The Danger of Stories and Anecdotes

by Krishna on November 30, 2009

It was fun reading Michael Dubakov's take on technical debt through his story of Arthur and the princess. But then the questions started. The competition was rigged from the beginning, wasn’t it? After all, Arthur made it to the final round, didn’t he? What if the weather had been perfect for the next few months?

Illustrating a concept through stories and anecdotes makes an article more interesting and more likely to be read. But it is a tactic that is fraught with risk and can, at times, flirt with deception.

To begin with, a story is obviously fiction and you can make up whatever you want to. This means that you also hand a licence to believers in the opposing view to create their own stories which end differently. So a person who believes in quick-and-dirty coding can make up a story where careful planners starve to death while the risk-taker wins and lives happily ever after.

Also, stories can be pretty condescending. The worst examples I have come across are the Ken Blanchard books like “Who Moved My Cheese?” and other imitators. The writer has an agenda and he/she manipulates the shallow characters in the book to further it. Few non-fiction writers have the skill to develop a compelling story and meaningful characters. An example to the contrary being “The Goal” by Eliyahu Goldratt.

Anecdotes are, at least (or hopefully), truthful. But every such tale represents a single data point. They do not tell the whole story. They lend themselves to cherry-picking and presenting a view completely opposite to reality. Writers need not be malicious to do this; only the incidents that promote their ideas may stay in their memory.

One legitimate use of anecdotes is debunking a generalized statement. For example, if someone says, “X is always true” and you remember an incident to the contrary. But this one application is usually exploited to create FUD. We see that in newsrooms, where although the crime rate is declining, crimes are reported as though there is a huge crisis.

Since writers, including me, like to use stories and metaphors because it makes our writing richer, readers have to be on alert. Writers themselves may be true believers in something and may not realize how they are trying to manipulate their readers.

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