29 January 2014

Storytelling is dead, long live narrative

At the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting earlier this month, Randy Olson said, “The word ‘storytelling’ is damaged.”

Coincidentally enough, this was something that had been drilled home to me when I gave an exam just a couple of weeks earlier in a technical writing class. I gave students an article that appeared in Nature Methods by Krzywinski and Cairo (2013)  arguing in favour of storytelling, and a response from Katz (2013) against it. There were other follow-up articles, but I just used the initial two to make it easier to complete an essay within exam time.

I asked the students to evaluate the two articles, and take a position on whether scientists should tell stories.

I was stunned by the students’ essays. Every single one of them said scientists should not use storytelling techniques. I’d done these sorts of “Two opinions, which do you agree with and why” sorts of exams before, but I had never seen such a completely lopsided response.

A couple of phrases got used in multiple essays. One was some variation of, “Storytelling is okay for kid’s books, but not for science.” Another was, “Science is supposed to be about the facts.”

This is perfectly in line with Olson’s plenary, in which he noted scientists suffer from “storyphobia.”

Scientists are afraid of the word “story", because of connotations of fabrication and “tweaking” of facts. These aren’t the same.

He advised people to avoid using “storytelling” and talk about “narrative” instead.

Because it was a final exam, I didn’t have a chance to follow up with the students about this. If I had, I would have asked them this:

If science is purely and solely about “the facts,” why do we publish scientific papers at all? Why not just upload methods and datasets? If you have the data and the methods to generate them, isn’t that all you need to assess the “facts” in play?

The other point that I would have raised with them is that there is an inherent connection between stories and experimental science: they are both about causes. A satisfying story is built around causal connections. Without those causal connections, you have a series of disconnected events that makes about as much sense as a random inkblot. Having a character win just because she got lucky makes for an unsatisfying story, because there is no explanation for luck: it just happens. From here (my emphasis):

21. My Porn Director Name Will Be “Therefore Butts”

Click here and get schooled by the South Park guys. The key thing they’re getting across with this is that scenes and events in storytelling don’t happen independently of one another. There must exist a chain of cause and effect, of action and opposite reaction, of consequence. Dominoes do not fall separate from one another. They fall against one another. Embroider that profound shit on a throw pillow.

Cause is the great beating heart of any story... and experiments. The whole point of an experiment is to determine if one thing causes another. Thus, any time you have done experimental science, you have a thread that might be woven into a stor—oops, I mean narrative.

This isn’t to say that non-experimental science can’t generate a narrative, but experimental science has an inherent advantage in doing so.

Additional: Some nice commentary on Google Plus.


Krzywinski M, Cairo A. 2013. Points of view: Storytelling. Nature Methods 10: 687. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nmeth.2571

Katz Y. 2013. Against storytelling of scientific results. Nature Methods 10: 1045.http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nmeth.2699


Unknown said...

Well stated. If a Scientist does not have a compelling story that explains their data it means they do not understand the underlying relationship in the system they are studying. Might as well flip a coin a million times and publish the results in a data table... No use to anyone.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Taylor said...

Strong agreement here. Of all the bad reviews my papers have ever had, the one that annoyed me most was "The manuscript reads as a long “story” instead of a scientific manuscript". That reviewer thought he was being critical; I think he was being complimentary. (The paper was rejected, though.)

This is simple: if you you don't tell a story, people won't care about your data. And contrary to common belief, scientists are people. Tell stories, or be ignored.

Unknown said...

that's a very good idea. If all else fails just use science as a foundation for most stories. since its based on facts its more compelling and the universe of science would help with great wild imagery and twist's in the stories. Either in the minds of readers or on screen.