Tuesday, 22 August 2017

From Theories to Narratives

When we face a complex issue that requires an action or a strategy on our part we can sometimes feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of components (facts or opinions or possibilities) that comprise it. We often try to make a start by trying to get all this sometimes conflicting data into some sort of more understandable assembly. But this organisational step may need to be carried out in a way that highlights some of the issues at the expense of others, or even disregards some issues entirely. Our hope is that what emerges will be a more manageable version of the original issue.

This process may be a number of things depending on the context but what I’d like to suggest is that while the name of the process may vary there is a commonality that runs through them all.

At the most technical level we can think of fitting a simple function to best approximate a seemingly unrelated set of data points. Least squares fitting of a straight line or another simple curve would be an example. Here we try to display a trend suggested by the data and it is obvious that some points do not obey the trend yet we shrug our shoulders and trade simplicity for accuracy.

A less technical, but still in the domain of science, is the formulation of theories to explain phenomena in the physical world. Newton’s theory of gravitation is such a theory. Actually, when Newton devised the theory he found an amazing fit of theory to data and it wasn’t until much later that inconsistencies were found. Would we have discarded the Newton theory if we had known of these inconsistencies? Almost certainly not but we might have regarded them as anomalies that could be explained away without discarding the theory. There are many examples from science and we are now used to being somewhat humble and being prepared to use a theory until we have a better one.

These scientific theories of the physical world have been amazingly successful in reducing a multitude of observed facts to a small number of basic principles. We like this very much! Unfortunately, when we go beyond phenomena of the physical world we don’t meet with the same success.

In the social, political and personal spheres there seems to be much greater complexity. No Newtonian theory of, say, Economics. Instead we have theories that hold sway for a while, are then discarded, may reappear slightly modified and then fall away again. These theories do not have the same explaining power as Gravitation but they are not useless. They impose a structural framework on an otherwise inchoate dataset, allowing us to make policy with some uncertainty but not entirely as though we relied on magic. They provide us with a way of looking at the economies of the world without being entirely overwhelmed.

And in the same sort of way social and political theories have some limited explanatory power helping us to govern our large complex societies at an international and national level. Their structure, whether it is real and true or not, enables us to act consistently and we make progress forwards or backwards rather than be stationary (which acting randomly might cause).

In these less precise domains the term “ideology” might perhaps be used instead of “theory”. For in these domains it is easy to lose sight of the fact we often really don’t know what is going on - but we pretend we do, and we elevate the ideology to a status that we call “belief”. Obviously this can be very dangerous and some of the cataclysmic events of human history have come about when an ideology has resisted challenge because its adherents believe in its utility for far longer than the evidence warrants.

Theories, ideologies, and beliefs are not the same but they do have much in common. All of them allow us to have an explanatory picture of a complex issue. We arrive at this picture by discarding many details (some of which perhaps should not be discarded). We adhere to our position by sometimes forgetting that we only have a partial picture. And we are often reluctant to abandon our position because we invest it with greater value than it should have.

There is another domain that almost everyone is familiar with where these ideas apply: the personal world of our interactions with family, friends and acquaintances. Why do people fall out with one another at a personal level? Sometimes an observer will remark that is all over nothing but not being party to the feelings of the protagonists means that they really cannot understand what is going on. Or why do we sometimes have very firm feelings about an issue of child-rearing? Most importantly, why do we find it so hard to relinquish a deeply-held personal position?

The answer to that question has very little to do with evidence and logic. Most often our sincerely held position has been strengthened because we have built narratives in our minds that enable our opinions to be consistent with those cherry-picked issues that support our own ideas. We believe we are right and we can argue our case passionately. The narrative is our “theory” but we do not subject it to the same scrutiny that Newton’s theory of gravitation suffered. On the contrary, we seek out more and more supporting tidbits that validate our narrative.

Obviously there’s a lesson here. We should question our personal narratives with the same zeal that Bishop Berkeley attacked the differential calculus. But that’s hard to do and it’s a habit best learnt young. If we succeed we may find that our own personal relations are less fraught. We will certainly be less opinionated, more compassionate and more pragmatic. To put it another way. we will not be dangerous men and women of principle.