28 October 2009

Storytelling in science

The Lost World, 1925When I saw the silent film version of The Lost World, I was amazed at how it set the template for monster movies for decades. Watch The Lost World, and you can see the mold being set for King Kong, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla, Varan the Unbelievable, Valley of the Gwangi, Gorgo, Cloverfield, and on the list goes.

It’s something that Randy Olson talks about in Don’t be Such A Scientist (which I reviewed here): there are a few really strong story narratives that we love to hear over and over again. If you want to have an audience for your science, it helps to know what those are, and tell people a story they want to hear.

I’ve had questions have been bugging me about this. First, why do we seem to have such a limited range of narratives that resonate and stick with us? Why do we love hearing the same basic story over and over again? Can we create new stories that are as powerful as the “hero’s journey”?

Second, do stories have opposites?

I think I need some examples to explain that question.

I read once a claim that any effective messages in advertising or branding has an opposite. If one business advertises low prices, its competitor sells quality. If one corporation pitches itself as family friendly, the other says, “Grow up.”

A recent post on the Respectful Insolence blog talked about a dubious magazine article, and blogger Orac noted:

Journalists do so love that cliché, don't they? It's an irresistable (sic) hook, cliché or not. People love reading about issues that we thought to be true but – surprise! surprise! – turn out not to be true. ... Framing an issue as arguing that conventional wisdom is wrong and highlighting a couple of “lone voices in the wilderness” warning, Cassandra-like, of impending disaster represent a time-honored journalistic trope, not to mention a story structure that goes back thousands of years to, well, Cassandra at least.

Same analysis over at Effect Measure:

Our main point was that it was a straw man argument built around the narrative device of the brave, mavericky truth teller who is shunned by colleagues and has to eat alone at conferences.

The “I’m an oppressed little guy fighting against a hide-bound establishment” is a story that you see when you look at denialists of all stripes.

What’s the counter-story? If the denialists are able to get such mileage out of claiming that they are oppressed by an evil conspiracy (even when they’re not), surely there’s some story that can be used to illustrate the slow, hard-won accumulation of evidence that is the way most science progresses.


finiteattentionspan said...

Oh, fab post.

I think this is one of the key reasons that the scientific weight of evidence has been unable to crush the odd denialist (e.g., on climate change) — the underdog is a powerful and culturally pervasive narrative, but what does science have?

Until "An Inconvenient Truth", "Bowling For Columbine", et al., I'd have said "we've got nothing", but even the recent trend for intelligent, watchable documentaries comes up short against the problem that audiences simply don't like (or know what to do with) complex messages.

The underdog's story is a simple one-liner: "The man is keeping me down." The scientist's story is often, by its nature, a lot more complicated. The simple messages ("nicotine will kill you") make it through, for the most part, but complex messages like "the earth's temperature is rising and will continue to do so unless you adopt behaviours X, Y and, Z, some of which will cost you money — and even then, things might still not be okay," is not only complex, it has (for most people) intangible threats, associated costs, and no hard deadline by which the listener must act. These are all, in themselves, considerable obstacles to getting people to do something; taken together, it's no wonder they're overwhelming.

I think we as scientists need to work much harder to get our story straight and make sure the message is clear (the way people are now doing in business presentations). We are fighting against being thought of as the establishment, or as sinister, because we are educated and/or because that might correspond to holding 'liberal' views, etc, etc. So we have to work many times harder than the denialists.

Term said...

I guess sometimes truth is stranger than fiction!