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. We still need facts to navigate the world. 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 student groups split 20:80 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 a tiny group of women who both work in call centres AND are active feminist bloggers. This is option B – the option that almost all students tend to 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?

At this point in my classes, we have a spirited argument with students who don’t want A to be the most probable outcome. Despite the overwhelming odds (there’s a 4% chance of Linda being in section A and a 0.0016% of her being in section B**), they are still rooting for Linda. 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, however you imagine Linda’s life story, in strict probability terms, nobody is ever more likely to be both one thing AND another, compared to being just one thing.

For the students who won’t let go of Linda, the values of the Linda Story outweigh 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. You have to accept that 2 + 2 = 4 if we’re going to discuss anything sensibly. The strength of the arguments made by Experts comes from facts, logic AND their expertise or academic track record. They want us to judge what they say based on whether it makes rational sense.

In the Rational Paradigm, Experts are saying: “I want you to think the right thing.”

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.

In the Narrative Paradigm, Storytellers are saying: “I want you to do the right thing.”

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: stories are visual, especially when they are about real people, places & things. Data is rarely visual.
  • Do: stories are about action, not theory. We read someone’s character and intentions in what they choose to do.
  • Right: 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 cut no ice with non-experts. We want to know what values you hold and whether you live up to them. Finally, we are primed and ready for certain fundamental life stories, so if you can make your argument feel like one of those stories (without distorting it!) you have a much better chance of being heard.

More notes on storytelling here. Lots more about narrative here. If you want a great example of an Expert who tells powerful stories, read Hans Rosling’s wonderful book Factfulness.

*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!

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