How researchers get heard
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The Near-Enemy of Science Is…

PloS ONE has a current call for papers, titled Science of Stories. “Given the massive power of stories to alter the course of society,” the editors write, “innovative methods to understand them empirically and quantitatively are necessary.” (But not so much the active voice, apparently.)

One aim of the call: Develop knowledge to better “communicate data-rich narratives to the public.” If we’re talking about research and science narratives — we need that help, definitely.

But I’m not so sure we need the assumption that better storytelling is the missing ingredient for better communicating those data-rich narratives.

That assumption, of course, reigns supreme in science communications. Here’s “Science of Stories” editor Matthew Jockers responding in a PLoS ONE Q&A to the question “Why do you think it is important to examine stories and storytelling in particular?”

Stories influence the making of all great decisions, and how a story is told can influence what decisions are made. This is not confined to fiction. I recently read a set of twelve papers for a text-mining conference. Some told the story of their research very well, and those are the papers I remember. Figuring out what makes a good story is one of the most important and essential questions there is.

I thought about a future of papers with great research stories as I was reading New York Times’ health columnist Jane Brody’s latest, on the morass of research on whether eating eggs will cause you to die prematurely or not.

A new JAMA long-term study of 30,000 people says yes, eating even one egg a week is bad for you. The head of the research team called the relationship dose-response. But later in Brody’s piece, the chair of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health says the study—or any study, really—shouldn’t be taken as the last word:

“Contradictory findings among different studies are not unusual — it’s part of the scientific process,” Dr. Hu said. “In forming guidelines, you have to look at the totality of evidence rather than overreact to a single new study.”

Of course, most people don’t have the training, access to the literature or the time to look at the totality of evidence. That’s what we rely on experts for.

But since research experts have largely abdicated communicating about the totality of evidence and are instead addicted to communicating paper by paper, the public is confused.

And not just confused. When you read the 355 comments to Brody’s article, you see frustration, exhaustion, anger, and contempt — for science.

Science trades in the currency of media-friendly findings and expects people to sift through or hang tight through the whiplash of contradiction.

Science then gets upset when, tired of that whiplash, people take the production and confirmation of knowledge into their own hands. And science loses authority.

The plural of anecdote isn’t “data.” It’s “2019.”

I want machine learning to reveal the patterns and connections that can make storytelling more effective. I’m very interested in what “Science of Stories” finds.

But if we’re going to just use better storytelling to more effectively promote our individual papers, that’s just going to muddy the water to black.

If the study we remember and act on is the one with the best story, whom does that serve?

Science sees enemies everywhere now. The Koch brothers and their war against science. Inadequate funding for science education. Diminishing media coverage of science. The ever-growing superficiality of culture. The finger is always pointed elsewhere.

I think, when the history of the decline of public trust in science is written, long chapters will be written about another culprit: science itself, and how it chose to communicate what it is (a body of evolving knowledge that always must reckon with uncertainty) and is not (a new finding that equals the truth).

That’ll be a great story. We should start telling it now.