Stories vs. Statistics

John Allen Paulos in the New York Times:

John-allen-paulos Half a century ago the British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow bemoaned the estrangement of what he termed the “two cultures” in modern society — the literary and the scientific. These days, there is some reason to celebrate better communication between these domains, if only because of the increasingly visible salience of scientific ideas. Still a gap remains, and so I’d like here to take an oblique look at a few lesser-known contrasts and divisions between subdomains of the two cultures, specifically those between stories and statistics.

I’ll begin by noting that the notions of probability and statistics are not alien to storytelling. From the earliest of recorded histories there were glimmerings of these concepts, which were reflected in everyday words and stories. Consider the notions of central tendency — average, median, mode, to name a few. They most certainly grew out of workaday activities and led to words such as (in English) “usual,” “typical.” “customary,” “most,” “standard,” “expected,” “normal,” “ordinary,” “medium,” “commonplace,” “so-so,” and so on. The same is true about the notions of statistical variation — standard deviation, variance, and the like. Words such as “unusual,” “peculiar,” “strange,” “original,” “extreme,” “special,” “unlike,” “deviant,” “dissimilar” and “different” come to mind. It is hard to imagine even prehistoric humans not possessing some sort of rudimentary idea of the typical or of the unusual. Any situation or entity — storms, animals, rocks — that recurred again and again would, it seems, lead naturally to these notions. These and other fundamentally scientific concepts have in one way or another been embedded in the very idea of what a story is — an event distinctive enough to merit retelling — from cave paintings to “Gilgamesh” to “The Canterbury Tales,” onward.

More here.