“You should never tell stories. Stories are the worst.”

“Stories are terrible. You should never tell stories. Stories are the worst.”

I would never disagree with Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman about anything economic. But he’s making proclamations about my areas of expertise here. And Nobel or not, he’s dead wrong.

Stories
Stephen J. Dubner, photo by Audrey S. Bernstein, CC BY-SA 4.0

Okay, that’s not a direct quote from Kahneman. It’s Kahneman as told by Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of the Freakonomics books.

Storytelling propelled Freakonomics to the best seller lists. Let me rephrase that: a book about economics hit #2 on The New York Times Best-Seller list. A book about economics.

Because it wasn’t just a book about economics. Freakonomics melds story, theory, and data into such a compelling package that anyone can get drawn into the story. Even the kind of person who fell asleep in the back row of Economics class. Even the kind of person who would never register for Economics class.

Stories vs. anecdotes

So why does Dr. Kahneman hate stories so much?

It turns out he didn’t understand what Dubner meant by the term. In his interview on Tim Ferriss’s podcast, Dubner explained Kahneman’s objection:

“…he said, ‘Stories don’t contain any data and they don’t have any time – they don’t have a time series attached to them.’ And I realized that Danny kind of, Danny thought I was talking about was not so much what I think of as a story, but what I think of as an anecdote.

An anecdote would be, like, let’s say we’re talking about drunk driving and the actual data and the numbers and so on. And I can tell you that the data seem to show that if I’m a drunk driver vs. a sober driver I’m 13 times more likely to get involved in a fatal crash. That’s what I tell you the data say.

And then you say, ‘Well I’ve got an uncle, my uncle’s accountant drinks every night at the tavern and drives home and he’s never even had a fender-bender.’ That’s an anecdote.”

Heck, using that definition even I would hate stories. So what’s Dubner’s definition?

“…to me what a story is it’s got the narrative but it does include the kinds of things that Danny Kahneman says you need to include, which is data and time series. Data, because you need to know the magnitude of the story —is it really important? And time series because you need to know if it was a kind of blip or if it really persisted. And that to me are the elements of a good story: data, a time element, at time series and a narrative with characters that people can identify with.”

Dubner had one other requirement for a story.

“And, by the way, it needs to all be true. I’m a journalist by training, I’m a nonfiction writer. And I believe that the best kind of storytelling is where you’ve got real reporting, real numbers, and you can make an argument that acknowledges my argument is not perfect, it’s not meant to be, but it is compelling because it is true.”

I couldn’t agree more.


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