The Need for Stories in a Data-Driven World – Greg Phelan

Fresh off a frustrating experience navigating COVID-related policies that stood in the way of his daughter’s health care, a friend recently asked me to explain “how you economists calculate all the costs and benefits of these policies.” From his vantage point, policymakers seemed unable or unwilling to see the real-world consequences of their actions.

As I started composing an answer with all the details of a good economic analysis, I had to pause. The best answer economists could offer sounded a bit embarrassing. I felt what Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro acknowledge in Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities: “The real world usually involves the kind of trade-offs that economists like to avoid” (26).

The central thesis of Cents and Sensibility, written by an economist and a literature professor at Northwestern University, is that for precisely these types of complicated issues, economists have much to gain from engaging with other disciplines, notably the humanities. Economic theory has tremendous value for simplifying and systematics, but the most important challenges we face—like the right ways to respond to globalization or to address inequality—require more than systematic theory.

Appreciating Complexity

The book makes two central claims: we need to recognize the complexity lost in the simplification of theory, and we need a healthy respect for issues of ethics and morality. Great literature is helpful for both. Economics presents a world of simplified assumptions, but literature offers a world of brimming with conflict and contradictions.

Moreover, while economics helps explain how people respond to incentives, it offers little help in discerning whether that’s good or bad. Or as economist Luigi Zingales says, economists sometimes call rational (responding to incentives) what normal people rightly call immoral. In engaging with complexity and ethics, the authors call on us not just to offer theories but to tell stories.

The most important challenges we face—like the right ways to respond to globalization or to address inequality—require more than systematic theory.

Consider cartography as a metaphor. A life-size map including every detail isn’t very useful. A map’s value is that it simplifies the world; a theory’s value is that it makes complex realities accessible. But the hiker using the map encounters all the nuance of the real world. So too reading great literature places us on the ground, as it were, to appreciate the complexity not captured by a simplified map.

Challenges and Opportunities

Though there’s promising wisdom in literature, Morson and Schapiro acknowledge that many modern humanities departments offer only social constructions of truth that cannot give universal insight into human nature or morality. Morson the humanist writes, “If forced to choose, I would pick the disciplines that at least presumed the possibility of meaningful knowledge”—not the humanities.

The authors’ moral reasoning, derived from literature, would be foreign in many literature departments today. In rejecting preposterous economics-alone conclusions, they affirm that marriage is sacred, that parents ought to sacrifice for their children, that many of the things people might consent to do with their bodies degrade their dignity, and that there’s sanctity to human life. Notwithstanding the failures of modern academia, these affirmations point to the potential for great literature to act as a moral conscience for policy prescriptions that can otherwise dehumanize or degrade human dignity.

What Christians Can Offer and Learn

Reading this book as a Christian, one cannot help feeling a desire to move the conversation to the greatest story of all. Morson and Schapiro appreciate that we will only benefit from stories that are true. For reading Austen, Dickens, or Dostoevsky to be helpful—or Langston Hughes or Toni Morrison or The Story of the Stone or The Tale of Genji—they must tell us something true. Not just any story will do. And as noted in Tolkien On Fairy-Stories, every good story points to the gospel, the ultimate story, and it’s true. “All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them.”

What Christians can offer economics, the humanities, and our world is an honest telling of the true story behind all stories. We can help provide the basis for human dignity and the complexity of people made in God’s image to inform better economic policy and pursue human flourishing. But we can only do so if we tell the story as it truly is—and here we can learn a lesson alongside the economists.

As Morson and Schapiro would say, we need to respect the complexities of people and of the gospel if we’re to tell people the right story. Christians can sometimes simplify Christianity beyond what it can bear. The gospel is simple, but it isn’t simplistic. Neither are the people in our world who need Jesus. If we flatten the gospel into simplistic formulas applied to two-dimensional people, we’re making the same error as many economists. Should we be surprised when real people don’t respond?

The gospel is simple, but it isn’t simplistic. Neither are the people in our world who need Jesus.

The world needs the fullness of Christian wisdom, not platitudes. One could get the “point” of Job by reading the first and the last chapter, but those challenging chapters in between provide comfort and encouragement that the point alone would not. The author of Ecclesiastes distills the lesson in one verse—“Fear God and keep his commandments” (Eccles. 12:13)—yet the Preacher gave us 12 enigmatic chapters to make us wise.

The church is in the storytelling business. We worship the God who taught in parables and wrote himself into history. When we tell the gospel story well, we serve as salt and light in a world increasingly needful of the true stories God has given us and the beautiful complexity they reveal.

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