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Murray Davis on learning from stories

Jay Livingston writes:

Your recent post and the linked article on storytelling reminded me of Murray Davis’s article on theory, which has some of the same themes. I haven’t reread it in a long time, so my memory of the details is hazy. Here are the first two paragraphs, which might give you an idea of what the remaining 15,000 words contains.

It has long been thought that a theorist is considered great because his theories are true, but this is false. A theorist is considered great, not because his theories are true, but because they are interesting. Those who carefully and exhaustively verify trivial theories are soon forgotten, whereas those who cursorily and expediently verify interesting theories are long remembered. In fact, the truth of a theory has very little to do with its impact, for a theory can continue to be found interesting even though its truth is disputed — even refuted!

Since this capacity to stimulate interest is a necessary if not sufficient characteristic of greatness, then any study of theorists who are considered great must begin by examining why their theories are considered interesting — why, in other words, the theorist is worth studying at all. But before we can attempt even this preliminary task we must understand clearly why some theories are considered interesting while others are not. In this essay, I will try to determine what it means for a theory to be considered interesting (or, in the extreme, fascinating).

That’s Interesting! Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology
By Murray S. Davis
Phil. Soc. Sci. 1 (1971), 309-344

A quick search found this copy of Davis’s article online. I agree that these ideas overlap with those of Basbøll and me; Davis just as a different focus, as he’s engaging with the literatures in philosophy and sociology, whereas we come at the problem from a philosophy-of-science and literary perspective.

Also interesting is this statement from Davis:

I [Davis] contend that the ‘generation’ of interesting theories ought to be the object of as much attention as the ‘verification’ of insipid ones.” [Emphasis in the original.]

Nowadays we wouldn’t talk of “verification” of a theory (even though lots of people in the “Psychological Science” or “PPNAS” world seem to think that way). And, indeed, I’m concerned less about “insipid” theories than about exciting-sounding theories (shark attacks swing elections! beautiful people have more daughters! Cornell students have ESP! himmicanes!) that don’t make a lot of sense and aren’t supported by the data. That all said, I agree that the generation of theories is not well understood and that this is a topic that deserves further study.


  1. Dale Lehman says:

    The generation of theories may well deserve more attention, but I think more important is the study of what is “interesting.” After all, Wasnink’s theories are found interesting by many people – and, indeed, he may defend his work on such grounds. It isn’t hard to imagine reasons why people might find interesting ideas that are not well formulated or not supported by any evidence – even refuted by evidence. This is a worrisome trend to me – to focus on whether a theory is interesting as necessary condition for greatness. I suspect the key is what is meant by “interesting.” I think Andrew is using the term in a way that includes “important” as part of “interesting.” Otherwise shark attacks influencing voting is certainly “interesting” from many perspectives, but I don’t think it is important. So, I’d rather see more attention paid to understanding interest than how theories are generated.

    • Andrew says:


      The shark attacks theory is interesting if true, not so interesting if false (or, to be more precise, if the effects of events such as shark attacks are highly variable, unpredictable, and context-dependence. Similarly with lots of the ideas of Wansink.

      Sometimes the refutations of these ideas are interesting too. For example, “power pose” seems intuitively right to many people, hence claims such as “That a person can, by assuming two simple 1-min poses, embody power and instantly become more powerful has real-world, actionable implications,” seemed plausible to many observers. The later findings that power pose had no clear effects on hormones etc. are interesting in that they reveal that certain intuitive thinking was not borne out by experimental data. That’s one reason I remain frustrated that the media discussion of power pose downplays the contributions of Eva Ranehill, Anna Dreber, etc., who conducted the failed replication that got the whole discussion going.

      • Dale Lehman says:

        So, truth is necessary for interest? I don’t have a problem with that – except that it appears to be untrue. I wish interesting stories required that they be true (or at least not clearly untrue) but the world appears to be headed elsewhere. In fact, interest is increasingly being defined as separate from truth – just look at the recent headline stories about gun deaths decreasing during NRA conventions – or the analogous story in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education about bad surgical outcomes decreasing during conferences that top surgeons attend. In both cases, the headline is interesting and may not be supported by the evidence. Increasingly, the evidence is disappearing from the story and only the headlines and andecdotes (stories) remain. These are what most people find interesting and not so much the hard work of evaluating the evidence.

        • Kyle C says:

          I would argue that evolutionary psychology presents us with a genre of stories in another category— possibly true, maybe even “probably true,” but (in my opinion) “interesting” only in a peculiarly narrow way, almost as a form of literature or creation myth. Stories about why humans developed certain psychological tendencies — as opposed to what those tendencies **actually are,** which is endlessly interesting— are not generalizable to any other species, are not testable against any other species’ experience, and tell us nothing about how to behave or about how humans may evolve thousands of years hence. (These theories also differ from all other forms of evolutionary study in that we cannot find past human mental states in a fossil record.) Knowing that my mind tends to wander, and that I tend to generalize from insufficient evidence, I fail to see how it is “interesting” to “know” or to tell myself a speculative story that a wandering mind that leapt to conclusions helped our species to survive. Similarly with observed psychological differences between (among) genders. Their persistence is “interesting,” their misty origin stories are not, since we can never know how malleable gender roles actually are unless we try new ones. Yet plenty of people smarter than I am find these stories fascinating.

        • Z says:

          I don’t think Andrew was saying that truth is necessary for a theory to be interesting in general. I think he was just saying that stylized facts (which aren’t really theories anyway, more like hypotheses) should be true to be interesting.

          • Andrew says:


            Some theories or hypotheses are interesting even if not true, as they represent a way of thinking. Freudian psychiatry, neoclassical economics, the median voter theorem: ideas like that are interesting, and I’m a big fan of research that explores the range of applicability of such theories.

            Some other theories are, to me, only interesting if true. The Loch Ness monster: if true, the idea that there’s this sea monster out there that hasn’t really made itself seen for all these years, that’s kind of amazing. If false, though, it’s just one more boring story of media hype. Similarly, Bem’s ESP experiment: if true, how cool is that? If false, it’s just one more empty ESP claim backed up by shaky statistics, like all the others we’ve seen over the past hundred years.

            Power pose is an example of a theory that is interesting if true or false. If true, it’s worth knowing that hormones and actual power can be so easily manipulated. If false, that’s interesting too because so many people believed it to be true: it’s worth knowing (and perhaps a relief) that it’s not so easy for people to manipulate their hormones and their actual power in that way.

            Other theories can be interesting but much depends on the quantitative scale. The theory about beauty and sex ratio would be interesting if true—but a careful read of the literature reveals that, if the theory were true, the effects would have to be tiny, which implies, first, that maybe it’s not so interesting (how much would we really care about a 0.1 percentage point difference) and, second, that it’s undetectable given available data.

            A lot of social science theories are like that: interest depends on the magnitude of effects or comparisons, and much of that is lost in the usual descriptions (in scientific journal articles as well as the popular media) which focus on the (purported) existence of the effect without any understanding of the magnitude. The most notorious case of this was the Freakonomics report on the beauty-and-sex ratio which claimed that “good-looking parents are 36% more likely to have a baby daughter as their first child than a baby son,” which is something like claiming that Tiger Woods has a new golf club that allows him to drive the ball 30,000 yards.

          • Truth is more likely to so unpalatable to most. It’s not simply a matter of whether interesting or not.

  2. There’s a key difference between “interesting in a substantial way” and “interesting mainly because of a temporary ‘wow’ factor.” In the first case, the “interesting” theory stands up to mental and physical experimentation; it offers a cohesive, illuminating, logically valid explanation of a known phenomenon. In the second case, the “interesting” theory fails even preliminary tests; it may sound exciting, but it is insufficiently thought out and poorly tested.

    For example, I find that “growth mindset” falls apart at the mental experimentation stage. It’s one thing to say that people who believe they can improve tend to make more progress than those who do not–and that certain interventions can move people into the former group. But it does not follow that people should strive for pure “growth mindset” as an ideal or that such a thing even exists. There is no reason to believe that the more “growth mindset” you have, the better off you will be. I see more reason to believe that we benefit from mixtures of beliefs, that we need a sense of limitation as well as growth and possibility. “Growth mindset” is not junk science by a long stretch, but it suffers from its own catchiness.

  3. Andrew great topic. I have to read through those links. Actually one of my most favorite topics.

  4. Richard Kennaway says:

    I can’t resist translating the Davis quote into more current language:

    “It has long been thought that a story-teller is considered great because his stories are true, but this is false. A story-teller is considered great, not because his stories are true, but because they attract clicks, likes, and shares. Those who carefully and exhaustively verify trivial stories are soon forgotten, whereas those who write clickbait are long remembered. In fact, the truth of a story has very little to do with its impact, for a story can continue to attract clicks even though its truth is disputed — even refuted!

    “Since this capacity to stimulate clicks is a necessary if not sufficient characteristic of greatness, then any study of story-tellers who are considered great must begin by examining why their stories are considered clickworthy — why, in other words, the story-teller is worth eyeballs at all. But before we can attempt even this preliminary task we must understand clearly why some stories are considered clickworthy while others are not. In this essay, I will try to determine what it means for a story to be considered clickworthy (or, in the extreme, viral).”

    The whole article can be read as a manual on how to write clickbait.

  5. ThM says:

    René Thom (a then-famous mathematician) said, back in the 70s: “Ce qui limite le vrai, ce n’est pas le faux, c’est l’insignifiant”. He even draw a little map that you can find (in French) there:

  6. pk says:

    There was once a man who had a computer, and he asked it, “Do you compute that you will ever be able to think like a human being?”

    After a while, the computer responded, “That reminds me of a story…”

    –from Gregory Bateson, “Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity”, 1982.

    The naturalist writer Barry Lopez has an interesting perspective on truth and story-telling:

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