Published on 17 January 2022
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Storylistening: Narrative evidence and public reasoning

The online launch of “Storylistening” by Sarah Dillon and Claire Craig introduced a framework for using stories as an important form of knowledge in public debate. The authors reflect on the main themes of the discussion about taking stories seriously in contentious areas of policy.

The challenges of using scientific evidence, of distinguishing news from fake news, and of acting well in anticipation of highly uncertain futures, are more visible now than ever before. Across all these areas, stories create profound new knowledge and so deserve to be taken seriously, alongside other forms of public reasoning.

Stories matter, and there are many good insights into storytelling but, particularly in the context of using research-based evidence, policymakers and experts rarely ask how, or why, or what to do as a result. Storylistening, as a conscious and reflective act creating narrative evidence, is rare. For this reason, we have developed a more systematic framework that can help ensure that critical listening to stories as part of public reasoning about policies is possible, expected, and becomes commonplace.

This framework rests on the definition of four functions of stories: creating new points of view; understanding different collective identities; extending the range of models available for reasoning; and enabling new anticipations of the future. The framework concerns the collective and the cognitive, rather than the individual and the empathetic, and recognises that stories are a form of sense-making in the face of the complexity and uncertainty of the policy environment.

Truth and lies

One issue that emerged was the immense challenge of dealing with misinformation, lies, stories and views that are in direct contradiction to other ways of knowing about the world, particularly scientific ones (concerning climate change, vaccine efficacy and so on). Storylistening is not a singular solution to such challenges, but is an attempt to bring analytical and conceptual rigour to thinking about all types of story – the better to be able to reason publicly about, and ultimately with, all publics, experts and decision-makers.

So, “yes”, all narrative accounts create models of causality (that is inherent in our definition of a story). Some of those models are wrong, some are being misinterpreted, as when a story appears to be about science, when it is really about governance and trust, and some are not capable of being assessed by other forms of evidence. We argue that by acknowledging the models’ existence, storylistening enables those who are concerned about well-founded public reasoning better to create and communicate their own forms of evidence – their own stories. Also, mapping who is sharing false stories, independent of their content, sometimes plays a helpful role in understanding the collective identities relevant to the policy question.

We focussed on novels in our presentation primarily because it is the inclusion of stories badged as fiction that most clearly makes our general case (and which, to policy audiences, is the most surprising type of narrative to include). Fictional stories can contain truths or have cognitive value by prompting valuable questions, and non-fictional ones (such as journalistic or personal accounts) may be or contain falsehoods. By acknowledging this, and by then including analysis of all forms of stories as part of a pluralistic evidence base, we argue that public reasoning is enriched.

Rigour and incentives

Some participants asked how to ensure rigour. One of the challenges about including narrative evidence in public reasoning and, indeed, many other forms of evidence from the humanities, is the absence of equivalents to the generally accepted shorthand ways used to communicate rigour in science, such as standard notions of the scientific method, or peer reviewed findings in journals. We argue that humanities scholars need to be more willing to explain their methods and make clearer that placing confidence in the findings of scholarship in literary studies, for example, is  – just as in the sciences – a judgement on a system of thought, expertise and mutual challenge that is discipline-specific.

Several participants commented on the difficulties of conducting multi-disciplinary research: its funding, review structures and rewards (or lack of them). These are challenges faced by many new areas of research and we have no simple answers other than to say that the intellectual satisfaction and potential public goods are, at least for some people, worth it. It’s important to note, too, that in Storylistening we are always arguing for both/and, not either/or: deep disciplinary expertise is essential too.

Many voices

One participant pointed out that there are models of storylistening and storycreation within specific indigenous groups (such as the Maori) that are valuable in their own right and, in turn, might help shape better practices of storylistening elsewhere. Our work begins to explore this important point in areas such as its discussions of stories’ functions in providing multiple points of view, creating collective identities, modelling human embeddedness in natural and physical systems, and exploring non-linear conceptions of time. A discussion throughout the book is the need to identify narrative deficits – stories which might be created or listened to, but are not typically visible in public discourse – and the importance of making spaces for new stories to emerge.

Other issues concerned how to ensure the stories of marginalised groups (such as migrants) were heard, and how to overcome hierarchies of expertise where these might be damaging. These touch on sensitive and fundamental points. On the first, one of the benefits of storylistening is that it is a systematic review of available and relevant stories so should bring value precisely because it would seek out and assess stories that were otherwise less visible in the public sphere. However, this process is about creating evidence which, although a form of power, is not the same as the democratic or other decision-making process that might give power to, or withhold power from, specific groups.

On the second point, storylistening might be considered to help overcome false hierarchies of expertise: for example, we point to the need to consider stories about AI from the perspectives of those anticipating the effects on their jobs and lives, as NESTA is doing, in order to place them alongside the more visible stories being told by charismatic entrepreneurs, even though the latter are undoubtedly more expert in Machine Learning. However, hierarchies of expertise are in many areas absolutely essential: not all storytellers are equivalent, and not all stories are equal, in the sphere of public reasoning. When it comes to the provision of evidence, widening the search and being open-minded matter, but they do not alter the need to test and assess all forms of knowledge. Again, storylistening will only work when part of a pluralistic evidence base. In that case it will not weaken the provision and use of scientific evidence, but strengthen it.

Many ears

As we’re quite proud of the book’s cover with its simple picture of an ear, we are particularly grateful to the participant who introduced the concept of different earsWho, precisely, might any storylistening project aimed at? The answer, as Sheila Jasanoff[1] and many others point out, is entirely context and culturally specific. Storylistening is the practice of creating narrative evidence, using a conceptual and practical framework that outlines four cognitive and collective functions of stories and looking systemically at the stories relevant to a given area of public reasoning (looking at a single story would not properly constitute storylistening).

A storylistening exercise could be commissioned by: a Minister in a government department anywhere in the world; individual departmental Chief Scientific Advisor in the UK; the principal investigator of a major research project in an area of contentious public reasoning such as climate change; an advisory council or committee or mechanism such as the European Commision’s Joint Research Centre, or the US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology; national academies and their networks; the United Nation’s Climate Change Conference programme (which invited author Kim Stanley Robinson speak at COP2);  and on and on. We invite ideas – and, more importantly, action – both in research and in practice.

Finally, the “different ears” question leads to a closing comment about narrative literacy. Storylistening itself requires investment in time and expertise. But a starting point for every one of us, whether acting as citizen, academic, adviser or decision-maker, is to develop our own narrative literacy and that of others. Be respectful of stories, but not over-respectful. Know that, alongside their potentially seductive, persuasive, delightful or harmful emotional effects, it is worth pausing to ask what cognitive and collective value they might have. And, if the public good at stake warrants it, it will be worth seeking, and building capacity for using, expertise in whatever ways you have open to you.

Sometimes, a story about a robot is not about the robot.

Watch again: Storylistening: Narrative Evidence and Public Reasoning

[1] Jasanoff, S. 2012. Science and Public Reason. London: Routledge.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s).

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