Narrative is inevitable (not an evil choice) where the structure of an exposition must follow a time-sequence of events and where it examines that sequence to resolve gaps and untangle evidence. Battle books are inescapably narrative in form. (BTW, thanks to Harsh and Beatie - esp. Harsh - for showing us how to load up analysis to the very limit that a narrative structure can support).
Biographies need not be narratives, nor need studies of organizations or institutions be such (see for example Never for Want of Powder). It is at the higher level of synthesis that narrative becomes a crime against understanding, a crime that wins Pulitzers year in and year out and where all sorts of vile narrative artifacts are unnecessarily injected into the history (dramaturgy, casting historical figures as "characters," hindsight, omniscient viewpoint, fudging the data, manipulating the reader with lit tricks, excluding informational outliers, etc.).
At this point I'll quote from Taleb's chapter, "The Narrative Fallacy," and let the reader consider how each statement applies to which part of our Civil War reading. Emphasis in the original.
We like stories, we like to summarize, and we like to simplify, i.e., to reduce the dimension of matters.
The fallacy is associated with our vulnerability to overinterpretation and our predilection for compact stories over raw truths. It severely distorts our mental representation of the world; it is particularly acute when it comes to the rare event.
The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship, upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.
By finding the pattern, the logic of the series, you no longer need to memorize it all. You just store the pattern. […] You looked into the book and found a rule.
The more random information is, the greater the dimensionality, and thus the more difficult to summarize. The more you summarize, the more order you put in, the less randomness. Hence, the same condition that makes us simplify pushes us to think that the world is less random than it is.
The very same desire for order, interestingly, applies to scientific pursuits – it’s just that unlike art, the (stated) purpose of science is to get to the truth, not to give you a feeling of organization or make you feel better.
Our tendency to perceive – to impose – narrativity and causality are symptoms of the same disease – dimension reduction.
Narrativity can viciously affect the remembrance of past events as follows: we will tend to more easily remember those facts from our past that fit a narrative, while we tend to neglect others that do not appear to play a causal role in that narrative.
Past Taleb posts: Contingency * An "acute expert problem" in ACW history * Black swans and the Civil War