Beguiled By Narrative

The photograph above, taken by German photographer Thomas Hoepker, is one of the iconic images of 9.11.  The picture was taken at the Brooklyn waterfront on the afternoon of that infamous day.   In Hoepker’s words, he saw “an almost idyllic scene near a restaurant — flowers, cypress trees, a group of young people sitting in the bright sunshine of this splendid late summer day while the dark, thick plume of smoke was rising in the background.”  By his reckoning, even though he had paused but for a moment and didn’t speak to anyone in the picture, Hoepker was concerned that the people in the photo “were not stirred” by the events at the World Trade Center — they “didn’t seem to care.”  Even though he published many images from that day, Hoepker withheld this picture for over four years because, in his view, it “did not reflect at all what had transpired on that day.”

 In 2006, the image was published in David Friend’s book, Watching the World Change.  Comments from Hoepker were included.  Frank Rich then wrote a 9.11 fifth anniversary column in The New York Times about the photo, calling it “shocking.”  Rich suggested that the five New Yorkers were “relaxing” and were already “mov[ing] on” from the attacks.  Rich described those in the photo as being on “what seems to be a lunch or bike-riding break, enjoying the radiant late-summer sun and chatting away as cascades of smoke engulf Lower Manhattan in the background.” 

Here is more of the explanatory narrative Rich created:

Mr. Hoepker’s photo is prescient as well as important — a snapshot of history soon to come. What he caught was this: Traumatic as the attack on America was, 9/11 would recede quickly for many. This is a country that likes to move on, and fast. The young people in Mr. Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American.

Others reacted similarly.  It was a plausible interpretation based upon the information available (the picture).  More importantly, it framed Rich’s desired narrative perfectly.

Daniel Plotz quickly came forward with an alternative interpretation that disputed Rich, calling Rich’s reading of the image a “cheap shot.” In Plotz’s view the five had not ignored or moved beyond 9.11 but had “turned toward each other for solace and for debate.”  To his credit, Plotz emphasized that he didn’t “really know” what the pictured people were doing and feeling and  called upon them to contact him so as to set the record straight.  Two did, and they repudiated Rich’s narrative in the strongest of terms.

The first to respond was Walter Sipser, a Brooklyn artist and the man on the far right in the shot. “A snapshot can make mourners attending a funeral look like they’re having a party,” he wrote. “Had Hoepker walked fifty feet over to introduce himself he would have discovered a bunch of New Yorkers in the middle of an animated discussion about what had just happened.” Chris Schiavo, a professional photographer, Sipser’s then-girlfriend and second from the right above, also responded. She criticized both Rich and Hoepker for their “cynical expression of an assumed reality.” As a “third-generation native New Yorker, who knows and loves every square inch of this city,” whose “mother even worked for Minoru Yamasaki, the World Trade Center architect,” she stated that “it was genetically impossible for [her] to be unaffected by this event.”

So much for Rich’s narrative explanation.

We like to think that we carefully gather and evaluate facts and data before coming to a conclusion.  Instead, we tend to suffer from confirmation bias and thus reach a conclusion first.  Only thereafter do we gather facts and see those facts in such a way as to support our pre-conceived conclusion.  When it fits with our desired narrative, so much the better, because narratives are crucial to how we make sense of reality.  They help us to explain, understand and interpret the world around us.  They also give us a frame of reference we can use to remember the concepts we take them to represent.  Perhaps most significantly, we inherently prefer narrative to data — often to the detriment of our understanding.  Keeping one’s analysis and interpretation of the data reasonably objective — since analysis and interpretation are required for data to be actionable — is really, really hard even in the best of circumstances. 

An interesting piece by John Allen Paulos for The New York Times sheds additional light on the stories versus statistics dialectic. “There is a tension between stories and statistics, and one under-appreciated contrast between them is simply the mindset with which we approach them. In listening to stories we tend to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained, whereas in evaluating statistics we generally have an opposite inclination to suspend belief in order not to be beguiled.”

As this tale of the unfortunate Mr. Rich demonstrates, we are all too prone to confirmation bias and to its corollary, what Nassim Taleb calls the “narrative fallacy” (looking backward and creating a pattern to fit events and constructing a story that explains what happened along with what caused it to happen).  This story has some very serious and practical implications related to life in general and to investing in particular.

1. Be skeptical about the data you collect, the patterns you detect, your interpretations thereof and the conclusions you draw.

2. Keep looking for more data — especially data that questions or contradicts your assumptions, hypotheses and conclusions.

3. Be especially skeptical of the story you think the data tells.

4. Rinse and repeat #1, #2 and #3 as appropriate (pretty much all the time).

We are wildly overconfident about our abilities generally.  The more we repeat and reiterate one of our explanatory narratives, the harder it is to recognize evidence that ought to cause us to re-evaluate our previous conclusions.  By making it a careful habit skeptically to re-think our prior interpretations and conclusions, we at least give ourselves a fighting chance to correct the mistakes that we will inevitably make. 

As with everything in science, every conclusion we draw must be tentative and subject to revision as the facts demand.  As John Maynard Keynes famously stated, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”  Indeed, what do you do?


45 thoughts on “Beguiled By Narrative

  1. Mr. Rich and on-the-ground reality are frequently strangers, and this example is no exception. He, and many writers like him, insist on framing events to fit a preconceived version of reality. That’s one of the differences between writing and journalism.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, I despise the man.

    • Hi bobdog —

      Here’s an experiment worth trying — take a Frank Rich column at random and provide your group with the title, the first sentence, or both, and see how close they can come to describing the entire piece. The usual result is really close.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.


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