Friday, August 01, 2008

Narrative and Factual Inference

In recent years it has become fashionable -- almost de rigeur -- to talk about "narrative" when talking about factual inference in legal settings. This habit of mind has even percolated into the halls of the Supreme Court. (I assume that the Supreme Court building has halls.) See Old Chief v. United States, 519 U.S. 172 (1997) (Souter, J., for the Court). This shift in interest is, on the whole, a good thing, I think. But it is also worth asking why it this development is a good thing. Yes, (some) stories have rhetorical and persuasive force. Yes, (many) stories serve as powerful mnemonic devices. But if the question is whether we should be interested in stories if our ultimate interest is accurate (as well as entertaining or advantageous etc.) factual inference in settings such as trials, the answer is less obvious. We must begin, I think, by distinguishing between two types of "stories." One type of story is a scenario, which, in the parlance of social scientists and other such folks, is a causal hypothesis-a hypothesis about the connections between specified events over time. Another type of story is broader: this broader type of story is an account that has, not only causal explanatory force, but also ingredients such as dramatic appeal, emotional punch, human actors, and the like. A strong case can be made that either all factual issues or almost all factual issues are effectively scenarios -- this on the ground that all, almost all, or many factual hypotheses in legal settings are effectively hypotheses about some possible sequence of connected events in time. However, it may be less clear that epistemic considerations--i.e., truthseeking considerations--make stories in the sense of narrative necessary. But perhaps "necessity" is too strong a requirement here. Perhaps it is enough if we show (if we can) that stories with emotional wallop etc., generally promote [under some circumstances] the search for the truth, generally advance [under some circumstances] accurate fact finding. (This thesis is a variant of the sensible notion that practical epistemic maxims should take the human animal as we find him [or her].)

the dynamic evidence page

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