But not knowing why doesn’t sit well with our human brains. We yearn for patterns, explanations and stories to explain why what is happening is happening. Not knowing why also makes it difficult to get buy-in from others. If you’re trying to convince a manager to make a choice based on your data, you can be much more convincing with a story coupled with data, instead of just the data itself. Storytelling is a powerful tool, but if taken too far it can quickly go from presenting what happened to pushing an agenda.
The problem with creating stories with data that reach too far is called the narrative fallacy, made popular by Nassim Talbm in his book The Black Swan:
“The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it makes us think we understand it more than we really do and as a result, become more confident in a story that isn’t true.“
When you think you understand what the visitors on your site are doing more than you really do, you may start to let the data take a back seat going forward, and fall into the trap of confirmation bias where you start paying attention only to information that confirms your story while ignoring information that challenges your preconceived notions.
Somanyblogs are promoting the idea of telling stories with data without a bit of warning on the dangers of that approach. The world is a very complex place, and there is almost never a simple answer or a simple series of events to explain any action. In the end we don’t actually need stories to make decisions. Stop pushing agendas and get over who gets to take credit (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the ones most interested in story telling are the same insufferable people who want to put off doing anything until after a meeting is held about it).
To make a decision, you simply need the ability to compare numbers and choose the best one. I don’t need to know why variant C was better than B, I simply need to know that it was 10% better and then I can take that insight, apply the change and move forward.