Thursday, January 30, 2014

True Stories

One of the criteria for the use of stories in social science that Andrew Gelman and I are trying to promote is "immutability". What we mean by this is that the facts that a story conveys should be well-established to resist the pressures of whatever theory the story is trying to either challenge or illustrate. We don't mean that the story must be true. The facts of Hamlet's life are well-established despite being almost certainly fictional. You can get them wrong, revealing your ignorance of Shakespeare's play. (It's no good to defend yourself by invoking Saxo, by the way. Here the character's name is Amleth.) And that's central to our suggestion: if you can't get the details of the story wrong, then you can't use it to support an argument.

Some stories are only interesting if they are true, however. Their "basis in reality" is part of the story. If it didn't actually happen then the events in the story aren't really worth paying attention to. Other stories—either because they are deeply entrenched in the larger cultural narrative or because they are the products of exceptional minds, geniuses—are interesting even though they're "made up". Some stories work either way, but have different effects depending on whether they are taken to be true or false. Consider the difference between telling a story that begins "I'm the kind of person who would…" and one that begins "Guess what I did today." In the first case you will let the story illustrate a character trait, but in the second you come into possession of perhaps valuable information about how I live my life. If you use this story at my wedding, friend, you'd better get that important difference right!

Even when a story illustrates an important truth, that is, it is important to be truthful about the nature of the events it describes. I.e., whether or not they are actually fictions. And, for the sake of your own credibility, even when the facts are fictional you have to get them right. After all, your listener or reader might already have heard the story in another version, with different facts, or might know, contrary to your assurances that this is a "true story", or that this "actually happened", that this story has long ago been revealed to have been a hoax or a canard.

As my regular readers know, one of my favorite examples is Albert Szent-Gyorgyi's story about a group of soldiers in the Alps that found their way back to camp using a map of the Pyrenees. Among management researchers and consultants it's known as Karl Weick's story, mainly because he invariably fails to adequately credit his source, a poem by Miroslav Holub (that also attributes it to Szent-Gyorgyi). Weick's version is a plagiary of Holub's poem. Here's Weick's version:

Definitions not withstanding, I can best show what I think strategy is by describing an incident that happened during military maneuvers in Switzerland. The young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps sent a reconnaissance unit out into the icy wilderness. It began to snow immediately, snowed for two days, and the unit did not return. The lieutenant suffered, fearing that he had dispatched his own people to death. But the third day the unit came back. Where had they been? How had they made their way? Yes, they said, we considered ourselves lost and waited for the end. And then one of us found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down. We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm, and then with the map we discovered our bearings. And here we are. The lieutenant borrowed this remarkable map and had a good look at it. He discovered to his astonishment that it was not a map of the Alps but of the Pyrenees. ("Substitutes for Strategy", p. 223)

While Weick reports the details of the story verbatim from Holub's poem (which is the same text, except with line breaks), he has subtly changed the story by the way he frames it. What Weick calls "an incident that happened", Holub calls a "story from the war". And while Holub doesn't specify exactly where it took place, except to say the soldiers were Hungarian and the mountains were "Alps", Weick sets the story explicitly in Switzerland. That is, Weick both presents the story as much more "true" than Holub, and introduces the entirely implausible idea that a group of Hungarian soldiers were wandering around in the Swiss Alps. Some people, when I show them Weick's version actually get stuck on this detail: "What were they doing in Switzerland?"

Interestingly, both the idea of presenting the story as "true" and the freedom to embellish it with details not provided in one's already slightly retouched source seems to be part of the tradition of telling it, at least, like I say, in the management community. I recently ran into a great example of this on the blog of StoryCare, a consulting product developed by Richard Stone at the health-care focused consultancy Synensis. Here's how he tells the story:

[Update: the quotation that follows is from the undated post on StoryCare's blog as it appeared before January 31, 2014. It has since been updated in light of my critique. Crucially, Stone has dropped the word "true" from the first sentence. I would argue, however, that the story is still being presented as true, which, as I say below is understandable given the way Weick characterizes the "incident".]

In his seminal book Sense Making in Organizations, Karl Weick tells a fascinating true story about a lieutenant in World War I who sends out a patrol into the French Alps to scout out the positions of the German troops. The small patrol took no provisions, because this was intended to be just a short search and they planned on returning to camp by nightfall. But about two hours into their trek it began to snow—so hard that it was soon a white out and the soldiers could barely see their hands in front of their faces. They were in trouble. Their leader led them to a small overhang in the side of a mountain where they settled in, hoping that the snowfall would break by late afternoon. But it continued to snow through the day, into the night, and for the remainder of the next day. It was one of those blizzards that comes around only every 500 years or so. By the end of the second day the team had gone through all their provisions and were growing hungry. Huddled together under that cliff to share their dissipating warmth, their hope for survival was growing bleaker by the moment. On the morning of the third day the snow was beginning to let up, but without any clear landmarks that hadn’t been obliterated by the 50 inch snowfall, they were lost and mentally preparing to die in the wilderness. One of the soldiers decided to rummage through his pack hoping to find some morsel of food that he might have overseen. There, folded at the bottom was an old map of the Alps. When he announced that he had found a map everyone’s spirits were buoyed. They made a decision to head out in the hopes of reconnecting with their regiment. Continually referring to the map for clues as to where they were, they slowly made their way through the drifts. Finally at nightfall one of them saw the glow of a light in the distance. They had found their way home. After the reunion and as his men warmed themselves by a fire and ate like they had never eaten before, their commander was curious about how they had escaped a frozen fate. He asked to see the map they had used. Examining it by his lantern, he looked closer to discover that this was in fact not a map of the Alps, but a map of the Pyrenees!

Notice all those extra details. When I asked Stone about it, he was entirely open about having embellished the story to bring it to life. As an aside, I disagree with him about the effect of the embellishment, which weighs the story down with unnecessary details. There's a reason this story has had such an impact on management theorists and practitioners: its imagery was crafted by a skilled poet. But the important thing to notice is that Stone presents this as (a) Weick's story and (b) a true story. He can be forgiven for thinking it is true, i.e., for taking the word of a professional scholar about the veracity of story that the scholar describes as "an incident that happened during military maneuvers in Switzerland". But there can be no question that Stone here misrepresents his source on a number of matters of fact. Some things he just gets wrong, others he simply makes up. First all, the original story certainly did not take place in the "French" Alps, and the enemy was not likely to be German (the Hungarians were on the side of the Germans in World War I). A whole list of details are pure speculation and window dressing:

no provisions
this was intended to be just a short search
they planned on returning to camp by nightfall.
two hours into their trek it began to snow
it was soon a white out
the soldiers could barely see their hands in front of their faces.
their leader led them to a small overhang in the side of a mountain
they settled in,
they hoped that the snowfall would break by late afternoon.
It was one of those blizzards that comes around only every 500 years or so. (!)
they went through all their [nonexistent] provisions and were growing hungry.
They huddled together under that cliff to share their dissipating warmth,
There had been a 50 inch snowfall, (!)

Then this little narrative misstep:

Folded at the bottom was an old map of the Alps.

Notice that this is a misleading statement. The trick to telling this story, as Holub understood, is to leave out the detail about what it was a map of. "What they thought was a map of the Alps," would have given away the ending. But this statement is, even within the wide berth of a fictional frame, a lie. It is simply contradicted by the surprise ending. Not very good storytelling here. Now, notice what happens next:

Continually referring to the map for clues as to where they were, they slowly made their way through the drifts.

This removes a crucial ambiguity in the story as it is normally told. There is a real question about how useful a wrong map would be, but especially if you "continually refer" to it. It might give you the hope you need, and make you pay extra close attention to clues in the environment (this is how it is normally explained), but surely the wrongness of the map will quickly become apparent if you keep going back to it to update your position. If it doesn't, and you still let it lead the way, you are very likely to wind up at the bottom of a ravine.

Richard Stone's readers are here being told a story, and even being provided with a source for it. And they are being told it is true. But, not only is the story not likely true in the first place, the version of the story they are getting misrepresents the source, which means that if they go on to tell it, French Alps and German positions and all, and happen to do so to someone who has actually read Weick, they will reveal that they don't know what they are talking about.

It's this kind of thing that Andrew and I think that especially social scientists, but also the consultants who invoke social science, should be better at. Storytelling is fine. But you have to get the story right. I guess it's sort of like that "amusing anecdote about a drug deal" in Reservoir Dogs.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014


"We can only understand and communicate to others what we ourselves can produce."
Immanuel Kant

One of the benefits of blogging is that it gives Thomas Presskorn a chance to contribute to your thinking. (If you're thinking about starting a blog, you can keep that in mind.) In his comment to my first post after my sabbatical, he offered the above quote as, I assume, a riff on my "epiphany", namely, "that if something is known it can be communicated clearly and easily to someone else who has been trained to know such things." Like the good scholar he is, he provided his source, which in turn, provided the original source in Kant's correspondence. I looked it up, and this is what I found in the following paragraph:

The composition itself is not given; on the contrary, we produce it ourselves: we must compose if we are to represent anything as composed (even space and time). We are able to communicate with one another because of this composition. (Kant, Correspondence, p. 482)

This remark will be all kinds of useful for me. Today, I want to say a little about how it unpacks the basic principle I gestured at in that earlier post.

Scholarly writing is the act of "composing yourself" before an audience of peers, i.e., readers who also know a great deal about the topic you're writing about. It is different from popular and literary writing in terms of the "authority" that is granted the "author". In popular writing, the writer knows something that the reader is ignorant of, and the author's task is therefore to teach the topic to the reader. In literary writing, the author has no authority and must establish his or her credentials in every sentence, using style to hold the reader's attention. Popular writing communicates knowledge to the ignorant. Literary writing shares "the loneliness that is the truth about things," to use Virginia Woolf's wonderful phrase. (The source of which Thomas also helped me to track down.) Scholarly writing communicates knowledge to the knowledgeable, with the aim not just of informing one's peers of one's discoveries but of giving them an opportunity to correct one's errors. Scholarly writing is therefore always an occasion for criticism.

What Kant is saying is a very important presumption in academic writing. Whatever you represent on the page must also be presentable to you, in your mind. This means that at the moment of writing you must be able to hold in your head an "image" of whatever it is you are committing to the page. On my approach, of course, you are always writing a paragraph that makes a single well-defined claim and offers support for it. The fact that makes this claim true should be easy for you to imagine at the time of writing. You should not hope to produce an image in the mind of the reader that is only vaguely present to you at the time of writing. You should be able to compose (bring together) the elements of the image in your own mind and hold it there for the twenty-seven minutes it takes to write at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words describing it.

When I talk of an "image", here, I don't necessarily mean an "inner picture". I simply mean the mental correlative of whatever "knowing it to be fact that…" might be in the particular paragraph you are writing. You are talking about something out there in the world about which your reader might also know something. And you are trying to produce, by the effect of your words, something in the mind, some mental construct, that corresponds to understanding the meaning of those words. If you are representing a complex data set, you need to imagine a "distribution" of values. If you are writing about your field work, the imagery will be less abstract. If you are reviewing a body of literature, you will have an image of texts and their interrelations. In any case, you must be able to "produce" that image for yourself.

However esoteric that may sound, my simple point is just that if you can't make whatever it is you want your words to make happen in your reader's mind happen in your own mind first, then you can't expect to write clearly about it. If you have only a vague idea of what you are talking about, and you want only a vague idea of it to form in your reader's mind when reading your words, of course, there is no problem. Your writing will be accomplishing exactly your purpose, and your paragraph will include all the vagueness that your mental representation does. But don't think your reader will be satisfied with a series of vague gestures. I won't pretend to know what is required in every field of inquiry, of course, but it seems reasonable to suppose that clarity and exactness are default values in scholarship.

Monday, January 06, 2014

A Double Life

I got J. Michael Lennon's biography of Norman Mailer for Christmas. In this clip he explains some of Mailer's writing advice that I've been telling writers of academic prose for years. In The Spooky Art, Mailer put it this way: "If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time." As Lennon puts it here, don't leave your troops out in the rain.

Lennon goes on to explain that Mailer worked "two shifts", long days, and this is less exemplary for scholars. Mailer was a novelist, so his entire job, in a sense, consisted of prose composition. Writing and "research" were, properly speaking, the same thing. A novelist is only ever trying to discover what he wants to say. (That's a caricature. Much of Mailer's work, as is the case with many writers, consisted also of research in the more traditional sense. He spent a long time learning about ancient Egypt for one novel, for example, and engaged in the equivalent of "field work" to do his journalism. The point is that in periods when he was working on a novel full time, there was nothing to do all day but write. He had no other responsibilities.) Scholars, by contrast, have many other things to do every day, which is one of the reasons I recommend writing for at most three hours. During intensely intellectual periods, where the scholar has little teaching or administrative work to do, a happy rhythm of a half day of writing and a half day of reading or thinking can set in. Hemingway practiced something similar at times, writing for a half a day and then "living" the rest (nudge, nudge, wink, wink.)

Scholarly writing is also more declarative, less explorative. The rhythm that I suggest, of writing one paragraph every half hour, each of which makes a particular claim that has been decided on the day before, is much more intense than what Mailer did with "the story" every time he sat down to work on it. It is therefore more tiring, or perhaps just tiring in a different way. Scholars are out for a run when they write. Mailer is taking a long hike.

The theme of Lennon's biography is captured in the title, A Double Life. He was not here just referring to Mailer's legendary philandering (a legend that the book confirms in great detail). Mailer believed that everyone, more or less, is composed of opposing forces, that we all live double lives, with inner conflicts. His novels were about this duality. I try to get scholars to recognize, at the very least, the tension between the writers and the researchers they are. It doesn't have to be a great drama, but we have recognize that these parts of us have different and sometimes opposite tendencies. The trick is to establish a relationship of trust between them. As Steve Fuller once said to me in a different context, there will always be a duality, but perhaps we can do away with the duplicity.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Back from Sabbatical

I took a break from blogging because I needed rediscover my foundations. For some time, I had been reacting too superficially to whatever was being discussed online, and I found myself reading simply to be stimulated into responding. I had to let it be okay for a while that "someone is wrong on the internet".

So I've been lurking on various blogs these last five months, and only occasionally commenting (which was really a kind of breaking of the rules of my sabbatical). I've also been following current events, especially in regards to university research and higher education. But I've tried not to form opinions. This was one of the burdens I wanted to put down for a while: to have a quick and ready public opinion. The other was to be generally upbeat and confident about research practices, academic writing in particular. As my last few posts before the break were beginning to suggest, the truth is that I was close to despair about the state of the academy.

If I start again now it's not because I have arrived at some profound insight. Nor that I have resolved my doubts about university life. I said I would start again in the new year, and that's what I will do. Let's see what I accomplished in my time away from blogging.

I'll start writing regularly again on February 3, at 7:00 AM Copenhagen time, posting on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. Until then, I'll be posting more impulsively, working through some of the ideas I've been letting bounce around in my head these past few months.

Here's one that almost deserves to be called an epiphany: academic writing is, or ought to be, predicated on the idea that if something is known it can be communicated clearly and easily to someone else who has been trained to know such things. I think we've almost forgotten this. Too many people write as though their readers will, and should, only understand them with great difficulty. The corollary is that they themselves, the authors, should barely understand what they are saying. My approach to academic writing begins with the realization that this can't be right. This year, then, let's resolve to write more often, perhaps as often as every day, about things we understand well, and to do so for a readership that is disposed to understanding us. Let's see what sorts of things we would say in this mood. Let's see how we would say it.