Why Science Needs Better Storytelling

Let’s start with what we know: we’ve got some big problems, problems that require scientific literacy. Things like climate change, mass extinction, and infectious disease. Unfortunately, while there is greater access to knowledge than ever before, scientific literacy remains low. It suffers from a few distinct issues:

Lack of Familiarity

There’s a basic lack of familiarity with science and scientists, and I think this image is part of the problem. Don’t get me wrong, I love Back to the Future, but Doc Brown is a persistent stereotype: the kooky, brilliant scientist who occasionally does something incredible but is mostly a hazard. Hollywood films are littered with parables of scientists’ hubris, and news reports of real scientific advances are often accompanied by warnings of their looming unintended consequences. This gives the impression that science happens in a different reality, divorced from the everyday lives of regular people. And though the spaces and tools that are used to conduct experiments are highly specialized, the people and ideas that drive them are very much connected to the world we all share.

Lack of Trust

While it’s reasonable to be skeptical of studies funded by organizations that stand to benefit from a particular result, concern about this kind of bias is overblown. Most basic science research in the U.S. is funded by the government, and science has safeguards in place to detect funding bias, such as comparing the results of industry-sponsored research with independent studies. And while applied research and development most often takes place at companies, much of that data is becoming available to the public. In the end, the money for science has to come from somewhere, which leads me to the next issue…

Lack of Leadership

This is pretty disturbing when you consider that these are the people tasked with investing in and regulating scientific innovations. The vigorous anti-intellectualism of the Republican party is easy to dismiss as political theatrics, but it has major implications for research funding and policy decisions. Obama and congressional leaders managed to increase budgets after years of underfunding at NASA, the NSF, and NIH, but what about the next president, the next Congress?

What’s at Stake

What’s really at stake here is more than finding solutions to impending existential problems: it’s the delicate fate of inquiry itself. It has happened before that the light of rational thought has been extinguished, in different places and times throughout history. It doesn’t require ecological collapse or social upheaval; adherence to dogma is all it takes.

A Way Forward

Fortunately, science also offers us a possible solution to this, by examining the nature of stories.

Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t create the Civil Rights Movement; he gave it a powerful narrative.

I heard Lee Zlotoff, the creator of MacGyver, speak at a conference recently, and he made a great point about truth vs. fiction. Using examples from pop culture, he showed that audiences consistently and overwhelmingly prefer fiction to nonfiction treatments of the same topic. Why is it that fictional stories have so much more sway over us than truth? Because truth demands change, while fiction allows us to experience change vicariously. We get to try on a different reality, see how it feels, and return, perhaps a bit transformed by it.

What we might not realize is that we are actually physically changed by stories, and by understanding more about how stories affect our brains, we can use storytelling techniques to improve scientific literacy by treating the truth like fiction. The barriers between language and experience are more open during a story, and we tend to remember experiences (especially negative ones) better than facts.

Let’s take a closer look at what happens in our brains when we experience a compelling story.

Getting Focused — Norepinephrine

The hero passes grim signs of the fate of others who walked this path. He narrowly escapes traps and avoids treacherous obstacles to arrive at his destination. It looks so simple, taking this thing he’s come for. He seizes it. First nothing, then a sound, and then all hell breaks loose.

Norepinephrine isn’t as well known as it’s cousin epinephrine (adrenaline), but when it’s released in high levels in response to stress it affects a whole slew of body processes, shutting down non-essential functions and directing energy to the muscles and the brain, where it increases arousal, enhances memory, and promotes vigilance. When stories present characters in trouble they’re activating this cascade of adrenal hormones, including norepinephrine, to get your blood pumping and attention focused.

But why are stories so full of conflict? If they were simply intended for pleasure, you might expect most stories to indulge in wish fulfillment or fantasy. In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall summarizes the evolutionary explanation of why we’re drawn to drama in our stories: it allows us to simulate difficult scenarios and practice our emotional responses. It’s not hard to imagine that individuals who had more practice responding to threats and complex problems possessed an evolutionary advantage.

Conflict is an essential ingredient in a good story; if there’s no challenge, there’s no opportunity to grow. Of course science has challenges in abundance — how to test the theory? how to explain the data? — but science stories often neglect these by focusing on the results and not the journey.

Making a Connection — Oxytocin

This is the photo known as Afghan Girl, and the story behind it is incredible. It played a role in humanizing the plight of refugees and in deepening the involvement of America in Afghanistan, two issues still tragically relevant decades later. The power of this photo on a visceral, cultural, and historical level is undeniable.

Artists have long known about the power of the gaze. Making eye contact with another person can trigger a release of oxytocin in the brain, the chemical that promotes emotional bonding. But visual stimulus isn’t required — a well-developed character in a novel can have the same effect. The most engaging stories and artistic experiences rely heavily on this (and VR is poised to take this to a whole new level). We experience a sense of empathy, of stepping outside ourselves; we are reminded of what it means to be human and to care for each other.

In many stories about science, there is little attempt to forge an emotional connection; there are too many characters offering different perspectives, or too much emphasis on explaining the research topic. Both of these are necessary elements — different perspectives are essential to good science, and communicating research requires some context — but too many voices can dilute the impact of the story or lead to false equivalence, and often the explanation of the topic comes at the expense of hearing the scientists’ voices. Most scientists I’ve met are intensely passionate about their work, and a good science story should convey that passion, allowing the audience to better relate to the work.

Pursuing the Mystery— Dopamine

The plane crash. The numbers. The smoke monster. The statue. The Others. Each character harbors a secret. Each episode reveals another mystery. Whether it enthralled or frustrated you, the hit series Lost became the most discussed and influential TV show in a decade, and its appeal has a lot to do with dopamine.

Dopamine is the brain chemical most commonly associated with reward and addiction, but it’s also one of the most misunderstood. For example, its release is activated by anticipation rather than by achievement, and it’s involved in a wide range of experiences, both pleasurable and not. It appears that dopamine might be a way for our brains to encourage us to pursue a goal, to find out what happens next.

Good storytellers know how to place the dopamine “hit” in their narratives so that when it comes, it creates a powerful urge to go on. Too soon and the audience will never get past the headline; too late and they’ll lose interest. In science there is no shortage of mysteries, and finding an answer to a big question means resolving a lot of smaller questions along the way. By framing these questions as mysteries of their own, science stories can compel us to keep looking for answers.

Use With Caution

So how do we use this knowledge to improve scientific literacy? By presenting science the way our brains like to consume it, in a story: using challenge, character, mystery, and even humor.

As the history of modern physics has shown us, much of the natural world is not intuitive. The idea that space is curved, time is nonlinear, and matter is mostly empty just doesn’t come to us naturally, nor should it. We can’t expect the world to be organized according to our own biologically- and socially-evolved perceptual tools. This isn’t unique to physics; biology is going through a similar paradigm shift right now, where we’re realizing — among other things — that our bodies are teeming with microbes that help keep us alive, and depression appears to be related to inflammation in the brain. So we need other ways to understand what our senses and intuition are missing. That’s exactly where storytelling can excel.

But just like any powerful tool, storytelling in science can be dangerous. It can create false correlations or cults of personality. It can lead us to be satisfied with an initial explanation while a better one lurks just beyond our imagination, or to disregard evidence that contradicts our theory. It can encourage hype and high expectations. And it can distract us with its own internal structures of language and meaning.

Despite these concerns, I believe we’re entering a new age of storytelling in which those who use story to seek power and spread fear will eventually fade away with the advance of those who use it to explore and invent together. At its core, that’s what science is: a collaborative story about pushing against the boundaries of the unknown. As we recruit more authors from different backgrounds, the story becomes more richly woven, and the clouds of ignorance recede into the distance.

This is the first in a series of articles about science and storytelling. In the next part I’ll look at how fear affects perceptions of science by examining recent discoveries in physics. If you’d like to contribute to the cause, please support the Union of Concerned Scientists and the AAAS, who are on the front lines of many issues. Follow me on Medium and Twitter, and let me know what you think in the comments.