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Should scientists get concepts across by telling stories?

Nature Methods is commendably cautious about that: “A narrative can effectively communicate scientific information. But when telling a perfect story becomes an end in itself, the scientific process can be easily compromised.”

Speaking as a writer, I would say that the problem isn’t that it can’t work but that it can. All too well.

That is, good fiction is just as “believable” as fact.

When I am reading good fiction about women’s lives, I could swear I was sitting in the corner in the coffee lounge, nursing a headache, listening. But I am not. The people in that story aren’t real, just convincing.

And no level of convincing storytelling makes them real. Increases in authenticity make the difference between, say, Alice Munro and a pedestrian hack with a lit grant and a bee in her bonnet. But it doesn’t produce flesh and blood.

Now applying this to science, as above:

A recent Points of View article (Krzywinski and Cairo, Nat. Methods 10, 687, 2013) described how techniques of storytelling, such as a structured story arc, can effectively guide the presentation of scientific data in figures. But as pointed out in a Correspondence by Katz (p. 1045, this issue), the notion of communicating scientific information by storytelling can be taken too far.

The hypothetical scientist such as the one described by Katz, who allows a desired storyline to improperly influence experiments and who “embellishes” and “obfuscates” results, is clearly operating in a highly undesirable, even unethical, manner. But it is worth distinguishing between the use of rhetorical techniques as a tool for conveying information versus treating the telling of a scientific story as an end in itself.

Much popular science writing suffers from this problem. Indeed, the whole “space alien” narrative is a case study in it. See: But surely we can’t conjure an entire advanced civilization? Well, yes we can, actually, in print and on screen, we just can’t produce them in real life.

The demand that the Big Bang not be true because it conflicts with what is supposed to be the story (science advances atheism) is another example. See: Big Bang exterminator wanted, will train. Sorry, but if science leads to disappointment with reality, it is not reality’s fault.

– O’Leary for News

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

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2 Responses to Should scientists get concepts across by telling stories?

  1. OT: Sudden Progress on Prime Number Problem Has Mathematicians Buzzing – By Erica Klarreich, Quanta Magazine – 11.22.13
    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/11/prime/

  2. My personal opinion is that cosmologists and Physicist are greatest story teller. Everything they tell is just conjecture and theorem. How universe formed, the big bang etc. Physicists talk about multiverse and string theory and 7 dimension , yet they all are regarded as intelligent and have TV programs, research funding, fat paychecks. All other poor scientists who work hard in other fields have to prove everything experimentally, else they will not even get to publish in journals.

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