Comics Vs. Cases

Most of you have probably seen typical “comic book” style stories. Or action movies, which usually have a related style. I’m not saying all graphic novels or active movies follow the same style or all bad styles. I’m just saying there is a recognizable trend among typical popular stories with dramatic settings. Stories that try hard to engage wide audiences differ from reality in consistent ways.

A different style of settings and events are found in histories and other case studies. Of course such writings are not always accurate, and they often focus on the real events that are most like dramatic stories. Even so, if you read a lot of case studies you’ll notice that their settings and events differ consistently from those in comic stories. Which shouldn’t be terribly surprising.

The more surprising thing is that I consistently see “futurists” touting best guess future scenarios that sound more like comics than cases. Not that their scenarios are exactly like typical comics. But if you had to judge which they were more like, typical comics or typical cases, you’d have to say they sounded more like typical comics. Worse, these futurists don’t seem embarrassed by this appearance, or go out of their way to excuse it. It is as if they don’t expect their readers to notice or care.

To me, these are very bad signs. Yes real events can sometimes be so dramatic that they seem in some ways like comics. But even then most of the details aren’t very comic-like. And the lack of embarrassment or excuses seems especially an bad sign. You should always be suspicious of folks who target their arguments at  the ignorant, instead of at those who know enough to criticize effectively.

For example, if you proposed a new energy source, and it looked on the surface like a perpetual motion machine, it would look bad if you didn’t at some point say “yes I know this looks like perpetual motion machine, but here’s why it really isn’t.” Ignoring the issue would suggest you don’t expect your audience to know enough to worry about it. When should make those of us who do know wonder why you aren’t making your case to a wiser audience.

Now if you’ve read a lot of a futurists and never noticed that many of their scenarios sound a lot like comics, let me suggest that you stop reading futurists for a while and start reading case studies. You really have no business trying to evaluate the accuracy of future scenarios if you don’t have a decent grasp on the difference between engaging fiction and typical boring facts.

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  • CarlShulman

    Do you find the history of the last several centuries boring?

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      A comic book or action movie based primarily on summarizing the last few centuries of history would sell poorly.

  • endril

    Can you really give a disapproving finger-point at overblown, story-like futurism? Aren’t you the guy who says the world will enter a new level of super-development brought on by skyscrapers full of trillions of robot office workers?

    • Jason Young

      Robin hasn’t presented his vision of an em-future in story form. Ironically, at least according to what I’ve read on this website, that’s one of the reasons it’s considered so implausible.

      But clearly Robin doesn’t want to become more popular and influential. If he did he’d use the successful storytelling tropes used by other futurists. He must just care about the truth. God bless him.

      • Doug

        Moreover unlike the vast majority of futurist, Robin has many times assigned explicit probabilities to his predicted scenarios. Which are almost always quite conservative often around 10% or less.

      • Alexander Gabriel

        I haven’t witnessed this 10% or less figure. If your confidence is that low, wouldn’t it be better to just say we have very little idea and not call it a best guess, but only a sketch that is valuable mostly to communicate that the future might be utterly bizarre? Future Imperfect style.

  • VV

    The more surprising thing is that I consistently see “futurists” touting best guess future scenarios that sound more like comics than cases.

    What do you find surprising about it?

    “Futurists” and fiction authors have quite similar incentives: both have to provide entertaining, intriguingm, emotionally moving, morally inspiring narratives. Both don’t have to particularly care about being proven wrong, fiction authors because they write overt fiction, and futurists because their “future” is always at least 15 – 20 years ahead.

    Heck, the vast majority of common futurist memes originated as straight adaptations of popular sci-fi tropes.

    Historians, on the other hand, have to provide accurate descriptions of historical events, which can be often boring, trivially predictable or completely unpredictable, lack clear-cut black-and-white moral lessons, etc.

    Moreover, historians have to care about accuracy: If they make a false, unsupported or exaggerated claim, it could be discovered immediately and they would lose reputation.

  • ShardPhoenix

    Could you be more specific? What do you think are typical futurist claims that sound unrealistically comic-booky, and how?

  • michael vassar

    The wiser audiences don’t have enough money, even in net, to be worth pitching cases towards?

  • AD

    Any recommended case studies, or sources for case studies?