Storytelling, a follow-up -Reply
jbalkin at MAIL.LAW.YALE.EDU
Wed Aug 20 20:02:10 PDT 1997
Eugene's very interesting post about affirmative action is intriguing
but seems to prove too much. I'm afraid this is going to take us even
further off-list, but I hope people can find something interesting in this
discussion that follows.
If stories like Patrick Chavis' tell us, in Eugene's words, "absolutely
nothing, and I do mean really, nothing" about the merits of affirmative
action, then we must face two rather embarrassing questions:
(1) Why do people use such illustrative stories to make points, and why
do they continue to be persuasive? Why haven't people figured out the
fallaciousness of this enterprise by now? They have discovered and
exploded other logical fallacies; why does this one seem so permanent?
(2) Why does Eugene himself offer a story about stories as an example
of the uselessness of stories? Using Eugene's logic, why should we
think that one story that shows that a story can produce misleading
inferences about typicality is typical of the inferential qualities of all
stories featuring a single example? Why did Eugene use a story about a
story that failed in order to convince us about the fallacies of using
stories to convince people?
I'm not being coy here, or even deconstructive. I'm adverting to an
important fact about how human beings process information. People
tend to experience events in terms of patterns of similar causal
sequences of events. Examples are stories about the rise and fall of a
particular person or organization. People organize experience so that it
fits into recurring narrative structures (which include causal structures).
Eugene's criticism assumes that people are falsely persuaded by stories
because they are making unwarranted inductive inferences from a single
example. But that is not why stories are persuasive. People are not
engaging in inductive reasoning per se when they are persuaded by a
story. Rather, stories are persuasive because they present us with an
exemplar or a prototype or pattern of a causal sequence of events.
Because people know that events generally fall into such narrative or
causal patterns, evidence of one example of a sequence leads us to
believe that it is an example of a larger pattern of related sequences of
events. This inference may be unjustified, but it is justified enough times
so that the use of salient examples is a useful heuristic for decision. Like
all heuristics, however, this one can often be misleading. But the
capacity of a heuristic to misfire in some cases is not a reason for
rejecting the heuristic generally.
This explains why people continue to rely on stories as salient
examples of patterns of causal sequences even though induction from a
single example is by itself illogical. It also explains why Eugene had no
qualms about offering us a story about stories to make his point
Yale Law School
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