The stories of development

Less Wrong transcribes Tyler Cowen’s Tedx talk on stories:

…we should be suspicious of stories. We’re biologically programmed to respond to them. They contain a lot of information. They have social power. They connect us to other people. So they’re like a kind of candy that we’re fed when we consume political information, when we read novels. When we read nonfiction books, we’re really being fed stories.

…So what are the problems of relying too heavily on stories? You view your life like “this” instead of the mess that it is or it ought to be.

…narratives tend to be too simple. The point of a narrative is to strip it way, not just into 18 minutes, but most narratives you could present in a sentence or two. So when you strip away detail, you tend to tell stories in terms of good vs. evil, whether it’s a story about your own life or a story about politics.

…As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you’re telling a good vs. evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more. If you just adopt that as a kind of inner mental habit, it’s, in my view, one way to get a lot smarter pretty quickly.

What are the stories of development? Off the cuff thoughts:

  • Evil dictator versus good reformer
  • Africa resurgent
  • The tragedy of Africa
  • Good reformer becomes evil dictator
  • The elusive quest for growth?

Did your IQ just drop 50 points?

(Sorry bout the last one, Bill, but I couldn’t resist. You of all people can afford to lose 10 points).

3 thoughts on “The stories of development

  1. I feel like aid bloggers (Professor Easterly included) use a lot of stories to debunk other aid stories. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, though an over-reliance on storytelling *is* a bad thing, of course, and in professor Easterly’s defense he’s used an awful lot of theory, data, and other alternatives.

    Anyway, I suppose a list of development stories should include:

    Randomization as the answer to the aid debate (maybe?)
    The Green Revolution
    Investments in (pick your public health program) have paid off
    “Divergence, big time,” followed by “Convergence, big time.”

  2. the other day at a child protection evidence summit in DC, reacting to someone’s plug for more qual research, more individual stories, a senior CDC guy said, “yes but the plural of story is not data.” got a laugh out of the crowd.