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/.

 

Post to Twitter