mrahdert at VM.TEMPLE.EDU
Thu Aug 21 11:07:40 PDT 1997
I doubt that I would be happy living in a world without statistics.
(People were for thousands of years, of course, but like the automobile and
indoor plumbing, statistics are addictive.) And I am sure I would be
unhappy living in a world full of statistics but without stories (I would be
miserable as an actuary). Why? Statistics carry a force of generality that
stories often lack -- they can tell me either that a phenomenon which has
been observed in isolation is sufficiently improbable that I don't have to
worry too much about it, or that it is sufficiently widespread that
immediate attention to it is needed. Stories, on the other hand, carry a
power of identification, sensitization, sympathy/empathy, and connection to
other events and phenomena that that statistics typically lack. Statistics
about world hunger, for example, may be more "persuasive" about the
magnitude and breadth of famine, but stories and photographs of starving
children are more likely to motivate people to take action.
Stories may also inform me of situations where, even though justice
in general might be reasonably secure, individual instances of injustice
ought to be addressed and erased. For example, I think Justice Blackmun's
dissent in DeShaney was powerful, not because it "proved" that what happened
to Joshua was a widespread problem, but because it gave a human dimension to
a kind of harm that, even in a single instance, ought to be redressed.
STatistics showing that Joshua's case was unique would not have undermined
the moral claim for individual justice.
I do think stories are usually more persuasive to the converted than
they are to the skeptical (hence their appeal in sermons and political
speeches). That is because the converted (I am using the term generally to
apply to "conversion" to any given point of view, not just a religious one)
are more prone psychologically to identify with the story and its subject.
They feel, so to speak, like they live in the same neighborhood as the
individuals whom the story concerns, so they are more willing, as Jack
Balkin has observed, to connect the story to their own experiences and to
generalize from it.
I doubt that anyone is immune from this inclination. For example, I
would be much more willing to respond with vigilance to a story about crime
in the neighborhood where I live, than I might be in response to a similar
story about something that happened far away, even if I were presented with
firm statistical proof that the crime in my neighborhood was highly
extraordinary and the one far away was very likely to recur. We all do
that, all the time, which is why evening news shows are full of stories, not
statistics, and why reporters are always looking for the "local angle."
While they may have their greatest appeal to the converted, I think
stories are also an indispensable form of "proof" for those who have a hard
time making up their minds on a particular question. Stories are important
to those individuals because they address psychological dimensions of making
decisions that statistics seldom reach.
I have not personally delved much into the literature on
storytelling in legal scholarship, but I should mention that my colleague,
Jane Baron, has written extensively in a vein that is generally in favor of
storytelling as a genre of legal scholarship.
Temple University School of Law
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