debates. Our politicians also seem to lack the ability to identify those individuals who know how to think about modern day complexities. Our intellectual culture has been reduced to slogans and quips, a gift to those who are more interested in popularity than truth. The problem has increasingly permeated academia and that is a very worrying. Even online attempts to raise the quality of debate seems to have fallen into this trap. The Edge, Fora TV, TED talks, all were intended to raise the level of debate. To some extent yes but it seems now those avenues are declining in intellectual firepower.

    People writ large don’t seem to appreciate how difficult some areas of intellectual endeavours are. Consider the two blog posts I read earlier in the week in relation to the demand for better measures to prevent the mentally ill obtaining weapons. People seem to have his idea that it is easy to identify the mentally ill. Damn, we still don’t know what a “normal brain” is!

    Either way, it’s a serious problem, and Scarpazza et al point to one especially worrying implication: some people have proposed using single-subject VBM in a legal context, to reinforce insanity pleas by showing subtle ‘brain abnormalities’ not obvious to the naked eye. Yet if this paper’s right, such evidence could be entirely meaningless, almost guaranteed to give a positive result.

  3. Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Taking an easily-detected marker as a proxy for something else is what the psychologists call “Attribute Substitution“.

    So you see narrative excellence and substitute “this person must be good at X”. Not consciously, mind you; just that the brain looks for shortcuts for drawing conclusions and then slaps nice wallpaper over the process to fool you into thinking you did it the right way.

    It occurs to me that attribute substitution explains the halo effect too.

  4. Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    It happens a lot in my trade, incidentally. Lots of programmers are famous within the industry almost entirely because they write well, not because of the systems they’ve built or the code they’ve written.

    So in that respect, studying law for a few years has been a great boon. Not for the subject matter: for the habits of thought.

  5. Adrien
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    A greatly respected literary critic friend of mine has never been able to finish Midnight’s Children.

    I’ve never been able to start it.

    Lawyers have less excuse, as people with the best results in English and languages at school often head into the legal profession.

    When I was in high school your best bet at getting into law school or any other university course was to study maths and science subjects. One would still expect a certain preponderance of those talented with the word to enter law school but I’m certain there would also be a shift, in general, toward the science end of the spectrum. This was certainly true when I studied stuff like history at university.

    There were many people who had studied science maths subjects at a secondary level with relatively mediocre results and were in ahead of people who studied history in high school with anything less than excellent results. So you had tertiary students who had no idea what the caused the French Revolution or that the Reformation had ever happened etc.

  6. Adrien
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    The lists of our top public intellectuals is depressing and embarrassing.

    Barry Jones is probably the most over-rated person in history. His work is a regurgitation of other peoples’ books. Having met the man on a number of occasions, including at ballot stations where we faced each other ‘across enemy lines’ so to speak, I can only express my impressions of a mid-level faculty member at a 1950s C-Grade midwest university whose one outstanding attribute is a sense of significance that is shattered whenever the professor has to mingle with people whose prime lifelong preoccupation is not with the digestive functions of cattle.

    Liz Grosz is a public intellectual? How? Her books are incomprehensible?

  7. Mel
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    Well, Adrien, if only Barry Jones had listened to your sage advice he might by now be a respected public intellectual rather than a bitter little gingerbread man.

  8. Mel
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    On the OP- I’m forever grateful that I studied economics in secondary school plus a couple of units at Uni. Without it, maybe I too would fall for what I assume to be the sentiments that motivated the cartoon. All things being equal, the child factory drones are better off than their peers on the street who beg or prostitute themselves for a living. Consequently, actions often promoted by progressives such as consumer boycotts would only add to the sum total of misery.

    Nonetheless, the working conditions in such factories are often much worse than they need be, hence workers being incinerated in fires because the exit doors are locked or jumping out of windows to commit suicide.

    I firmly believe we in the privileged world have the power and the moral duty to alleviate the worst suffering among the exploited. But, like 95% of my kin, I’m selfish and would rather spend $2,000 on a nice new plasma TV than donate to any charity that would provide such alleviation. And f#ck you for trying to prick my conscience, brown people.

  9. Posted January 20, 2013 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    A thoughtful response to this piece from Norm Geras, over here in Blighty. His blog doesn’t allow comments, unfortunately, so you’ll have to comment here:

    FWIW, I’m not sure he’s right (most people I know do not engage in philosophical reasoning in that way, and that ‘most people I know’ includes many lawyers, people who are generally comfortable with abstractions). Indeed, much charity depends on single dreadful images (starving children, homeless people in the rain, abused animals). When I am confronted by narratives like that, I do reason backward from Adam Smith’s ‘moral sentiment’ to something more abstract, but I’m not sure that other people necessarily do.

  10. Adrien
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Well, Adrien, if only Barry Jones had listened to your sage advice he might by now be a respected public intellectual rather than a bitter little gingerbread man.

    What sage advice? If you’re gonna be bitchy Mel it helps to address what I’ve said rather than respond to something I didn’t say. Barry Jones is a ‘respected public intellectual’, that is, he is respected by other non-entities who think reading a literary supplement once in a while gifts them with the ‘answers’. This phenomena is most amusing every five or ten years when Aboriginal Affairs become a fashionable topic in the North Fitzroy cafes ’round ten o’ clock on a Sunday morning. Oh those people have the answers all right.

    Your moral duty can be exercised by patterns of consumption, consumer activism and knowing enough to know that the factory bound kids portrayed in the cartoon above are ‘yellow’ not ‘brown’. Not that it makes a difference; you’re wrong, we don’t have ‘the power’. When the yellow people have enough shopping malls and their trade unions have broken thru the legal barriers to their existence methinks it’ll be time for the yellow people to outsource their shithouse industrial wage-slave jobs to the brown people.

  11. Adrien
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall

    Obama again explicitly asserts gay rights as part of the American Dream in a major speech. What he can or will do about it’s a mystery. What I noticed is the Lincoln riff:

    Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together. /blockquote>

    Twirling toward freedom? It’s okay ’cause:

    Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority.

    Perhaps not but everything else seems to be for sale.

    Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution.

    I’m reminded of rituals of antique superstition designed to appease the gods of weather and plague.

  12. Mel
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    Adrien, you goofy goose, the expression “brown people” is sometimes used as a euphemism for poor, non-white folk irrespective of race.

    Write something as thought provoking as Jones’ Sleepers, Wake! and demonstrate crystal ball gazing as sharp as Jones’ prescience on the import of various technologies, like biotech, and science matters, like AGW, and I’ll consider upgrading your cyber-rating to that of a somewhat daffy duck.

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