Facts and Values: how to be an Expert in a world obsessed with stories

I wondered about headlining this piece “how to be an expert in a post-fact world“, but I don’t think we’ve given up on facts just yet. But I think Experts sometimes see facts differently from the rest of us.

Let’s try an experiment. I want you to read this passage and imagine a woman called Linda:

Linda is 31, single, outspoken and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student she was deeply concerned with discrimination and social justice. She also participated in anti nuclear demonstrations.*

Now, answer this: which do you think is more probable?

A: Linda works in a call centre. Or B: Linda works in a call centre but is an active feminist blogger.

Most of my clients split 20:80 on this question, with the majority picking B. So I ask them to consider Linda as a Venn Diagram, in other words as a maths problem.

In a pool of all adult women (let’s say 25 million in the UK) the big green rectangle represents those women working in call centres (around one million). The small brown rectangle represents active feminist bloggers (for the sake of argument, let’s say there are ten thousand).

Now imagine the intersection of those two groups. This is the tiny group of women who both work in call centres AND are active feminist bloggers. This is option B – the option that most people pick. Looking at the probabilities, think again. If you had to bet £50 of your own money on the most likely outcome, would you change from B to A? In fact, if you choose A, you get B thrown in, so you can’t lose!

Despite the overwhelming odds** some people are still rooting for Linda and insist on sticking with B. They don’t want the feisty student they once knew to have given up. They hope she’s still sticking it to The Man. They want a happy ending to Linda’s story. But the fact is, in strict probability terms, nobody is ever more likely to be both one thing AND another, compared to being just one thing.

If you’re the person who won’t let go of Linda, the values of the Linda Story are outweighing the facts of the Linda Problem.

The Linda Problem nicely illustrates the difference between the Rational Paradigm and the Narrative Paradigm, as outlined by Walter Fisher. And it shows where Experts go wrong when they try to talk to a wider audience.

Experts tend to operate under the Rational Paradigm (or at least, they’re supposed to). According to this view of the world, facts matter most. The more data you have about more people or things, the better. You need to marshall your facts according to agreed standards of logic. We should believe Experts based on their facts, logic AND expertise or academic track record.

But there’s a problem: most of us, most of the time, see the world under the Narrative Paradigm. Facts also matter in this worldview, but personal moments outweigh impersonal data. Anecdotes feel more real than Venn Diagrams or spreadsheets, especially if we can relate in some way to the person in the story. The minute you visualise a story about a woman called Linda, the rational part of your brain gives way to the narrative part.

Emotions matter far more than logic in this paradigm: emotions focus our attention and fix things in our memory. We care less about the academic track record of the person telling us the story and more about their character. Crucially, we want to know what values these characters are motivated by and do they live up to them?

Just imagine finding out that David Attenborough was a major shareholder in a polluting oil corporation.*** Would it change how you respond when he told you about plastics in the ocean? We judge stories by whether they ring true. We are asking ourselves “does this story feel like other stories in my life that I know to be true?” These fundamental life stories are rich in action and values.

Experts should bear this in mind when they are operating – like the rest of us – within the Narrative Paradigm. Good stories show us how to do the right thing. Let’s break that down:

  • Show us: stories are visual, especially when they are about real people, places & things. Data is rarely visual.****
  • How to Do: stories are about action, not theory. We read someone’s character from how they choose to act, not what they think.
  • The Right Thing: stories are about values. Obviously, what’s right and wrong is up for debate. But there’s no point pretending to be value-free.

As an Expert, you MUST have facts, logic and a rational argument. But you must also be able to tell stories that bring your arguments to life. Your academic credentials may earn you credit with other Experts, but they mean little to non-experts especially if you are talking to them about their lives.

I think this is what Michael Gove was getting at when he famously said people had “had enough of experts… telling them what’s best.” Economists, political theorists – any kind of expert – must tread very carefully when telling people what is “best” in an issue as personal as how to vote in a referendum.

More notes on storytelling here. Lots more about narrative here.

*The Linda Problem is a test devised in the 1970s by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, as described in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

** Ok, here’s the maths behind my version of the Linda Problem. If there are 25 million women in the UK, and 1 million work in call centres, that means a 1 in 25 chance you’ll find Linda in group A, which means 4%. We imagined there are 10,000 active feminist bloggers in the UK. Let’s assume they are no more or less likely to work in call centres than any other woman. So 1 in 25 feminist bloggers are working in a call centre, which works out at 400. Group B is made up of 400 women in a population of 25,000,000 which means your chances of finding Linda there are 400 in 25,000,000 or 0.0016%. It doesn’t matter how you cut the numbers, you’re never more likely to be two things than one.

*** He’s not!

**** If you want a great example of an Expert who tells powerful stories, read Hans Rosling’s wonderful book Factfulness.

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