Narratives in Science Communication

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an eminent scientific journal, recently published a Supplement focused entirely on science communication. I was happy to see this arrive in my inbox from my mentor because not only do I want to work professionally as a science communicator, but I also want my fellow scientists to recognize the importance of this endeavor and focus on the presentation of our work to non-scientists. Frankly, I expect it will be easier to get a job if people give a damn. And my motivations for wanting to get into science communication are several, but among them is a desire to see the issue of talking about science taken seriously and worked on by scientists of all kinds.

(A note: The full articles are open access and available to all. So take a look!)

There are twelve articles in this Supplement and I have yet to churn through them all, but I want to present a summary and commentary of one in particular. I think it is representative of some of the accomplishments and limitations of this kind of scientific writing on science communication.

Titled “Using narratives and storytelling to communication science with nonexpert audiences,” this article by Michael Dahlstrom argues that, despite storytelling’s un-scientific nature, it is an effective form of communication that should be leveraged in our efforts to speak with non-scientists. Contrasting narrative with the “logical-scientific” form of communication common within scientific groups, the author notes how scientific communication aims to remain general and true across contexts, while narratives are inherently tied to a specific context for their meaning.

Drawing on social science research, Dahlstrom points to the primacy of narrative in the human brain. We think in narratives, we speak in narratives, we muse over the past and plan the future entirely in stories. An intrinsic property of human thinking is to prioritize narrative over the less-familiar scientific forms of thinking we have developed over the centuries. It’s presented as an evolutionary advantage for our social species. So, harnessing the power of narrative to drill into the psyche provides an advantage to anyone using the form, including scientists.

Dahlstrom goes on to take the media as an example: forced to compete for an audience’s attention, media naturally gravitates to the powerful narrative format that connects with people. Yet there are limitations—in column inches and in accuracy—to the ability of this kind of narrative journalism to capture scientific workings.

Finally, the article concludes by pondering ethical issues. Should scientists try to bring the public to the right answer, or engage them more on the process and be open for debates? Who decides when it is okay to lead people on in the name of the greater good? Should narratives be used at all, given their limitations in accuracy? Specifically, Dahlstrom questions whether non-scientists will respect the narrative form, given their expectation that we will be speaking in scientific terms.

Well, to answer that, I’d say take a look at Radiolab’s Twitter followers (153,000).  Of course people respond to narrative! This article is powerful in its direct take on the fallacy that narrative has no place in scientific communication, and its reliance on social science research to conclusively prove that point, and in its visibility for other scientists.

Ironically, because it is after all a scientific article, this contribution is itself an example of the blunt instrument that is scientific writing for communicating with an audience. A couple quotes that feel both clumsy and self-evident: “individual people generally act in a timespan that more closely matches the frequency of news publication.” Or, in reference to narratives: “Obvious examples include interpersonal conversation, entertainment television programs, and news profiles…” The fault is not with this article per se, but this article itself demonstrates some of the limitations of this format.

I am fascinated by some of the ethical issues raised. Using narratives to communicate science is a no-brainer to me. But how do we best use them? What about representativeness? Stories rely on the power of a single example to demonstrate something grander. But if that example is chosen poorly, then the audience arrives at the ‘wrong’ conclusion. Or, perhaps worse, if an unrepresentative example is chosen deliberately to lead an audience to the ‘right’ conclusion, then we contend with acting unethically and losing the trust of our audience.

Finally, the article raises some questions that cannot be succinctly answered. My favorite: What is the best way to communicating beyond the human scale? We are built to consider timescales of days, maybe years. Not billions of years. Not nanometers or lightyears, not the mass of the sun, or the movement of electrons, or the probabilistic nature of biology. Through careful deliberation we can consider all of these. But in narrative format, every metaphor feels inadequate and we are left with great challenges to communicate the real science performed every day in a way that is engaging, accurate, and relatable. 

I am glad to see this conversation going on at the highest levels. I hope other scientists are reading and listening. Maybe next time, we should tell them a story about it instead.