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Getting over the hype and into the meaning of stories about science

I spent the first decade of my science communication career as a storytelling skeptic. While my colleagues waxed poetic about the power of narrative, I’d grimace behind what I hoped was a polite smile. I thought stories were overhyped, possibly manipulative, and somehow …unbecoming of serious scientists. That mattered to me. I loved the way researchers banter in the field or over beers and was totally delighted by the wild fish tales I’d hear. But I thought those were private things, best kept within our circles of friends and colleagues. I was quite certain of my feelings on the matter. As it turns out, that was the problem. Thanks to my feelings, I was ignoring the best available science we have on how humans communicate.

Now, I still dislike the hype I see about storytelling. It seems like there are infinite iterations of featherweight advice about how it will make you a better leader, supercharge your fundraising, motivate your team, and so on and so on. It’s exhausting, and there is a lot of handwaving and confusion about definitions. But if you start digging, like I did, you come to some surprising conclusions. When you compare narratives with evidence-based argumentation, for example, narratives tend to be more engaging, more comprehendible, and more persuasive [1]. Now we can debate the experimental design of these studies – and we should! But that’s not what I was doing at that point in my career. I had no idea that there was research on the topic. What I did know was that my job was about accurately explaining research, and I knew that to do that, I needed to catch and then hold my audience’s attention. I knew they needed to understand not just the research findings, but also the broader context of the work. And I knew that this sometimes meant working to change people’s minds. So in 2013, I found myself sitting in the audience of presentation on narratives at the National Academies colloquium on the science of science communication, annoyed, and struggling with my own cognitive dissonance. The research hammered home the message: engaging, understandable, persuasive. And so it was that storytelling – this thing I scoffed at – was being shown to be an effective means to my science communication goals. I hate being wrong.

Rather than unpack the evidence that changed my mind (we’re writing that up in other places), I think it’s worth taking a really hard look at why I was so resistant to stories in the first place.

Now I am nowhere near as gruff and serious now as an executive director as I thought I should be as a 22-year old PhD student. Temperament aside, I think what was on my mind back then was the idea that “real scientists care about data, not stories.” I’m pretty sure no one ever said this out loud to me, but they didn’t need to. It felt like a powerfully honest description of my world.

In just seven short words, I had made a huge claim as to who scientists are and what scientists do. I see this kind of claims-making all the time online, and in workshops and talks about science communication. It highlights two crucial areas of conversation for how I think about stories in science now:

  • Identity: Humans are a social species, and we have an innate need to feel like we belong. We coalesce around the things we have in common – a place, a family, a skill, or a value. We define our group identity around the ways we are the same as each other and different from everyone else, and then reinforce and protect that shared identity with symbolic and socially-constructed boundaries. Now, it can be valid and even necessary to clearly define who’s officially a member and who is not. Think of emergency medicine: the safety and well-being of people at their most vulnerable depends on reliable, enforceable professional boundaries. Not every profession is a matter of life and death, and boundaries are not merely constructed around degrees or skills, are they? We signal who we are with class rings and lab coats, with jargon and language. All these signals of belonging might seem trivial, but they can build into a cruel drumbeat of “we are scientists and you’re not really one of us.” Who gets to decide what a scientist looks like or sounds like? How do they enforce those norms? If someone says, “real scientists [don’t] care about stories,” that is making a claim to an identity. It is no more or less powerful than, “On Wednesday we wear pink.” Stories about who we are grow powerful with repetition. Whose stories are told, and on which stages, are a powerful means of shaping what is seen as legitimate and aspirational.
  • Ethics: Humans are also a storytelling species. While not everyone functions this way, most neurotypical people use narratives as meaning-making devices. Stories help us collectively process ambiguous events and decide who the heroes and villains are, what consequences an action brought, and how we might behave in similar situations in the future. Our storytelling brains evolved as a survival mechanism. They help us build and revise models of our complex reality. It’s not surprising that they also happen to trigger pleasurable reactions – so does eating a delicious meal, having great sex, or any variety of behaviors linked to our survival and group success. This leads to the trouble with narratives – they are seductive and can be terribly misleading. Like any powerful tool, we need to critically consider how and when narratives are appropriate. Fortunately, there are scholars tackling the issue of ethical use of stories for science communication as well as persuasive communication in general [2–4]. There are legitimate concerns about stories, things they cannot do, and places they do not belong. But rejecting them outright is as misguided and antiscientific as uncritically cheerleading narrative as a panacea for all our science communication woes.

This April, I’ll be back at another National Academies Colloquium on science communication. This time, I’ll be on stage, moderating a panel on the intersection of narratives and misinformation. I’m looking forward to exploring what we can learn from research in psychology and the social sciences, as well as hard-won insights from such disparate fields as medical practice and filmmaking. As I’ve dug into the research about how and why human minds use stories to structure our reality, I have become fascinated by what stories do not only for audiences but also for their tellers. They allow us to make sense of an uncertain world. They help us connect our pasts and predict our futures. Stories motivate and educate. We use them just as much to explain as to entertain. Given the enormity of the social, humanitarian, and environmental issues we face right now, I firmly believe we need to use every tool at our disposal and every ounce of our fully human capacities to inspire, engage, and take collective action.

Edited by Bill Sullivan, PhD, Indiana University School of Medicine.

  1. Dahlstrom, M. F., & Ho, S. S. (2012). Ethical considerations of using narrative to communicate science. Science Communication, 34(5), 592–617.
  2. Green, M. C. (2008). Research challenges in narrative persuasion. Information Design Journal, 16(1), 47–52. doi:10.1075/idj.16.1.07gre
  3. Tengland, P.-A. (2012). Behavior change or empowerment: on the ethics of health-promotion strategies. Public Health Ethics, 5(2), 140–153. doi:10.1093/phe/phs022
  4. Dubov, A. (2015). Ethical persuasion: the rhetoric of communication in critical care: ethical persuasion. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 21(3), 496–502. doi:10.1111/jep.12356
About the Author
  • Liz Neeley

    Liz Neeley is the Executive Director of The Story Collider. In live shows across the country, a weekly podcast, and intensive workshops, The Story Collider is dedicated to producing true, personal stories about science. She comes to the field of storytelling after a decade of work in ocean conservation and science communication. From 2008 to 2015, she worked as the Assistant Director of Science Outreach for COMPASS, and was affiliate staff at The University of Washington. Before that, she worked on locally-managed marine conservation in Fiji and Papua New Guinea, and on international trade policies for deep-sea corals for SeaWeb. Her approach to communication is influenced by her graduate research at Boston University on the evolution of visual communication in tropical reef fishes. She was on the advisory board of the CommLab at MIT 2015-2017, and on the advisory council of Ensia magazine from 2016-2018. She currently holds a Lecturer appointment at Yale University through the National Neuroscience Curriculum Initiative. She is on the organizing committee of the 2019 National Academies of Science’s Sackler Colloquium on the science of science communication. In 2018, she commissioned and edited the peer-reviewed “Stories from the Frontlines of Conservation” series at PLOS Biology. She was a contributing author to Science Blogging: The Essential Guide (2016), Effective Risk Communication (2015), and Escape From the Ivory Tower (2010). Find her on twitter at @LizNeeley.

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