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OnWords: Look Past Numbers, See The People

macrophile, flickr Creative Commons

Stories are quick, powerful ways to present complex, human themes, so why do we often insist on using discrete, numerical approaches to complex, human problems?

A case in point recently aired on NPR's Morning Edition. Shankar Vedantam covered a study in which the techniques of Cognitive Behavior Therapy were used to help at-risk youth think through conflicts in order to prevent violent acts.

The data showed that these techniques worked, but only for about a year--then the kids went back to their violent ways.

A clue as to why the techniques didn't stick can be seen in how the researchers described what they did. Terms like “interventions,” “behavior,” and “deter,” reveal the study as way too simple and its scope as way too small.

Had the researchers taken the time to listen to these kids' stories, they would have seen that violent behavior exists within the framework of a complex social situation, something the parameters of data-gathering on a single intervention could never reveal.

Perhaps we shy away from story in these cases because stories help us identify with people, and that would not allow the objective distance we believe science calls for. Besides, it's scary: the stories of violent kids might show that we're not all that different, and that if we grew up as these kids did, maybe we'd be violent too.       

The study in this report was meant not just to do science, but to help people, and people exist in complex, scary places. Their stories may terrify us, but if positive change is going to happen, we must face that fear, see past the hard numbers, and listen.

Lael Ewy is a co-founder and editor of EastWesterly Review, a journal of literary satire at www.postmodernvillage.com, and a writer whose work has appeared in such venues as Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review and has been anthologized in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh.