Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Telling Stories, Part 2

The Scientific Assignment

Some worry their paper is inappropriate for story-telling; perhaps their professor doesn't want to see "I" or "we." Well, in my opinion, that simply affects the degree of story telling. Consider (the aforementioned) Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat and Hot, Flat, and Crowded, among others. He writes about economics -- one of the most dreaded subjects of all students and bookworms alike -- yet his books are bestsellers and easy reads. How does he do that? Well, great researching, for one, but also, he tells stories. He doesn't just inform me: "America is capable of innovating in high tech, green industries." No, he tells me the story of a plant in Pennsylvania that has just built a super-efficient train engine. He quotes some workers, he describes (briefly) the little town they call home -- and, in doing so, he shows me that, indeed, America is capable of innovating in high tech, green industries.

Of course, in papers presenting research and/or recent findings in a scientific field, story-telling plays a much smaller role. It must give homage to statistical evidence and quantitative results. However, the explaining of these findings -- the claims or conclusions -- requires story telling.


As an undergrad, I wrote a thesis concerning state-sponsored lottery programs with respect to non-scholarship spending. Real tedious stuff. So, to make the paper interesting and effective, I needed to examine the stories behind the facts and data: "why did the state adopt a lottery program, and who made it happen?" (introduction); "how have particular school, cities, and counties profited from these programs and what do these profits look like?" (body); and "where can we go from here, knowing the total benefits of lottery programs?" (conclusion)?

Granted, the bulk of my paper was statistical analysis, charts, and graphs, but these little stories added value and readability to the paper.

So, when writing a paper about -- say -- biology: draw a picture of the species in its environment. If, for instance, the paper is about the effects of captivity on certain species of elephants, then describe their day-to-day, and do it near the beginning: "A territorial species by nature, the [something] elephants adapt very well to captivity. Tori, the [something] elephant at the Jacksonville Zoo, has even adopted a family cranes, which she fiercely protects from the zoo staff. She sees these fellow-inhabitant cranes as partners in her territory, as members of her pack. In many ways, Tori represents..."

When writing about about finance, there is almost always a story to tell. For instance, if assigned to study recent financial innovations, one must present the backdrop: "In 1982, Congress passed the Garn–St. Germain Depository Institutions Act, a bill meant to reconstitute a stalling housing market during Ronald Reagan's deregulation-administration. Congress wanted house-buyers to have more loans and loan styles to choose from. This seemingly innocuous event led to the eventual creation of adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs), one of the severely predatory financial innovations that caused the Great Recession in 2008. Therefore, modern American financial innovation must conform to the federal government's new-found distrust against the development of new tools..."

This finance paper can extend or alter in many ways. Rather than focus on the historical narrative, the paper could examine the major players: which members of Congress pushed this bill (i.e. Garn and St. Germain) and why, which bank CFOs first employed ARMs, which states used ARMs first, or what have people in power now said about financial innovation?

Telling stories, cannot be the meat of a scientific paper, but it can be the potatoes.

What do I mean? Well, statistics, documented research, and analysis must be the core of the paper; however, stories can help to explain these. In Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin's book, The Book, they examine baseball theories through advanced statistics. Throughout the course of their book, they wisely provide examples, real life stories, to compliment their statistical findings. The authors begin The Book, in its preface, by telling a true story to legitimize their purpose:
The biggest player on the field makes the slow walk from the on-deck circle to the batter's box. The left fielder shouts out something, and the pitcher turns around. Four fingers. The left fielder, who also happens to be the coach of the team, is holding out four fingers. Half of the players on the fielding team have their mouths agape, and the other half nod approvingly. There's a man on second base and one out, after all. The inning ends with three runs scoring, including the batter who was intentionally walked...
With this opening, they present not only a memorable story, but the inherent flaws of the previously accepted norm -- that walking excellent batters intentionally is the best move. Later in The Book, they certainly refrain from such ambitious story-telling, but stay true to the need for historical or hypothetical stories -- a tactic we can all learn to love to mimic.

-Bradley Woodrum

Question, comments, complaints? Please feel free to express yourself in the comments section. Silence shall be interpreted to mean utter and blind acceptance, as well as possible Brad-worship.


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