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[Transcript] Tyler Cowen on Stories

Cowen is right to critique the overuse of narratives to make a point; his critique at heart is a critique of reliance on anecdotal evidence. But I also catch an echo of the argument Plato uses to exclude poetry from the Republic. Perhaps Cowen is too restrictive in the way he thinks about 'story.'

Cowen buys into Booker's model, and similar models, which organize the universe of stories into a number of types -- quest, comedy, tragedy, etc. -- and concludes that we tell ourselves the same stories over and over again. But a careful reader might notice that Booker's types are just that -- types, or subcategories within a larger category. If you define 'story' in its more fundamental sense, I'm willing to argue, you find it is a shape, not a content -- the shape being that of moving from conflict through rising action to resolution. Stories are an entertaining way of organizing experience based on as natural a process as the weather when a cold front meets warm, moist air. 'Story,' the shape, has no truth value, though often writers in the course of a narrative introduce elements subject to verification, and, alas, many of our popular stories turn on some form of confirmation bias or sentimental wish-fulfillment. But that has to do with what we put in our stories; they're not inherent in the shape itself.

Cowen's right to critique the overuse of narrative as evidence, but there's more to the story (excuse the pun) of narrative's unique position in human experience.