Scientific storytelling as a marketing discourse (response to Enfield)

“The Science of Storytelling”

Nick Enfield’s Guardian piece references my critique of storytelling in science, but distorts it, and attributes to me arguments I’ve never made. I haven’t endorsed the view that science is a “disinterested” quest for “objective” truth (a serious examination of the history of science should cast doubt on this claim). The notion of the “disinterestedness” of scientists, made famous by the sociologist Robert Merton, never appeared in my article. My argument is not, then, that storytelling interferes with scientists’ disinterested objectivity.

My critique was not aimed at the notion of “story” in its broad colloquial sense, but at the growing Storytelling Industry that targets biomedical scientists (among others). The industry is animated by an odd contradiction. On the one hand, the emerging “storytelling experts” declare that storytelling is inescapable; it’s ingrained in the brain, the only way for us to navigate the world. But on the other hand, experts insist, as Enfield has, that scientists must cultivate storytelling.

The point is that storytelling for scientists isn’t just innocuous communication advice (though what goes under that label sometimes reduces to just that). Storytelling is a marketing discourse. It is about “impact”: the art of crafting narratives that may proliferate in the corporate digital media sphere. In their advice to scientists, storytelling experts often reproduce the neoliberal logic according to which the “best” scientists are the most popular, based on citation metrics and media success. This approach also caters to the alliance between glamour scientific journals and mainstream media outlets. My argument was that storytelling of this flavor — which scientists are inundated with — places harmful constraints on what can be said. In other words, that it narrowly limits the kinds of arguments and narratives that scientists can develop.

Alas, the hegemony of storytelling in science is unrivaled. Enfield’s piece represents the status quo and many scientists, particularly at elite institutions, think in precisely his terms. One wonders why promulgators of storytelling rush to defend it — even against a brief letter from 2013 that offers a fringe view.

Yarden Katz

Cambridge, MA

July 20, 2018

“Narrative analytics” for maximum impact