On Storytelling

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

In The Undercover Economist, to take 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 because they’re 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.

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 a moving annual narrative and condenses it into a one-shot visual grab of staggering power (see the full image here).

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 keeps you awake at night, or makes you cry, or makes you afraid to turn the page because you’re worried that one of your favorite characters will get killed.

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, for example, has written beautifully and movingly about his discipline, often in books selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

Social scientists and lawyers have been much slower to master narrative. People unaware of British intellectual history often think economics is called “The Dismal Science” because economists are boring—the academic and public policy equivalent of accountants in the private sector. Lawyers have less excuse, as people with the best results in languages at school often choose law.

Andrew Norton sums up our preference for storytellers when commenting on a list of Australia’s “top public intellectuals,” and hazards 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.

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