Sunday, August 13, 2017

What about all these Stories? Rereading Schank

In the aftermath of the civil disturbances of Charlottesville, Michael Eric Dyson wrote in the August 12th, 2017 edition of the New York Times:
Such an ungainly assembly of white supremacists rides herd on political memory. Their resentment of the removal of public symbols of the Confederate past — the genesis of this weekend’s rally — is fueled by revisionist history. They fancy themselves the victims of the so-called politically correct assault on American democracy, a false narrative that helped propel Mr. Trump to victory. Each feeds on the same demented lies about race and justice that corrupt true democracy and erode real liberty.
Dyson then distinguishes between political memories, between revisionist history and other history (proper? academic? he has no name for it, but cites Du Bois), between true and false narratives.

Tools of Story Telling

It is in this context relevant to look at the infrastructure that Roger Schank has identified for story telling (bracketing Schank's occupation with intelligence, however). Because of his particular slant to story analysis, Schank provides a repertoire of narratological tools and distinctions that differ from those in the literary toolkit. (This cuts both ways, Morson argues in the Foreword, missing for example the notion of Genre in Schank's musings, p.xxff.)

Stories are received and generated structures that people label in an attempt to index them, so that they can retrieve them and match them for comparison purposes. People are assisted in story manipulation by story skeletons, which give a basic direction to a narrative, and by the hierarchy of scripts, plans, goals and themes that Schank had identified in his classical work with Robert Abelson (1977). Because stories can be retold in a variety of ways and for various purposes, Schank posits that they are remembered in a different format, the gist, of which the individual retelling is a production. Stories vary by culture and subculture---Schank specifically discusses the French restaurant on the one hand and the teenager Rock fan on the other.

In much of the exposition of the book, and especially in the discussion of the story production and generation, Schank brackets the question of truth. Schank writes as if the intentionality of the stories would make the question of whether the stories are true or not irrelevant or even impossible to answer.

Diplomatic Incidents

Schank uses a diplomatic conflict, the shooting down of an Iranian airliner by a US Navy warship, the Vincennes, on July 3, 1988, to illustrate the way that the same event is used to make hay for the divergent political positions.
If we construct our own version of truth by reliance upon skeleton stories, two people can know exactly the same facts but construct a story that relays those facts in very different ways. (p.152)
Or even more patronizingly:
The real problem in using skeletons whis way is that the storytellers usually believe what they themselves are saying. Authors construct their own reality by finding the events that fit the skeleton convenient for them to believe. They enter a storytelling situation wanting to tell a certain kind of story and only then worrying about whether || the facts fit onto the bones of the skeleton that they have previously chosen. (p.154f)
Schank then goes on to label the skeletal stories that backed the reactions of the various government as the US using the understandable tragedy (p.152f), Great Britain the justifiability of self-defense (p.153),  Libya insolence and state terrorism (p.154),  and Bahrain justifiable bad effects of war on the aggressor and moral courage (p.155).

So, we can summarize as a first impression that, while Schank will admit that some facts do not fit onto the bones of a skeleton, he is willing to talk about people's own realities and how the skeleton stories are what make up people's notions of truth.
... no matter what happens next, all the viewers of the play [that plays out in the international diplomatic incident, RCK] will retell the story according to the skeletons they have already selected; i.e. they will probably not be moved to reinterpret any new event in terms of some skeleton that they do not already have in mind. (p.158)
So even though the stories dominate to the point of where they shape the memory of the events and the way that future facts will attach to past narrations, there is still something that Schank can call coherence.
One of the oddities of story-based understanding is that people have difficulty making decisions if they know they will have trouble constructing a coherent story to explain their decision. (p.159)
So justificatory stories do have coherence requirements, otherwise they will not properly support the decisions through explanations. Schank goes on to demonstrate this with divorce stories (pp.160ff), which however need not concern us here.

Stories that were Challenged

While there is much plausibility to the fact that political agents have apriori decided how participants will respond to events in the arena that is international diplomacy---theorizing, as Sherlock Holmes would warn us, in advance of the facts (p.159), matters become more complicated when Schank looks at stories that were strongly challenged by agents able to do something about disagreement.

Schank discusses this problem in two examples, in the claimed rape of Tawana Brawley by white supremacists (pp.208ff) and the disqualification of Canadian runner Ben Johnson (pp.210ff) for allegations of doping. However, the larger context is the problem of the cultural and subcultural specificity of stories, and how to acquire that skill (pp.189-218). As a result, the analysis of these stories that were challenged (and ultimately rejected) by authoritative agents come across as situations of choosing bad raw materials for story telling on part of Brawley and Johnson.

Tawana Brawley

... Tawana Brawley ran away for four days, and she needed to tell a story. For her own reasons, she decided not to tell the true story of where she had been, but to invent one instead. (p.209)
It is easy to agree with Schank here, though one has to emphasize that he distinguishes between "true story" and "invend(ed) one" explicitly.

Schank then continues:
When we invent a story in order to mislead people, we try to figure out the story that they want to hear, and we tell it. Children frequently tell a he made me do it story or an it wasn't me that did it story when they are caught having done something wrong. And this kind of story is what Tawana Brawley told too. (p.209)
Again, we are on the same page as Shank here. But then Schank takes a departure that is interesting for the problem of reliability.
Her [Tawana Brawley's, RCK] problem was selecting a believable story. She failed to assess how many listeners would hear her story and failed to understand that what each of them wanted to hear was quite different. (p.209)
Even with the discussion of enculturation into story cultures and subcultures and the difficulties for teenagers to acquire these skills going before (p.208), the turn here is unexpected. The problem according to Schank at this point is not that too many listeners would eventually exhaust Tawana's range of fictional supports, but that they story expectations would eventually exceed her capabilities in some other way.

Schank argues that Brawley picked two basic skeletons, both shockingly realistic in 1980s America ( and as Dyson might remind us, even in 2017), namely young girl is kidnapped and raped as well as young black is victim of racial attack (p.209). Crucially for Schank's argument, the first one comes from the general American culture, and the second one from Brawley's subculture (p.209).
While either of these standard stories is bad enough, the combination of them produced something we can only assume Tawana had not counted on---the match of two types of stories || sought by the news media and black activists. (pp.209f)
Schank then discusses these two groups in turn:
The media looks for horrifying stories involving assaults on especially innocent people. Consequently, Tawana's story matched a skeleton story that news people are always looking to report. (p.210)
Her [i.e. Tawana Brawley's, RCK] story also matched a skeleton story that black activists are always on the lookout for: innocent blacks as easy victims of white officials. She had added that her rapists were state police officers and other officials of her area. The factor, of course, had it been true, should well have caused alarm on the part of the activists. (p.210)
Schank is entirely plausible in identifying the activation patterns for various groups' involvement, and the in arguing that Brawley did not understand how her chosen skeletons meshed with these activation skeletons. But even here, Schank is willing to admit that there are true stories of innocent blacks as victims---"had it been true" (p.210)---that activists should be alarmed by.
Tawana's mistake, apart from fabricating events in the first place, was to invent stories without understanding the standard nature of the stories that others look for. (p.210)
There are a polite and a critical reading to this sentence. The admission, and as an aside only, that "fabricating events in the first place" was a mistake either is Schank's backdoor to admit that the events matter (this is the polite reading) or an indication of his lack of appreciation for how much events matter (the critical reading), i.e. that Brawley's failure to grasp "the standard nature of stories" (p.210) pale to the point of irrelevance in comparison with the need to fabricate facts that could hold up to the scrutiny of multiple organizations.

It is thus with much less agreement than previously, or with a feeling of the emphasis lying on the wrong part, that we head into the description of the role of the standard nature of stories.
Thus, when doctors are handed a rape case or a case of unconsciousness from beating and deprivation, they have certain tests they perform to aid the victim. They also use skeleton stories to understand such cases, and they seek to fit the details of any new story into the familiar story. (p.210)
This  is just an adapted restating of Schank's general epistemology that understanding in humans is story-based.
Similarly, the police know a story about rape, and in the case of Tawana Brawley, they tried to fit the details of her story into theirs. (p.210)
As a result of casting the problem in this way, Schank posits that the police became suspicious because of the mismatch between Tawana's story and their expected story.
For both the doctors and the police, Tawan's story did not agree with the standard stories about rape, and this disparity caused them to question the truth of Tawana's claims. (p.210)
Notice that the whole problem of truth---now however applied to claims, not to facts or events or stories---is admitted and raised by Schank. Yet his conclusion is cast in terms of story skeletons and of subcultures:
Not surprisingly, since she is young and rather unsophisticated, Tawana Brawley failed to understand how to make up a story that matched the ones that the people who were listening to her expected to hear. She did not know the stories of the other subcultures. (p.210)
And almost wistfully, Schank concludes:
Traveling across cultures, it seems, requires the help of a translator. (p.210)
Perhaps a stronger stance that Schank could have taken was to recur on his prior notion of scripts. Tawana failed, because she did not really understand the rape script and the deprivation script, and was therefore unable to tell stories that matched well enough with the script that the doctors and the police officers had for these incidents.

Furthermore, as the New York Times article that Schank quotes (pp.208f) suggests, while the doctors and the police officers took their departure from their questioning the validity of the story, they did not condemn her on that account but used it to find actual evidence that contradicted Tawana's narrative. Notice the use of the word "evidence" in the cited article:
The conclusion that Miss Brawley fabricated her story is supported by ... evidence that she ran away and spent much of the next four days at her former apartment, evidence that she concocted the condition in which she was found, and evidence that she tried to mislead the police, doctors and others about what had happened to her.  --New York Times, September 27, 1988, cited in: Schank 1990, (p.209)
In fact, the article, a two-page spread as Schank admits (p.208), was called "Evidence points to Deceit by Brawley".

Even granted all the usual caveats of the mutual interaction between evidence and narrative, it seems hard to support the stance that for Miss Brawley, the story skeletons did her in. At best they tipped the police off to problems. And the failure in the collection of confirming evidence, which would have been required equally for a court of law, would have done her in just as much as the success in finding fabricated evidence.

Canadian Runner Ben Johnson

Schank of course believes that he has proven that Brawley became entrapped by being unfamiliar with the story expectations. Thus he can use the case of Ben Johnson, a Canadian runner disqualified from the Olympics for doping, as "another case of story misunderstanding" (p.210). 
The story is interesting in this context because the press assumed that everyone who used steroids also knows how to avoid getting caught. (p.211)
Schank's quotes from the NY Times actually do not bear this statement out. It is Dr Voy, the chief medical officer of the US Olympic Committee is the one that is quoted as commenting on the masking know-how in the athletes community.

Schank then goes on to enumerate the stories that Dr Voy, the physician and official, has---to wit: the miscalculate the dose, the screwy system, and the reckless gamble story, the panic to insure victory story and the masking the drug story (p.211)---as well as the stories that Johnson was familiar with---to wit: spiked my drink with drugs and bad lab test (p.211).

The first thing to notice is that Voy's and Johnson's narrative intentions are at odds. None of Dr Voy's stories would have gotten Johnson a pass for testing positive. Indeed, the article gives no examples of stories that Dr Voy would have considered legitimate for a positive testing candidate to continue on as a medal bearer. So Johnson could not have used any of these stories. In fact, all we learn is that the stories Johnson alleged were not part of Dr Voy's repertoire of acceptable excuses; that set may have been empty. If there was no story for Johnson to choose, then Schank's comment, that "in essence, the only thinking we have here is the selection of stories" (p.211), is puzzling in the extreme.


Though Schank at times sounds as if he is flirting with both sides of the relativism divide, this effect is produced partially by sloppy wording and partially by not distinguishing the following points correctly:
  1. Even if skeletal stories are hard to disprove because of their intentionality, which functions as a political stance does, their are notions of quality of match that can lead to not selecting them.
  2. Stories include factual information and can be challenged much more readily along that dimension. Admittedly, facts may themselves be the outcome of stories (a topic that Schank unfortunately bypasses), and facts have some of the same subcultural aspects that Schank identified for the stories (e.g. water-logged dinosaurs supporting a Biblical flood narrative) as to acceptability and validity.
  3. Though it may not be possible to show that some stories are true, it is sufficient to be able to show that some stories are false for historiography to have the ability to stem the flood of politically-charged revisionist history. Tawana Brawley's story for sure and possibly Ben Johnson's story as well (Schank's source material is too terse) are stories that are false, due to the evidence found, not the skeletons chosen.
It is possible that Schank's side-stepping of the question of truth is due to his general goal of moving AI work from theorem proving and expert systems (p.xlii) toward story generation / understanding / summarization and explanation.

If we take a step back and look at the larger sources of information available for the examples that Schank uses, such as the Admiral Fogarty report from August 1988 or the investigative research journalism by the New York Times reporters Robert McFadden et al, Outrage: The Story Behind the Tawana Brawley Hoax, from August 1990,  we get the suspicion that Schank is used in the small forms, such as the newspaper article, not the hundred-plus pages slugfest of details that Fogarty or McFadden and their collaborators provided with.


In an amusing twist, the McFadden's book Outrage, published contemporaneously with Schank's book in 1990, possibly even contradicts the sequence of events claimed by Schank. 
Later, Dr [Alice, RCK] Pena [the emergency room physician, cf. p20, RCK] had her put her feet into stirrups for an examination of the vaginal, rectal and pelvic areas. The examination revealed no cuts, dried blood, bruises, swelling, deep redness, or other indications of injury. There were no signs of trauma to the mouth …. Indeed, the girl’s [Tawana Brawley’s, RCK] teeth were surprisingly clean and her mouth did not even have a bad odor. Dr Pena decided to forego the use of a rape-detection kit, at least for a while. There weren’t enough signs to warrant it …. (p.21)
At this point, with Tawana still giving signs of semi-consciousness (p.17), and had hardly launched into a story of the type that Schank is looking for. Already the initial interaction with the paramedics and the emergency room physician was gathering evidence against the narrative that Tawana was planning or had been told to use.

Bibliographic Record

Roger C. Schank, Tell Me A Story: Narrative and Intelligence,  Evanston, IL (Northwestern University Press), 1995 (= reprint of the 1990 edition published in New York (Scribner), 1990; with a foreword of Gary Saul Morson, from 1995). [Google Book Selections]

1 comment:

  1. A look at some of the detailed information available for the Iran Air 655 incident, such as the William Foquarty report published in 1988, which looks at a whole slew of evidence, shows that Schank is really interested in the Iran Air incident at the level of news reporting only. The whole story-understanding process looks very different in such a report.