Let Me Tell You a Story


“Muse reading Louvre CA2220” by Klügmann Painter – Jastrow (2006). Licensed under Public Domain

We love a good story. In fact, we are hardwired for stories.[1] [2] “And the elements of a good story are always the same,” says journalist Dan Gardner. “It has to be about people. And it has to have novelty, drama and conflict.”[3]

“The elements of a good story are always the same. It has to be about people. And it has to have novelty, drama and conflict.”

Stories follow a pattern called the Hero’s Journey.[4] Often the Community’s way of life is threatened by a disturbing change. As a result, one, or a group, from the community will venture out of his or her normal life to try to defeat the thing that is harming the community to bring the world back to the way it was.

Hero stories have been told ever since humans became humans. They were, and are, ways for us to understand what is happening around us. Before there was science to postulate, test, and interpret how everything works, there were myths—stories that related the tribe’s past events and, usually, how their gods’ caused and fixed those. Everything within the world served their god’s or gods’ purpose.

The storyteller, who is often a shaman, relates and reveals unknown “facts” to the listener. He or she manipulates minds, often with the acquiescence of the community; they believe the story is the truth.

The scientific method, which started during the Enlightenment, has not completely supplanted mythology. Scientists talk of probabilities. Storytellers speak of truths.

Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, to name a few are good storytellers, telling stories to alert their tribe to the dangers of new technology—genetically engineered food (aka genetically modified organisms—GMOs), industrial farming, and processed food. The old ways are being destroyed. These technologies threaten them. They say that no good can come of it. They say that “real food” is, and according to them has always been, what our great-grandmothers would have recognized.

That they are stupendously wrong about food safety and the new technology’s environmental impact does not seem to matter a whit. They tell marvelous stories. They may even believe the stories they tell, certainly many of their listeners do. They can repeat sayings from the story: “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.” – Michael Pollan, Rule #19.

Scientists tell lousy stories. Instead of  “novelty, drama and conflict,” their stories have complexity, data, and confusing conclusions, not tidy and neat answers. And herein lies a problem. Non-scientists, which is the majority of us, tend to be innumerate. We use story to inform our actions. “Scientists like to say ‘anecdotes aren’t data’ but human nature actually sees things the other way around,” Gardner says, for us non-scientists, “numbers are nice but stories are truly meaningful.”

“Numbers are nice but stories are truly meaningful.”

Science storytellers cannot expect the population to become numerate. They have to tell their story in a way that connects to people.

The stakes could not be higher. Unfortunately, the stakes are numbers: the number of people, primarily children, who will die every year from malnutrition[5], the number of acres of rainforest that will be slashed and burned[6], the number of acres of critical habitat lost to organic crops (because organic practices require more land to grow equivalent harvests compare to conventional farming)[7], the number of farm workers exposed to dangerous “natural” pesticides.

But people won’t care. They know the mythmakers tell the truth.

Those other things are just numbers; those people and places aren’t “real.”

[1] Roche, Loick, and John Sadowsky. 2003. “The Power of Stories (I): A Discussion of Why Stories Are Powerful.” International Journal of Information Technology and Management 2 (4). Inderscience Publishers: 377. doi:10.1504/IJITM.2003.004233.

[2] Haven, Kendall. 2007. Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story. Greenwood Publishing Group. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=uspfMRlGXVoC&pgis=1.

[3] Gardner, Dan. 2008. “Numbers Are Nice, but Stories Matter.” CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association Journal = Journal de l’Association Medicale Canadienne 179 (1): 108. doi:10.1503/cmaj.080848.

[4] Campbell, Joseph. 2008. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New World Library. https://books.google.com/books?id=I1uFuXlvFgMC&pgis=1.

[5] 3,100,000 source: http://cdn.static-economist.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/original-size/images/print-edition/20140510_USC830.png

[6] All of the rainforests

[7] 30% more land


Further Reading

Burke, Katie L. 2015. “12 Tips for Scientists Writing for the General Public?» American Scientist.” American Scientist. http://www.americanscientist.org/blog/pub/12-tips-for-scientists-writing-for-the-general-public/.


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‘Twas the Night Before Deadline

I write a column called the Green Chain for the Lake County Record-Bee‘s environmental page, the Green Scene. The Record-Bee printed this yesterday.

‘Twas the night before the Record-Bee’s Green Chain deadline.
I had writer’s block, and not for the first time.

When up in the sky, riding the clouds like a boat,
I spotted a wonder, a flying Chevy Volt.

Driven by Kris Kringle without reindeer with hoof,
it nose-dived straight into my roof.

Catching fire in a wink.
I said, “I’m going to get water to put it out, right here from the sink.”

I thought better of it yet,
and grabbed the old fire extinguisher, filled with still useful, Carbon Tet.

When I ran back to the outside, he’d already beaten down the flames
with an old reindeer hide.

He dropped down to my lawn.
“Drat, I sure miss Dandruff and Sitzbath, who now are gone.”

“Donder and Blitzen,” I said.

He turned, looked at me, and arched an eyebrow.
“Hmmph. Not bad for a guy who’s got writer’s block, right now.”

It was my turn to arch an eyebrow like his.
“So tell me, how do you know any of this?”

He made a ref’s timeout sign with his hands and quick.
“Look Sport, can we stop the Clement Moore, Night Before Christmas shtick?”

“I prefer to think of it as an homage.”

“Uh huh. You’re kidding, right? Look, I know about your writer’s block because the elves keep track of such stuff on the web.”

“The elves hack into computers?”

“The elves? Hackers? Ho, ho, ho.” His great beard bounced about. “Nah. They just use Facebook and Twitter. You wouldn’t believe what people post.”

“Can I use your phone?” he said and pulled out a card. “I need a tow. Boy, could I use Vomit and Pooka-head right now.”

“Comet and Cupid.”


I took him to the phone in the kitchen. “You learned about my writer’s block from my status update on Twitter?”

“Bingo.” He dialed and then put his hand over the receiver. “So, d’ya think you could fix me a double-shot cappuccino? It’s going to be a long night.”

When he finished giving his information to the dispatcher he plopped onto my kitchen chair.

I set a plate of cookies and the cappuccino on the table. “So, how are things on the North Pole?”

“Cold.” He slurped at the cappuccino. “You know, with this global warming stuff, everybody had worried that the polar bears and the ice caps would be gone this year. Frankly, I was looking forward to catching a Russian freighter and moving to the Bahamas like we did in the 1920’s.”

“The arctic ice was nearly gone in the 20s?”

“Sure, don’t you know any history?” He bit into a cookie. “Not bad for store-bought.”

“Thank Pepperidge Farms.”

“As for polar bears, did you know we have five times the population of those four-legged eating machines than we had seventy years ago? Geez Louise, Mrs. Clause has to shoo more of them away from the clothesline every year.”

The phone rang and I answered it. “The tow truck will be here in ten minutes.”

“Thanks.” He set his empty cup down. “Man, I miss Dopey and Sneezy.”


“Nah, they were a couple of dwarfs that hung around this hot number named, ‘Snow White.’ Really lousy poker players. I miss them.”

“By the way,” I said. “What happened to your reindeer?”

“Probably in some hunter’s freezer now. Upper management said they had to go, said we needed a smaller carbon footprint, said those animals spewed too much methane into the upper atmosphere causing an increase in global warming, this according to the pointy headed engineers’ climate models.”

I nodded. “I bet you miss them.”

“The engineers?”

“The reindeer.”

“Well, right now, yeah. But, the new Volt has a heater and factory air. That’s nice. Though, I have to charge it for hours every 40 miles and there is a slight chance of fire in a crash.”

“So I noticed.”

“One of those fuel-efficient diesels would’ve been better; some of them get 50 miles to the gallon. Do you know how long it takes to go around the world, dropping off presents, when you have to stop every 40 miles to recharge a Volt’s battery?”

“A long time?”

“Darn right.”

A horn sounded outside.

Santa shook my hand. “Well, I gotta go.”

He turned and was gone. But I heard him shout as the Volt was towed out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to y’all, and to y’all a good night.”

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