November 24th, 2013
Wow. Did you see CBS 48 Hours Mystery this past Saturday? It was the most fascinating case I’ve ever seen. And I think proof that the idea of “narrative profiling” is coming. More importantly, if the people of the climate world really think their “story” is the most important thing known to humanity, why don’t they seek the real world expertise of people like J. Lee Meihls? The answer is because they are too literal minded to get that creative (they stick to the ivory tower). But they should.
THIS WOMAN KNOWS STORYTELLING. You want insight into narrative dynamics in the real world — go talk to this person. She stole the show in the latest episode of “CBS 48 Hours Mysteries.” Amazing.
“NARRATIVE PROFILING” – IT’S COMING
This is just me swinging in the dark, but I think there is a new term coming sometime soon along the lines of, “Narrative Profiling.” What it means is a way to describe the way your brain perceives the world through narrative dynamics or storytelling. At one end of the spectrum are people who see the world as just isolated, cold, disconnected facts that don’t add up to much of anything. At the other end are conspiracists and even schizophrenics who see stories everywhere.
I saw this in my science career. Some people looked at a bunch of coral colonies and saw a bunch of coral colonies (“A rose is but a rose”). Others, like my good friend Dr. Jeremy Jackson, one of the greatest scientists I’ve ever known, looked at the same bunch of corals (along with his graduate student Terry Hughes) and saw “the story” of the entire population dynamics of clonal organisms, resulting in a major paper in Science in 1980 titled, “Do Corals Lie About their Age?” I remember other scientists being pissed at, “How did he take the same data we all have and get a paper in Science with it?” The answer is he has the brain of a storyteller.
Same deal for Malcolm Gladwell — and not coincidentally he’s getting pilloried over this trait these days — some people are getting tired of him seeing a story in everything (“sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”).
JURY SELECTION BY TV VIEWING
In part, what this 48 Hours episode was about is that some people’s brains lean towards viewing the world as non-stories where others don’t, which corresponds to a tendency to see innocence (no story) versus guilt (a story), all else equal. They had a jury consultant, J. Lee Meihls, who not only masterminded the jury selection for this case, but has done the same for the Michael Jackson and R. Kelly cases. She told of her system for analyzing people in terms of how they view basic story dynamics. Jurors who are fans of TV shows like “The Good Wife” are more likely to hold out longer on the innocence of the suspect. She says it’s a show where they are “openly confronting the fact that they’re often working for clients that they think look guilty and yet they give them the very best defense possible.”
At the other end of the spectrum are people who are fans of shows like “Criminal Minds” and “Blue Bloods.” “If those were a juror’s favorite shows, they might be more prosecution oriented,” she says. This is the essence of “narrative profiling” — figuring out the direction your brian is biased.
DUMB AND DUMBER
Overall, it is an incredible episode of 48 Hours. It’s the story of a murdered young woman, and a “hit woman” who clearly committed the crime as her DNA was all over the crime scene (on the door knobs, on the t-shirt of the deceased, and even a finger print on a coffee cup with a drop of blood on the cup from the victim). Basically an air tight case. Provided you had a jury who thought the “Criminal Minds” way. But that wasn’t that case because Meihls had managed to influence the jury selection based on her criteria.
The verdict defies logic — they acquitted.
It was along the lines of the scene in “Dumb and Dumber” where the woman tells Jeff Daniels the odds of her dating him are one in a million, and that’s enough to make him happy, just knowing that there is a chance. Same deal with this murder case. The scenario presented by the defense had to be at the one in a million level, yet that was enough for the jury to acquit.
Two things came into play. First, the defense came up with a far-fetched, almost cockamamie idea that someone might have wiped down the murder scene with a towel that somehow 100% removed the DNA of the murderer, and then replaced it with the DNA of the hit woman whose DNA just happened to be on this towel. There was a super-long shot possibility that such a towel could have existed given that the victim and suspect had both visited the home of a man they both knew, 5 months earlier. But come on …
So basically one super longshot element after another. The DNA expert interviewed in the show couldn’t call the scenario “impossible,” but he came as close to saying that as possible.
Which meant the second thing needed by the defense was a jury that would go for such a longshot story. And that’s what happened. Like having a jury of conspiracy nuts — people willing to believe a sequence of highly improbable events strung together.
LAB VERSUS FIELD WORK IN NARRATIVE DYNAMICS
So I made one movie about anti-evolution nuts who are willing to string together a sequence of highly improbable elements as a means of refuting the entire body of knowledge of evolution. Then I made another movie about anti-climate nuts who are willing to string together a sequence of also highly improbable elements to dismiss the entire firmament of climate science. These things are all inter-related. And I don’t think the true understanding of them, at least for the short term, rests in neurophysiology (as cool as it can be at times).
To the contrary, it rests in the real world people who are gaining the real world experience, such as this jury selection expert. This is basically the difference between lab and field work. Neurophysiologists are doing elegant work in the lab, but it’s still the artificial world of the lab. It’s the people out doing the field work whose expertise needs to be sought. They are seeing the useful, practical patterns to help understand how large groups of people can buy into utter irrationality. Which means their knowledge should be sought out by the science crowd who are so baffled by these phenomena.
Starting with J. Lee Miehls.