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What to Tell Science Stories About

Storytelling for science is still all the rage. Stories are the way people learn and remember and fall in love (science says so) and therefore we need many more science stories and far more and better tellers of them, says the storytelling industry. And if we don’t all immediately get on the storytelling wagon, or train, or podcast or Prime One-Day shipping conveyor belt, it’ll be our fault science goes down the tubes. Along with its nasty, uber-rich enemies and their political henchpeople, of course.

If you’re feeling stressed about not being storified enough, Michael Dahlstrom and Dietram Scheufele published a barely discussed (on Twitter) paper in PLoS Biology back in October you should read called “(Escaping) the paradox of scientific storytelling.” It’s very interesting and very short. In case “very short” is still too long, here’s an even shorter summary:

  • Narratives can be a highly effective vehicle for audiences to absorb information, both cognitively and emotionally.
  • But narratives are by default oversimplifications. They overweight single cases and anecdotes as “evidence.” 
  • That’s a “distinctly unscientific way of knowledge production because it focuses on particular instances rather than considering the full range of possibilities,” say the authors.
  • When we use stories to communicate knowledge about scientific facts, those stories have to compete in the world with stories from non-scientists, which can indulge in counter-arguments and misinformation. It’s just one story against another, and science often loses when competing on this turf.
  • And even if you persuade people with these stories about scientific facts, you’re just persuading them of a fact, not getting them to switch to a scientific reasoning process that relies on evidence.
  • So, the paradox: storytelling “can meaningfully engage audiences and make scientific information relevant while simultaneously encouraging a narrative way of thinking that places scientific stories on a similar level to any other plausible story that may or may not support scientific truth.”
  • In other words: narratives to communicate scientific fact might be counterproductive to helping audiences think more scientifically and to orient more around evidence.
  • The potential solution: Tell stories to help audiences understand the “process and credibility of scientific reasoning” — “a scientist who uses scientific reasoning to arrive at an important result,” “a character who struggles to overcome a conflict until scientific reasoning is used,” showing “the process of science through an individual’s experience.”
  • Instead of using stories to “fight for small victories over science knowledge,” the authors conclude that science communication should use narrative “to build understanding of the process of scientific reasoning.” 

Dahlstrom and Scheufele cite harrowing statistics showing only one in every four Americans being able to correctly describe what constitutes a scientific study, with Chinese respondents at only slightly higher levels.

The challenge, of course, is to find these stories “to build understanding of the process of scientific reasoning” and to tell them in entertaining ways. And to get the science storytelling industry to shift from cool stories told by scientists with a science patina to cool stories told about the scientific process by scientists. Which might be why the paper hasn’t gotten a lot of traction.