Narrativium & The Norm Chronicles

TheNormChroniclesWhat has the hugely entertaining book The Norm Chronicles got to do with the Narrativium Project?

An entertaining book? Yes. Sometimes hilarious, yup. And it’s about statistics?

How come? The two authors understand the power of narrativium. One is Cambridge statistician David Spiegelhalter who ‘lives on a flood plain but is more anxious about forgetting where he put the house keys‘; t’other is writer Michael Blastland.

They cunningly weave hard-nosed stats about risk, so information-laden stuff, into stories about people whose lives mirror our own.

And unbeknownst to them of course, their book neatly explains why our scenarios need stories; i.e. narrativium.

The Norm Chronicles opens with three unattended bags on the London underground, and the reaction of three fictional characters to them, Norm (the average guy, geddit), Prudence (the nervy one, sees danger everywhere) and Kelvin (the dare-devil risky one).

So what are the odds that an unattended bag on the tube is dangerous, is a bomb? Here are some numbers: 52 people died, some 700 more injured in bomb attacks on on underground trains and a bus in central London on 7 July 2005. In 2011, about 30,000 bags were left on London Transport. Yup, thirty thousand.

Narrativium or numbers?

Numbers tell us the odds. Stories are how we often convey the feelings and values that numbers cannot, feelings and values that might in turn distort our perception of the odds. Stories impose order, but often artificially — beginnings, middle and ends, all neatly tied together (too neatly?) with cause and effect. Numbers give us probabilities, which often don’t claim to know the precise causes and effects of how one thing leads to another but simply show us how it all adds up into a tally of life and death . . . 

Neither you nor I is average. We’re not uncaring numbers. We’re not agglomerations of facts. We live and breath our lives through stories, beliefs, feelings — and our sense of What The World Really Is filtered through lots of stuff, but not facts, stats, numbers, risk probabilities and the like.

We are indeed more pan narrans than homo sapiens; we human apes respond to stories, beliefs, feelings . . . hence the Narrativium Project.


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