Story and data: yin and yang

I saw a story without any data. It was like a milkshake without any flavor.

First, some background: Mark Baker recently wrote a piece in which he rightly derided the DIKW (data, information, knowledge, wisdom) pyramid as a model for communication. He pointed out that pure data, without a story to give it context, is meaningless.

Sea turtleThen he set out to replace the pyramid with a different model: a stack of turtles, each one riding on the back of the one below it. The stack, in Mark’s words, “is stories at the bottom, in the middle, and at the top. It is stories, like turtles, all the way down.”

That sounded good to me. Then I saw a story without any data. (Note: The following narrative is about a story. Even though it touches on a controversial political topic it’s not about politics.)

The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a nonprofit organization that lobbies legislators in state governments, has been in the news lately because of its growing influence and because several of its corporate members — like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook — have left, some citing disagreement with ALEC’s stands on issues.

That has the makings of an interesting story. So I wanted some simple data to go with it. Specifically I wanted to know which corporations are still members of ALEC.

Know what? The data isn’t there.

Conventional web searches like “members of ALEC” yield a few compilations by groups whose names, like ALEC exposed, make it clear they have a political ax to grind. Wikipedia has a list that its editors admit is incomplete: it’s based on media reports and on data from the left-leaning Common Cause. That list is out of date, too, which is understandable since it’s compiled by volunteers.

ALEC’s own website has information about how to join. But there’s no list of members.

So my question — “Which corporations are still members of ALEC?” — remains unanswered.

Sea turtle with yin-yang symbol labeled I’ve come to the conclusion that stories are vital, as Mark says. And I agree with Mark that data by itself is meaningless. But stories without data are essentially meaningless, too. Stories and data have to be intertwined. You can’t have one without the other. Yin and yang. So I propose updating Mark’s turtle to look like the picture on the right. Story and data, all the way down.

What do you think?

7 thoughts on “Story and data: yin and yang

  1. Mark Baker


    I think the story you tell makes a compelling point. Another way to say it would be that narrative + data = story. That is, there is no story without the essential data. “____ and ____ went up the ____ to fetch a ____ __ _______.” has narrative structure, but is not a story.

    But that is not disagree with your “data and story are yin and yang”. It is just another way to state the same idea.

    In saying “narrative + data = story” I would clearly be using “narrative” in an uncommon way. I would be using it to make a distinction that is not normally of concern when talking about narrative. In fact, narrative and story would be virtual synonyms in most cases where they would be used.

    The broader point I have been making about language in my last few posts is precisely this: that words by themselves don’t have fixed meanings. They have denotations and connotations that we can use to create meanings by how we juxtapose them with other words. The phrase, “narrative + data = story” gives “narrative” its specialized meaning by how it is related to the other words. Your “data and story are yin and yang” similarly gives specialized meaning to “yin and yang”.

    Of course, neither of these phrases would make much sense to people by themselves. Both need your story to ground them.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Belated thanks for your comment, Mark. I understand your distinction between narrative and story, and I agree that it’s an example of how we use context to impart shades of meaning to words. If the context makes sense to the listener, we’ve succeeded in communicating. If not, then we’re Humpty Dumpty (“that’s glory for you”).

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