EcoPress

Why Scientists Should Tell More Stories

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Credit: jvoves (via Flickr, http://bit.ly/190MCCw)

By Barbara Fricks

Before television, before writing, before the earliest paintings on caves in France, we had story.  Whether they are written, spoken, or even shown to us as movies and tv, stories are the foundation of learning and communication.  Story is the number one way we learn from past experiences, to be better people, and share in experiences. Yet as scientists we feel the need to separate ourselves from this proven method of communication.  I was fortunate enough to attend the Sackler conference put on by PNAS called The Science of Science Communication this past week Sept. 23-24.  The conference focused on different methods of communicating science.  Overall the recurring theme was to encourage the use of narrative in science, but with caution.  I would argue that narrative is imperative for science communication. Data already incorporates a narrative; we just need to find ways to bring it to light.

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Every scientific study has a protagonist.  Rather than being a person we can identify with, as in novel, in science it is current scientific understanding within a given topic.  Our research questions do not appear out of thin air, they are based on background information.  As any good storyteller knows a good protagonist has a strong background.  As recipients of narrative we need that background so we can relate to the protagonist, understand the influences that will shape the occurrence of conflict, and ultimately how the protagonist will grow as a result of the conflict. In the case of research, conflict results from inconsistencies in established knowledge or a ‘knowledge gap’.  After careful scrutiny of the literature scientists identify these knowledge gaps (conflict) and develop a method to test them (resolution).  The field as a whole grows from the results but all questions can’t be answered, and often new ones arise resulting in the need for a sequel (future experimentation).  The scientific variable/phenomena being tested is the protagonist, the question the conflict, and results the resolution.  When we think of our experiments and research in this light we can apply basic story lines to our work, making papers, presentations, and lectures more exciting and accessible to audiences.

The scientific variable/phenomena being tested is the protagonist, the question the conflict, and results the resolution.

In my own research I study the effects of UVB on surface litter chemistry. Yawn, right?  But what if I told you about how UVB affects us– it can damage bonds, mutate DNA, and even cause cancer.  The same effects are true for plants.  Under UVB plants respond by altering their own chemical makeup to prevent damage.  They essentially make their own sunscreen.  One-step further, plants under UVB don’t break down the same way as plants without UVB.  This inconsistency in how plants degrade (break down) is missing from models of how carbon moves around the world, which could mislead our understanding of climate change.  But even so the story isn’t that simple.  Several studies have examined these phenomena but have conflicting results.  Sometimes UVB has an effect, sometimes it doesn’t, and this is where we have our knowledge gap.  What is going on in this system?  If we can figure out what is going on, can we make our models better?  How will these phenomena affect economically valuable crops such as plants used in biofuel production?  Why do the studies vary?  Do we not actually understand the phenomena?  These are all several of the questions resulting from conflict within the field.  My research attempts to understand this conflict and find a resolution.  Can I figure out why in certain systems we observe effects and others we don’t through the application of the scientific method?  I’m not going to give anything away here– you’ll have to read my publication for the answer.

In the scientific community I am not alone in thinking that good narrative is imperative to science communication.  In his book Writing Science, Josh Schimel explores the need for scientists to tell better stories in their papers. By focusing on the narrative we can captivate the curiosity of our audiences, thereby turning blank stares into interest.  Recipients of the narrative will yearn for the resolution (data) rather then shirk from it.  Yet as scientists we do not embrace this model of communication.  Among conversations at Sackler an important point was raised:  Why do we as scientists feel the need to remove emotion from our work?  The common response was the need to remain objective and narrative introduces bias.  I hate to tell you, but to be truly objective is impossible. The very act of observation involves some form of bias.  Scientists try to limit bias through the use of the scientific method, but at the end of the day, the simple manner in which we view the world is full of bias.

…at Sackler an important point was raised:  Why do we as scientists feel the need to remove emotion from our work? The common response was the need to remain objective and narrative introduces bias. I hate to tell you, but to be truly objective is impossible.

For example, in the opening session, Lay Narratives and Epistemologies Doug Medin told us how the general population, and scientists, in the west fundamentally think differently than populations in the east.  In the east there is a greater emphasis on the broad, the background, while in the west the main emphasis lies on narrow targeted views.  Scientists therefore come into the field with these ‘artifacts’ of culture affecting their perceptions.  Each of these two views have strengths and neither is better than the other, yet these fundamental differences in approaches to science often lead to different forms of experimental design and interpretations of data.

As I argue for scientists to embrace narration in methods of communication, I am in no way suggesting scientists become experts in communication.  We simply need to take a page out of the social science book and approach our communication efforts with the same rigor as we approach our experiments.  Nobody would expect a scientist to approach an experimental question without doing basic background work.  Nor would a scientist design an experiment on a hunch.  Why then do we rely on intuition when we communicate science?  For example if we are unclear on a particular protocol/method we seek help; we find experts in the field of that instrument/protocol to help guide us through our own samples, and sometimes we just mail our samples off and pay somebody else to do the work for us.  Why then do we expect to be experts in communication?  We need to seek advice, support, and maybe even just pay experts in communication to help our own work.

We should utilize communication science and strive for the “oooooh”’s in our communication efforts, not the “zzzz”s.

The Sackler conference ended with a skit that exemplified this notion.  The actors (a real scientist and communications expert) acted out a yearlong exchange where they used scientific rigor to find the best way to communicate a large dataset.   Initially the scientist’s attempt at an effective representation of the data was horrific.  With help from the communications expert, using scientific rigor in assessment, they were able to produce a remarkable and powerful way to communicate the risk of sea level rise:  http://sealevel.climatecentral.org/.  We as scientists can learn from that skit: seek the advice of experts to help distill complex information into ways others can appreciate and understand.  Within the audience at the conference any time one of the presenters was able to use an effective graphic, skit, story, etc to communicate a complex idea an “oooooh” erupted for the audience.  We should utilize communication science and strive for the “oooooh”’s in our communication efforts, not the “zzzz”s.

For more information on the Sackler conference visit and past videos/slides:  on the website or check #Sackler on twitter.

Barbara Fricks is researcher at NREL working in the Wallenstein Lab.  The lab examines the role of microbial processes as they affect decomposition.  You can find her on twitter: @barbarafricks.

One comment

  1. Pingback: The Space Between Science and Story | Watershed Moments: Thoughts from the Hydrosphere

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