Thursday, 31 January 2008

Rambling about writing and thinking

As I have mentioned before, I'm quite a fan of the narrative paradigm - the idea that we are principally story-telling animals and that most of our communication takes the story-telling form. We are faced by a complex world which we struggle to make sense of, so it is is easier to understand it in terms different narratives, each with plots and characters in them.

One of the reasons I find this a compelling way of looking at the way we understand reality is the number of times you find personality-based (or dispositional to use the lingo) explanations of events cropping up in political 'analysis', or the way people try and personify political opinions they disagree with. The fact that we often rely on dispositional explanations for events is surprising. Unless we were able to run the same event over and over again and witness the decisions made by people of differing personality types it's difficult to see why we should have confidence that the character of the individual is the swing factor. Yet such explanations crop up all the time. As an example here's a line from the Telegraph business section last year about Mervyn King's role in the Northern Rock crisis:

"More than ever it looks like King has been reading from the wrong page of the regulatory manual, betraying his background as a clever academic when the situation required the gut feel of a banker."

Much journalistic writing, even that which is offered up as analysis, strikes me as very obviously falling into the story-telling category. This is probably not surprising given that many journalists are not experts in the fields they cover. Hence what they write tends to rely on narrative explanations rather than a genuine understanding both of what is happening and why it is happening. Personalities play a big role, as do simple cause and effect interpretations. A good example from the financial world is the impact of the abolition of dividend tax credits on pension funds. It clearly did not help as it reduced the investment income available, but I think it's simply wrong to suggest it is the 'cause' of the closure of final salary schemes. Yet it is frequently referred to as the 'cause' because it's an easy way to explain what happened and means that we can put blame on a decision made by an individual. The alternative is to see the closures as the result of an unhelpful combination of a number of factors. But that's a complicated explanation and not much fun.

Don't underestimate our attachment to our narratives. The first Pensions Commission report covered the closure of final salary schemes and basically made the point that getting rid of tax credits wasn't the cause (they identified various factors - mortality, the post-2000 bear market, increasing regulation guaranteeing benefits that were previously discretionary etc). I noticed at the time that when faced with this challenge to their narrative at least one well-known financial journo interpreted this as being the result of Adair Turner trying to avoid saying anything politically embarrassing. Whilst I'm not naive enough to think such things don't happen, why overlook the possibility that the report was telling the truth? Maybe because the dispositional get-out means that the journo can continue to use their narrative short-cut understanding of the issue, rather than considering the evidence and perhaps revising their opinion.

I think the desire for narratives also manifests itself when people radically change their political views. It's notable that when some people's politics change they often seem to go through a wholesale change. We can all think of examples of those formerly some way out on the Left who subsequently became thoroughly right-wing. That is of course absolutely their right, but it is surprising that a number of such people seem to shift their view from Left to Right on each and every issue. It's unlikely that any 'side' is the sole repositery for truth, therefore wouldn't we expect to see more people become unaligned (as they realise that the side they had affiliated with is 'wrong' on certain issues) or simply moderate their views, rather than shift from one pole to another? If people are rationally considering each and every issue we might well expect to find this happen, but if we are principally in the business of buying narratives then maybe it's not surprising to see people chuck out one and replace it with a diffrent one. It's a lot easier than thinking through each issue in detail.

I'm not claiming any superiority here - I am as bad as anyone. I used to go on a mainstream news messageboard quite a bit to talk (mainly) politics with people. But I grew frustrated at the nature of the discussions that took place. It was almost as if there was a sort of choreography at work. If Right-Wing Person A makes Point 1, then the 'correct' response from Left-Wing Person B is Counterpoint 2. There is clearly an element of pattern recognition going on when you are involved in this type of 'discussion'. Of course George Orwell got there first. This is from Politics And The English Language:

"A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church."

On the messageboard I was no better than anyone else at avoiding this, but after a while I could at least recognise that I was feeling pulled towards writing certain responses without really thinking about the content of the proposition I was about to challenge or that of my response. As a result I increasingly found myself not responding to things unless I felt a) I knew what I was talking about and b) I was actually going to add something to the discussion.

In real life I still find it a problem. When I am trying to understand what is going in the financial world I often feel the pull to adopt a mini conspiracy theory about why a particular organisation has done something (or not done something) rather than looking at the evidence. One plus point in all this is that I actually feel a lot better when I have put the effort in to understand an issue properly. Despite the strong desire we feel to adopt a certain narrative, I think that once you make yourself aware of the process, and how it can lead you to a wonky understanding of an issue, you can act to correct it. I think I am slowly training myself to be uneasy when I feel that my understanding of an issue is narrative-driven.

Of course you can only take this so far. Conversation and writing would get pretty slow and boring if it was reduced to a collection of evidence-based propositions and their refutation. But I have this recurring thought that unless you do keep plugging away to try and get some sort of handle on the 'truth' of an issue then we simply end up with our heads full of narratives that add very little of value to our understanding the world.


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John said...

Great post thanks Tom, and bonus thanks for the link to Politics and the English Language. I was looking around for a copy after Billy Hayes recommended it as a useful and fun read, so very welcome. Not sure if the recommendation was directed at my own sloppy writing style tho ;)
Cheers, john

Tom P said...

cheers John! that Orwell esssay is a great read, and guaranteed to make all us blush a bit about how we write.