A Coming Crisis of Cognition
Storytelling and the Ebb of Explanation
In journalism, we think our job is to “get the story.” We teach the skill of “knowing what a story is.” We call ourselves “storytellers.” We believe that through stories — or as we also like to say when feeling uppish, “narrative”— we attract and hold attention, impart facts in engaging fashion, and explain the world.
My greatest heresy to date — besides questioning paywalls as panacea — is to doubt the primacy of the story as journalistic form and to warn of the risk of valuing drama, character, and control over chaotic reality. Now I’ll dive deeper into my heretical hole and ask: What if the story as a form, by its nature, is often wrong? What if we cannot explain nearly as much as we think we can? What if our basis for understanding our world and the motives and behaviors of people in it is illusory? What would that mean for journalism and its role in society? I believe we need to fundamentally and radically reconsider our conceptions of journalism and I start doing that at the end of this post.
Alex Rosenberg, a philosopher of science at Duke, pulled this rug of storytelling out from under me with his new book How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories. In it, he argues that the human addiction to the story is an extension of our reliance on the theory of mind. That theory holds that in our brains, humans balance beliefs and desires to decide on action. The theory, he explains, springs from lessons we as humans learned on the veldt, where we would mind-read — that is, use available information about our environment and others’ goals and past actions to predict the behavior of the antelope that is our quarry; the lion we are competing with; and our fellow tribesmen with whom we either compete or must trust to collaborate. “Since mind readers share their target animals’ environments, they have some sensory access to what the target animals see, hear, smell, taste, and so on,” Rosenberg says.
Humans in the bush became proficient at predicting the immediate behavior of other animals and humans, which led their literate descendants to believe they could not only predict behavior in the now but also explain the past. Rosenberg questions historical narrative, pointing out that if we really could ascertain the motives of actors in the past with verifiable accuracy, there would not be so many books with dueling theories as to why the King or Kaiser did this or that. The theory of mind also fails when trying to predict human behavior ahead of time — just look at how awful political pundits are at foretelling elections. Rosenberg writes:
The progression from a (nearly) innate theory of mind to a fixation on stories — narrative — was made in only a few short steps. We went from explaining how and why we did things in the present, to explaining how and why we did things in the past, to explaining how and why others did things in the present, then the past, and finally to explaining how others did things with, to, against, and for still others.
And we love narrative. “Neuroscientists have shown that hearing a story, especially a tension-filled one in which the protagonists’ emotions are involved, is followed by the release of pleasure-producing hormones such as oxytocin, which is also released during orgasm…” (Indeed, research shows that oxytocin improves “mind-reading” in humans.) Rosenberg says later: “Narratives move us. In fact, they move entire nations.” (See: Edward Bernays Propaganda.)
But Rosenberg’s coup de grâce against the theory of mind — and the basis of his book — is that neuroscience cannot find a sequence in the brain that balances stored beliefs with desires to arrive at a behavior. He writes that “the theory of mind and neuroscientific theory turn out to be logically incompatible.” I will leave it to you to buy his book and read his detailed scientific explanation of meaning and memory, of neurons and content, of rats’ brains and humans’. For the sake of this brief provocation, suffice it to say that neuroscientists’ observation of the brain does not confirm the theory of mind, the fundamental belief about human behavior that informs our every speculation about motives and actions in the stories we create.
What, then, of the first draft of history?
If that is Rosenberg’s view of history, I wondered what his view would be of the first draft of history — journalism. So I emailed to ask him and he kindly responded, observing that journalists “keep asking the question ‘how did you feel about…’ that invites the interviewee to roll out the beliefs and desires that drove their actions.” He acknowledges that our business model drives us to attract large audiences “in the face of the public’s demands for a good story.” Indeed, Rosenberg himself admits he is a sucker for a good story; we all are.
So what do we turn to instead of the story? “My message isn’t that journalists have to work harder to dig out the real motives behind the actions they report,” Rosenberg emailed me. “It’s that they need to change their target and their approach to it. Stop trying to explain what people do as actions driven by motives, and start taking on major social trends and figure out how the structure of cultural variation and selection imposes outcomes.”
In a panel about the seduction of storytelling I organized at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, I was asked to reread that last sentence of Rosenberg’s email three times, so boggling is it for us storytellers. Rosenberg is on one level saying that we journalists should focus on issues and trends over personalities and predictions — something friend Jay Rosen argues often. In that panel, Rosen said that the report, the discussion, and the investigation are more reliable units of journalism than the story and our skill is more verification than storytelling. But on a more foundational level, Rosenberg is warning in his email — as he does in his book — that society’s progress is a product of natural selection and that we are all subjects in a giant matrix of game theory. That is to say that journalists or historians cannot predict or explain human behavior based on motive or purpose but instead should analyze changes in society based on the harsh reality of natural selection and survival of the fittest: life as a nasty, brutish competition. Sounds about right, eh?
To put this worldview in greater context, Rosenberg says that Newton robbed us of our belief that the universe had purpose — divine purpose — and was instead ruled by laws of nature and science. Darwin did likewise regarding biology on earth, robbing evolution of grander purpose in favor of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Now, Rosenberg says, neuroscience robs us of our belief in our own purpose. “Neuroscience has shown that, despite their appearance, human behaviors aren’t really driven by purposes, ends, or goals,” he writes. Yes, we appear to have a goal when we choose one path versus another, but Rosenberg argues that decision could be determined by patterns in memory — experience or instinct — or rewards. “As in all the rest of the biological domain, there are no purposes, just a convincing illusion of purpose,” Rosenberg says. “Neuroscience is completing the scientific revolution by banishing purpose from the last domain where it’s still invoked to explain and predict.”
The more we know, the less we can explain
Let that last notion about banishing purpose from our lives sink into your epistemological guts, then I’ll deliver another swift kick, courtesy of my friend David Weinberger, coauthor of the seminal work of web culture from exactly 20 years ago this month, The Cluetrain Manifesto, and author of Small Pieces Loosely Joined, Everything is Miscellaneous, and Too Big to Know. His new book, Everyday Chaos, is out in May (on May 15 he and I will be discussing it in New York; you can reserve a seat at that link and preorder the book now).
In Everyday Chaos, Weinberger examines the implications of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and other data-fed and algorithmically driven means of predicting events and behaviors. Says Weinberger, even simple A/B testing “works without needing, or generating, a hypothesis about why it works.” In other words, data and formulae can predict human behavior more accurately than fellow humans can, relying as we do on our theory of mind and storytelling. These machines cannot be expected to always provide explanations; they sometimes simply predict what will happen without having to say why. So much for the fifth W of journalistic ledes. Weinberger writes:
Deep learning’s algorithms work because they capture better than any human can the complexity, fluidity, and even beauty of a universe in which everything affects everything else, all at once.
As we will see, machine learning is just one of many tools and strategies that have been increasingly bringing us face to face with the incomprehensible intricacy of our everyday world. But this benefit comes at a price: we need to give up our insistence on always understanding our world and how things happen in it.”
Yes, machine learning may enable us to better predict cancer or market movements or traffic accidents, saving time, money, even lives. Weinberger says: “Our new engines of prediction are able to make more accurate predictions and to make predictions in domains that we used to think were impervious to them because this new technology can handle far more data, constrained by fewer human expectations about how that data fits together, with more complex rules, more complex interdependencies, and more sensitivity to starting points.” But with that benefit, we need to give up on our belief in stories and the theory of mind, not to mention our reliance on always being able to uncover knowable laws. We need to give up on our expectation of explanation for why things happen — even for why we do things.
Returning to Rosenberg, he sent me another piece he wrote in which he said that artificial intelligence algorithms work like our brains, “employing a Darwinian learning algorithm and so do we.” But that process of testing possible outcomes before deciding on one does not bring insight or explanation. “When success is a matter of tinkering, trying anything and seeing what works, there is no scope for insight, no need for it.”
In all of this I see a coming crisis of cognition. If change and uncertainty have led us to the apparent crisis of civilization we are seeing today — with the powerful (white, male) incumbents fearful of their dethroning by alien man or machine — I shudder to think what happens to the public conversation when its fundamental grounding in the theory of mind and certainty of the neat narrative arc of the story is exploded.
I also shudder to think what becomes of media. Says Weinberger :
Why have we so insisted on turning complex histories into simple stories? Marshall McLuhan was right: the medium is the message. We shrank our ideas to fit on pages sewn in a sequence that we then glued between cardboard stops. Books are good at telling stories and bad at guiding us through knowledge that bursts out in every conceivable direction, as all knowledge does when we let it.
But now the medium of our daily experiences — the internet — has the capacity, the connections, and the engine needed to express the richly chaotic nature of the world.
Chaos is what journalism promises to tame. But journalism fails. It always has. The world is less explainable than we would like to admit.
Radical reformulation of journalism
Mind you, I’m not killing the story; it is too ingrained in literal DNA to extinguish. Let’s also be clear that the word “story” is overused in our field to refer to what should usually be called articles as well as topics.
I do, however, celebrate efforts to free journalism from the presumption of the story. This is why I am enthused about my current entrepreneurial student Elisabetta Tola’s efforts to demonstrate journalism in the scientific method. It’s why I am equally excited about Eve Pearlman’s efforts at Spaceship Media to build journalism around the public conversation, not media’s content, as we teach at Newmark in Social Journalism. I am eager for more examples.
But Rosenberg and Weinberger inspire a more radical reformulation of journalism. Journalism requires a different starting point: not getting and writing stories to fill a Gutenberg-era product called a publication, not convincing ourselves and our public that we can summarize and explain their world in the neat confines of text, not merely saying what happened today or will tomorrow. Instead, I want to imagine a journalism that begins with the problems we see and reaches across disciplines to seek solutions. (You might expect me to turn to technology but, no, I am looking to academic fields of study that have much to teach us about the society we serve.) Thus a reimagined journalism would not act as gatekeeper but as bridge.
If, for example, we believe a key problem in society today is the demagogues’ demonization of The Other, then let us look to neuroscience for understanding of the instincts authoritarians exploit. See this article in Foreign Affairs by Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky about our responses to group identity and threat. “Our brains distinguish between in-group members and outsiders in a fraction of a second, and they encourage us to be kind to the former but hostile to the latter,” Sapolsky writes. “These biases are automatic and unconscious and emerge at astonishingly young ages.” But Sapolsky says we can realistically hope for change. “The Swedes,” he points out, “spent the seventeenth century rampaging through Europe; today they are, well, the Swedes.” He continues: “Although human biology makes the rapid, implicit formation of us-them dichotomies virtually inevitable, who counts as an outsider is not fixed. In fact, it can change in an instant.” Thus the question is, how do we make outsiders insiders? Or as I’ve been fond of putting it, how do we make strangers less strange? This might mean enabling the outsiders to tell their stories (you see, I’m not unalterably opposed to stories). It might mean educating one group about another’s circumstances. It might mean bringing strangers together to model peaceful behavior. It might mean trying to get people to like each other more than our stories. (How about oxytocin levels as a metric to replace page views? [I’m joking…. I think.])
To understand and reflect communities to each other, we can turn to anthropology with its discipline of observation and evidence, which does not — as news stories too often do — take one person as the exemplar for a large, odd group (for example, The New York Times teaching us that white nationalists, too, eat at Panera). In his survey, Anthropology: Why it Matters, Tim Ingold of the University of Aberdeen decrees, “Taking others seriously is the first rule of my kind of anthropology.” Just like journalists, anthropologists grapple with the concept of objectivity, of distance from subjects, of exploitation of their stories. Ingold rejects objectivity. His purpose “is not to interpret or explain the ways of others; not to put them in their place or consign them to the ‘already understood’. It is rather to share in their presence, to learn from their experiments in living, and to bring this experience to bear on our own imaginings of what human life could be like, its future conditions and possibilities.” Ingold echoes the great journalism teacher James Carey when he talks about the primacy not of conclusions but of conversation.
This is not to catalogue the diversity of human lifeways but to join the conversation. It is a conversation, moreover, in which all who join stand to be transformed. The aim of anthropology, in short, is to make a conversation of human life itself. This conversation is not just about the world…. It is the world. It is the one world we inhabit.
In a sense, journalists ask, “How do they live.” Ingold says the question the communities ask is, “How should we live?” Enter the verb “should” and we turn to philosophers and ethicists, who pose larger questions about how we are treating each other today, about the kind of society we want to build, about how we see ourselves in how we treat others. Perhaps the journalist’s job then could be to ask factions of society to reflect on their own behavior or to give those excluded from power the opportunity to reflect themselves. For this, we have disciplines devoted to African-American, Latinx, women’s, and LGBTQ studies to help.
Let us say the problem to attack is our epistemological crisis and alternative facts. We could look to cognitive science to understand how misinformation lodges in the brain; see this article by a professor in that field, Julian Matthews of Monash University. Of course, we also need to look to education to understand how to dislodge misinformation and propaganda and install reason and facts. See also this excellent review by Daniel Kreiss of three books about the 2016 election, inspiring various solutions: One book, Cyberwar, measures impact by the Russians (and a solution may be to judge American media for its complicity and vulnerability); another, Network Propaganda, argues the problem is Fox News et al (and proposes, as I have, the need to fund responsible conservative competition); the third, Identity Crisis, says the problem is not epistemology but identity — our ongoing American identity crisis regarding racism (to which, of course, there is no simple solution).
Another heresy of mine is debating the value of news literacy because it is too media-centric — if journalism needs a user manual, then the problem is probably journalism itself — and is perhaps aimed at the wrong population: the young. Weeks ago, I wrote about an NYU/Princeton study that found it’s not kids who are sharing disinformation online but instead people who look like me: old, white men. I thought about writing a book for them — Dear Grandpa — and as I outlined the idea, I realized that the problem isn’t Grandpa’s parsing of facts but instead his anger. How did this privileged white man become so mad? We probably know the answer: Fox News and talk radio. But what made him so vulnerable to manipulation? For this, we should turn to psychology. Then we might decide that what we really need is not stories about political fights but instead massive group therapy: journalism as couch.
I could go on — and will in the future. But you get the point. We have been too insular in journalism, looking to ourselves for solutions to the field’s problem and defining that problem too narrowly as finding ways to maintain what we have always done. That’s why I so welcome Rosenberg’s and Weinberger’s challenges to our ways of thinking about our most fundamental ideas of ourselves as storytellers and explainers. With no rug underneath us, we are forced to reconsider everything: what society needs, what journalism should do, what journalism is. To do that, we need to listen outside of ourselves, to the communities we serve (and especially those we haven’t served) and to disciplines other than our own — all those I mentioned above plus design, economics, sociology, data science, computer science, engineering, criminal justice (or rather, just justice), law, public policy, and others — each of which can help us reconsider society’s problems and goals from different perspectives. Then we can redefine journalism. What’s needed is radical thinking. I, for one, have not been radical enough. I will try harder.
If, perchance, you’ve not had enough of the topic, here’s video of that panel on the story at the International Journalism Festival.