In conversation with Thor Hanson: On Scientists as Storytellers
We all grew up with a favorite story. Whether it was about a rainbow fish, an island adventure, a princess, or a Gruffalo, we learnt from and responded to these narratives because we were hooked. Our subconscious “What’s in it for me?” query was fulfilled by a series of hooks- you enjoyed the colors and the elements of a pop-up book that made the experience hands-on and therefore fun, or you could recognise parts of yourself or the circumstances in which you find yourself in within a book, and simply became emotionally invested into the plot or the fate of your favourite character and continued reading until the end.
Despite how much time passes and how old we get, we will forever utilise storytelling. It helps us discover meanings beyond what was initially conveyed to us, and aids in our general understanding of the world around us.
But it’s not as easy as we might think. Storytelling isn’t just about what you say, it’s about the way that you say it. For scientists, non-fiction narrative in particular can prove especially hard to wield. Unlike its traditional factual counterparts- journal publications and review articles- you are weaving discoveries and findings into a story. Your goal is to make the audience invested, and ultimately open up to the prospect of receiving more information on this, and other related topics.
To better realise the potential of scientific storytelling within all of us, I spoke to Thor Hanson. His early interest in the natural world, from collecting temporary summertime pets to fishing, ultimately geared him towards a career in conservation biology, in which he holds a PhD from the University of Idaho. When he isn’t researching habitat fragmentation or endangered species, he writes award-winning popular science books and appears on various television series and programs.
If anyone knows how to pull off a non-fiction narrative, it’s this guy. In the following conversation, we explore how to keep audiences engaged, the challenges that scientists may face in their quest to communicate their work to the public and how to mitigate these, and how to ensure the right message gets across.
Why do you think storytelling makes scientific research more appealing to the masses?
Thor: Everyone can relate to the excitement of discovery, and to the fundamental curiosity that drives what we do as scientists. People who think they don’t like science are usually put off by the jargon, or they worry that they won’t understand the concepts. Storytelling cuts through those barriers with narrative. It transforms our research into a journey — often a human journey — that invites anyone and everyone along for the ride. Let me give you an example.
The relationship between heat stress and disease resistance no doubt involves a lot of complex physiology. But I heard a marine biologist introduce the concept brilliantly by telling the story of an accidental experiment that occurred in her lab. The drama began when a maintenance crew forgot to turn the water pump back on after cleaning a tank full of starfish. The tank was sitting partially in the sun and it heated up quickly before somebody noticed and restored the normal flow of cold seawater. At first, all appeared to be well, but within days every starfish in the tank had perished from a disease that no one had realized they were carrying. Heat stress had triggered it.
The maintenance team was horrified and apologetic, but the scientists were elated. They had a whole new line of inquiry to pursue!
From that beginning, a public presentation or popular article about diseases and starfish could be tailored to any level of detail, with the audience already invested in the outcome. Storytelling provides a framework for communicating science that is inherently inviting and inclusive. Perhaps
the highest praise I’ve ever received for my writing came from a reluctant reader, someone who didn’t consider herself interested in science. “I had to read your book for my book club,” she told me, “and I can’t believe I liked it!”
The world knows you as the author of several great titles, including your most recent book, Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid, which discusses the impact of climate change on an abundance of species, and subsequent adaptive and evolving responses. Could you outline your own storytelling process?
Thor: Finding narratives in science is really not as hard as you might think. Storytelling lies at the heart of human connection, so much so that we often do it unconsciously- describing our day, writing an email, or catching up with a friend. Even a peer-reviewed scientific paper is, fundamentally, a story. The Introduction sets the scene, the Methods outline the plot, the Results tell what happened, and the Discussion reveals what it all means. Recognizing the ubiquity of storytelling reminds us that it’s not a new skill we need to acquire. We already know how to do it; we just need to refine it, and use it in a different context.
My process relies on uncovering the untold stories in science, and there are a lot of them out there. Breakthroughs do not simply spring, like Athena, fully formed from the skull of Zeus. Every discovery is rooted in effort. Some series of events leads to those a-ha moments, and I don’t just mean writing the grant proposal and ordering the lab supplies. It can take years or even a lifetime of observations, experiences and decisions to pave the way for insight. If I can find that chain of events, in my own work or in the work of others, then I have a story upon which to hang the scientific information I hope to convey.
Storytelling is inherently a form of communication. Within the context of science, what purpose does it serve to the wider world, and to researchers themselves?
Thor: One needn’t look further than the evening news to clarify the great urgency of science communication. Critical issues from the coronavirus pandemic to the climate crisis rely utterly upon science for solutions, yet we live in an era where public (and political) misunderstanding, misuse, and mistrust of science has never been higher. Anything we can do as scientists to better communicate about our work and its role in society will pay dividends well worth the effort. Call it a positive feedback loop: better communication leads to better understanding, broadening support, and allowing more and better research to get done.
Scientists can experience difficulty ensuring that their stories remain truthful to the facts and data underlying them. How do you simplify difficult concepts without losing important nuances?
Thor: This is one of the greatest challenges: how can we be accurate, yet necessarily incomplete? Because there is no way to include all the subtleties, caveats, tangents, arguments and counter-arguments that might come up over the course of a long research project. Space is limited, time is limited, and we need to always be considerate of the audience. In some ways, popular science communication is the art of the possible- there are depths to any discipline that are beyond its scope. This is a good thing. If all the details and nuances were a cinch to understand, then the world wouldn’t need trained scientists and we would all be out of a job!
In my writing, I try to focus on what can be said clearly and with confidence, while indicating that there is always more to the story. Consider it like teaching a survey course to a broad group of undergraduates. You want them all to understand the high points of your field, and you hope to spark a deeper interest in those few who might decide to make it their major field of study. The same is true for any popular audience- most will be satisfied with the summary, but a few will take the ideas further. With that in mind, I always include extensive bibliographies in my books, and fight for them editorially, to make it easy for readers to take that next step.
It’s easy to get carried away and use metaphors and analogies for everything, under the guise of digestibility. Are they a help or hindrance to the reader’s overall understanding?
Thor: It really depends upon the quality of the metaphor. If you find a good one, use it. A leading expert on seeds once told me, “A seed is a baby plant in a box with its lunch.” Obviously, she had learnt a lot more than that in her decades of research and more than 300 publications, but she still found the metaphor useful in conversation and teaching. It is concise, memorable, and contains three basic truths about seeds that can then be explored at any level of detail. A good metaphor or analogy should work just like that- an introduction to an explanation, rather than a replacement for one.
How do you refine your message in your own science communication? And how do you ensure that somewhere along the way, this message won’t get distorted, and your audience won’t get the wrong end of the stick?
Thor: When you have complete control over the product, from draft to publication or presentation, then you can refine at will and ensure that your message remains on target. There is good reason for caution, however, when steps in the editorial process are out of your hands. Even well-intentioned copy-editing of a single word can change the meaning of a sentence or a phrase, in some cases making the science downright inaccurate. For any written piece, always try to retain the right for a final pre-publication approval, and pay very close attention to those page proofs. In other genres- film, TV, radio- you may not have that level of control. Editors and producers often use excerpts from an interview, for example, based on time constraints or to complement visual elements of a piece, potentially altering what you meant to convey. These situations are a trade-off: is it worth reaching the audience with a message that may be imperfect? The answer to that question will vary with the circumstances. It helps to be familiar and comfortable with the storytelling style of the people and programs you’re collaborating with, but in my experience, there will always be a few unwelcome surprises.
Despite the incredible advances made in the realm of science, there is still a plethora of mechanisms and phenomena that have thus far not been elucidated. What is the most appropriate way of phrasing “I don’t know” when faced with a question you don’t have the answer to, and can this uncertainty impact how our audiences feel about science as an institution?
Thor: Embrace uncertainty! The unknowns are what make science exciting, and I think those “I don’t know” situations present a great way to get that point across to audiences. Doing so can help correct one of the most pervasive misconceptions about our profession. Many people think that science is about answers, but it’s really about the questions. It promotes a process of learning, rather than any particular result. This is a vital point, with real implications.
Consider the response to public health measures during the coronavirus pandemic. Evolving guidance on masks, vaccines and other precautions was often portrayed as a weakness: “The scientists can’t make up their minds!”. In fact, those changing guidelines underscored the strength of science- constantly questioning, refining ideas, and responding to new data as they emerge. I think we can all advance public understanding of science by explaining that what we don’t know is often just as important as what we do know. It drives the process.
Conversely, what happens if there are different perspectives and hypotheses currently floating regarding the topic you’re discussing? Is it worth mentioning these? Will this affect your message?
Thor: A good scientific debate often makes a great story, and can help explain how science involves a diversity of opinions, and how the same data can sometimes lead to different conclusions. That said, there is a risk of “message creep” if we dilute every point with multiple perspectives.
When there is a general scientific consensus, I think it’s fine to say so and present that idea alone (one should be wary of the impulse to include extreme or largely debunked hypotheses in an effort to find “both sides of the issue”). In cases where there is a genuine debate that is not your focus, it’s possible to acknowledge that and still keep your piece moving by offering an opinion: “There are several hypotheses floating around out there, but I tend to agree with…”.
It really depends on the situation, and the scope, pacing and intent of your piece, but in general I try to at least acknowledge controversy and debate, rather than present science as something monolithic.
Let’s talk about those on the receiving end of our communication efforts. How can we ensure that our audience remains interested and engaged throughout our delivery, and how does this vary depending on the communication medium? Let’s use a book, and a seminar, as examples.
Thor: It always helps to find good models. In terms of books, remember that you are a reader as well as a writer. Study the popular science books that you enjoy- what keeps you turning the pages? How long are the chapters? How long are the sentences? Is it illustrated? Is the author part of the story? Do they use dialogue? How do they describe things?
There are any number of writing styles out there, but if you can develop a voice that would hold your own interest, chances are it will hold your readers’ interest as well. Also, if you share drafts with other people, they will probably read them in bits and pieces as time allows. That invites an important question: ask them to mark the places where they put your manuscript down. If someone is setting your work aside in the middle of a vital point you were trying to make, this is invaluable feedback.
Finding good models for seminars and public speaking is also important- who are the speakers you seek out at conferences? Also, as a general rule, don’t be afraid to show your enthusiasm. After all, there is a reason you became a scientist and chose to study the topic you are presenting on. Make that enthusiasm obvious and the audience will feel it too. Finally, always practice your talk ahead of time with the clock running, adjust accordingly, and never go over the time limit. Even the most engaging speaker can lose their audience if they make them late for lunch.
Without friends and family at the appropriate educational level to proofread your science communication writing, how can you read your own text and be sure it’s suitable for the target audience?
Thor: If laypeople are the target audience, then having laypeople as test readers can be an advantage. Trust yourself to make sure the science is accurate, and then trust your friends and family to tell you if you have managed to make it understandable.
Before giving your manuscript to anyone else, however, I highly recommend that you read it to yourself. Aloud. Nothing will alert you to the rough patches in your work more quickly than speaking and hearing the words. If the prose doesn’t flow as speech, then you are probably not communicating clearly. Approach writing as a chance to have a perfect (albeit one-sided) conversation with your reader, one where you have the ability to edit and rephrase your comments until they’re just right (as opposed to a normal conversation, where one so often only thinks of the right thing to say hours or days later!).
Many of us have already encountered the problems of communicating our science to laypeople in contexts less formal than writing a book. What do we say at cocktail parties when someone asks what we’re working on? How do we explain our profession and responsibilities to our relatives? In such situations, we may well find great starting points for our next piece of scientific storytelling.
You don’t have to plan to be the next bestseller on the non-fiction shelf at your local bookstore to learn how to weave a story out of your research. Keep this in your arsenal for the next time you present your latest findings at a conference, for that unfinished paper draft you have sitting in a Word document, and for the grant proposal that you desperately need to stand out from the other 200 submissions.
The anthropologists got it wrong when they named our species Homo sapiens (‘wise man’). In any case it’s an arrogant and bigheaded thing to say, wisdom being one of our least evident features. In reality, we are Pan narrans, the storytelling chimpanzee.
- Terry Pratchett, The Globe