Nick Enfield | Our job as scientists is to find the truth. But we must also be storytellers
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Our job as scientists is to find the truth. But we must also be storytellers

Science can’t exist without telling a story. The question is not whether we should use it, but how we should use it best

Image: ‘Even if an exemplary scientist has trained herself to be utterly objective, her audience will always bring their biased, story-gobbling minds’ Photograph: ijeab/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Scientists often struggle to communicate the findings of research. Our subject matter can be technical and not easily digested by a general audience. And our discoveries – from a new type of tessellating pentagon to the presence of gravitational waves in space – have no meaning until that meaning can be defined and agreed upon. To address this, we are often advised to use the tools of narrative.

This advice is now found everywhere from training sessions to blogs to the most prominent scientific journals. An article in Nature magazine advises scientists to relate data to the world by using “the age-old custom of telling a story.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences cites the “increased comprehension, interest, and engagement” that narrative offers. And another study shows that writing in a narrative style increases uptake of scientific results.

What is a story? Here is screenwriting guru John Truby’s definition: “A speaker tells a listener what someone did to get what he wanted and why.” This is every Hollywood film. At the centre is a person with a well-defined goal. They pursue that goal, against the odds, and after various twists and turns the story comes to a satisfying end. Most importantly, as writer John Collee explains, a good story will have a meaning, a relatable moral with universal resonance for audiences.

How can scientists be expected to use storytelling when we are not trained in the craft? True, we are not professional screenwriters. But like everyone we are nevertheless well-practiced storytellers. When you tell someone about a frightening incident that happened on the bus to work, your narrative may be ordinary but it has the core elements of story: situation, complication, resolution, and most importantly, meaning. You are not just telling me what happened, you are telling me what it means to you, how you feel about it. And you are inviting me to feel the same. In this way, stories are one of our most important social bonding mechanisms.

So, what could be wrong with urging scientists to take advantage of our natural storytelling skills? In an article titled “Against storytelling of scientific results”, Yarden Katz explains that certain defining features of narrative – someone pursing a goal; a satisfying resolution that resolves this; a meaning that draws people in – are antithetical to key ideals and practices of scientific work.

One objection is that, according to the scientific norm known as disinterestedness, scientists should not aim for any particular result. Our job is to find the truth. So, we should first establish the facts, and then use those facts to decide what our conclusions are. But too often, people have it the wrong way around. We start with our pre-established beliefs, and then look for evidence to support them. Another objection is that because science is a permanently unfinished line of business, there can be no satisfying endings.

Further, the scientist’s job is to inform, not persuade. Advice in Nature from authors Martin Krzywinski and Alberto Cairo seems to challenge this norm: “Maintain focus of your presentation by leaving out detail that does not advance the plot”; “inviting readers to draw their own conclusions is risky.” Most scientists would agree that this is going too far.

Katz’s concerns are well taken. But what should be done? Can we be truly dispassionate about what we are doing in science? There are reasons to think that even when we are operating in the rarefied atmosphere of scientific endeavor, we are never not wrapping our lives in stories.

Human beings, scientists included, have brains that are not evolved for dispassionate thinking. Bugs in our reasoning from the confirmation bias to the gambler’s fallacy make our natural thought processes deeply subjective and partial. And these are precisely the kinds of cognitive propensities that make storytelling stick so well. Even if an exemplary scientist has trained herself to be utterly objective, her audience will always bring their biased, story-gobbling minds.

This is why we have little choice but to apply the philosophy of judo to the problem of communicating scientific work and findings. Rather than struggle against cognitive biases, we need to work with them if we are going to keep them in check. Facts can be collected but they need to be interpreted. To interpret a fact is to give it meaning. And this is nothing other than storytelling. Only with a story can the facts be communicated, and only then can they become part of the received knowledge that drives the very possibility of scientific progress.

Scientists do not have the luxury of forgoing storytelling. We need not fear that storytelling will compromise our objectivity. If we believe that we have the right story, then we should tell it. Only then can it be evaluated. Because science is a collective enterprise, our stories will succeed when they are validated by broad agreement in our community.

It is our responsibility to become at least literate, if not masterly, in storytelling about our work. Our audiences need stories. So we must tell the right stories about our findings, if we are going to treat those findings with the respect they need.

 Nick Enfield is head of the Post-Truth Initiative and director of the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre at the University of Sydney

Originally published on The Guardian Opinion

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