Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Narrative Bias

Google the words "happiness" and "everything happens for a reason".  You will see a list of results from the scientific (i.e., your outlook on life depends on your certainty in order) to the spiritual (i.e., there is a higher being governing things).  Chaos is stressful to the point of debilitation.  Order implies safety - "If I did everything the same way today as I did it yesterday, I will end my day the same way - with a book, a warm bed, and my family around me."

The sad truth is that things are not so certain.  We treat the unexpected like the exception, while these things inconspicuously litter our day.  The green light that you just missed.  The traffic jam on the way to work.  The computer/phone/copier not working.  Arguments.  The moments of chaos fill a general structure to our day (wake up, take care of house/family, drive to work, work, drive home from work, take care of house/family, sleep), but are nevertheless prevalent.

Yesterday, there was a horrible train accident in Rosedale in which a freight train hit a garbage truck and came off the tracks.  Thankfully, there was only one reported injury and he appears likely to survive.  Barely an hour had gone by before I began reading "how this happened" and "how we can make sure it never happens again."

Trains go fast.
Roads go over train tracks.
Cars go over roads.
Sometimes trains hit cars.

We can all agree that one train derailment is one too many, but does that prompt the necessity to find some root cause that may be snuffed out?

Instead of spending so much time worrying about political bias in the media (with an easy work-around called "the world wide web"), what about narrative bias?  What about the media's compulsion, driven by the market, to explain away shocking tragedies to make us all feel a little safer?  "A ha, see the mistake that they made there?  I would never make that mistake.  I am safe."

Narrative bias drives everything.  Why are deaths in Syria "less important" than deaths in Boston?  Why are deaths of young black men in Baltimore less "newsworthy" than deaths of young white men in suburbia?  Why is the expected buried underneath the unexpected?

All of our lives are an unfortunate accident away from narrative bias, even outside of the media gaze.  Stub your toe?  You should have paid more attention to where you were walking.  Car side-swiped in the middle of the night?  You should have taken more care in where you chose to park your car.  Identity stolen?  Article after article says your password should be at least 10 characters.

Sometimes bad stuff happens.  Sometimes horrible stuff happens.  It's ok that we don't have an explanation all the time.  It is also ok if there is nothing we can do to stop it from happening again.  That is why our caveman (and cavewoman) brains prompt us to yell unintelligibly at the stars every once in a while.  The alternative is a very cruel, and unfair, compulsion to blame the unexpected on the victim.  The media does so in a very facile attempt to restore order where none exists.  We don't need to buy it.

Sometimes bad stuff happens.  Sometimes horrible stuff happens.  It's ok that we don't have an explanation.

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love.  Rock on.