TITLE: Narrative Fallacy on My Mind AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 12, 2008 12:24 PM DESC: ----- BODY: In his recent bestseller The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb uses the term narrative fallacy to describe man's penchant for creating a story after the fact, perhaps subconsciously, in order to explain why something happened -- to impute a cause for an event we did not expect. This fallacy derives from our habit of imposing patterns on data. Many view this as a weakness, but I think it is a strength as well. It is good when we use it to communicate ideas and to push us into backing up our stories with empirical investigation. It is bad when we let our stories become unexamined truth and when we use the stories to take actions that are not warranted or well-founded. Of late, I've been thinking of the narrative fallacy in its broadest sense, telling ourselves stories that justify what we see or want to see. My entry on a response to the Onward! submission by my ChiliPLoP group was one trigger. Those of us who believe strongly that we could and perhaps should be doing something different in computer science education construct stories about what is wrong and what could be better; we're like anyone else. That one OOPSLA reviewer shed a critical light on our story, questioning its foundation. That is good! It forces us to re-examine our story, to consider to what extent it is narrative fallacy and to what extent it matches reality. In the best case, we now know more about how to tell the story better and what evidence might be useful in persuading others. In the worst, we may learn that our story is a crock. But that's a pretty good worst case, because it gets us back on the path to truth, if indeed we have fallen off. A second trigger was finding a reference in Mark Guzdial's blog to a short piece on universal programming literacy at Ken Perlin's blog. "Universal programming literacy" is Perlin's term for something I've discussed here occasionally over the last year, the idea that all people might want or need to write computer programs. Perlin agrees but uses this article to consider whether it's a good idea to pursue the possibility that all children learn to program. It's wise to consider the soundness of your own ideas every once in a while. While Perlin may not be able to construct as challenging a counterargument as our OOPSLA reviewer did, he at least is able to begin exploring the truth of his axioms and the soundness of his own arguments. And the beauty of blogging is that readers can comment, which opens the door to other thinkers who might not be entirely sympathetic to the arguments. (I know...) It is essential to expose our ideas to the light of scrutiny. It is perhaps even more important to expose the stories we construct subconsciously to explain the world around us, because they are most prone to being self-serving or simply convenient screens to protect our psyches. Once we have exposed the story, we must adopt a stance of skepticism and really listen to what we hear. This is the mindset of the scientist, but it can be hard to take on when our cherished beliefs are on the line. -----