The Stories that the Facts Tell

There are the Jack Webbs of Pittsburgh, people who work on Pittsburgh's future by focusing on just the facts. I'll call them data visionaries, and they include my blogospheric colleagues Chris Briem and Harold Miller, as well as John Craig of the Regional Indicators project (and, of course, formerly of the Post-Gazette).

There are, by contrast, the storytellers of Pittsburgh, people who work on Pittsburgh's future by weaving narratives that connect past to present and near to far. I'll them the back-to-the-futurists. They include Carl Kurlander, the filmmaker behind "My Tale of Two Cities," Doug Heuck, publisher of Pittsburgh Quarterly magazine, Jim Russell, tireless promoter of the Pittsburgh Diaspora, and Abby Wilson, a core and local part of the Great Lakes Urban Exchange.

I've idealized the two groups; there is overlap. The back-to-the-futurists respect the data visionaries, and the reverse, at least generally. Occasionally members of one group will pop up in the other, via a blog post or an op-ed or a public appearance.

It's important to remember, though, that neither group has all the answers. Facts are seductive because they convey the illusion of objectivity. But it's almost always a mistake simply to trust the scientists, or the economists, or the statisticians, or the planners. Stories are seductive because they seem to make facts irrelevant; if we can imagine it, we can make it happen. That's equally problematic. It's almost always a mistake simply to trust the poets.

Whatever Pittsburgh's future may be, it has to be built from the resources of both groups. The best scientists, economists, statisticians, and planners know that they are storytellers, too. The best storytellers know how to use what's true, and what's not, to challenge our imaginations.

I'm reminded of this by seeing the announcement of the upcoming CityLivePgh event on Wednesday, September 10 (New Hazlett Theater, North Side, and RSVP here), described this way:
Pittsburgh cannot know where it ought to go unless it knows where it is.

While we sali towards a new future we hear statistics that are daunting. Not enough immigration. Young people leaving. 50,000 jobs with no-one to fill them. Are these numbers really accurate? And can they be interpreted in different ways?. How can we understand them, and use them to know where we ought to go?

The speakers are Harold Miller, John Craig, and Lisa Kuzma of the R.K. Mellon Foundation. Go and listen to their stories.


2 Responses to "The Stories that the Facts Tell"

Anonymous said... 8/28/2008 1:57 PM

I think people concerned about Pittsburgh ought to read this great article in New York magazine. It's about Buffalo, ostensibly, but really it's about why any young, ambitious person would choose to leave NYC in favor of the Rust Belt. Cool stuff...

Sam M

Mark Rauterkus said... 9/03/2008 3:40 PM

Where do you put me in the two-categories?

Or, am I a case of "Don't Put Me in a Box."

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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