Storytelling to Communicate Science

The Scientist as a Homo Narran

by J. Dean Spence

Communication scholar Walter Fisher proposes that humans are essentially storytellers, that he calls homo narrans. As scientists, we may not consider stories to the same kind of intellectual rigour as a logical argument, formula, or research paper, but everyone expresses their daily life through stories.

In “Using Narratives and Storytelling to Communicate Science with Nonexpert Audiences”, Michael Dahlstrom argues that narratives benefit the four main steps of information processing: motivation and interest, allocating cognitive resources, elaboration, and transfer into long-term memory. Narrative cognition, Dahlstrom argues, may be the default mode of human thought.

Should we use stories to communicate science? Dahlstrom suggests that science stories are already commonplace. He points out that nonexperts get most of their science information from the mass media, in TV shows such as the CSI franchise, for example. A better question may be, How can scientists use accurate stories to engage non-science audiences? In the entertainment industry such efforts are already underway.

In a 2008 interview Dr. Aled Edwards, Banbury Professor at the Banting and Best Department of Medical Research at U of T, discussed the unrealistic way that scientists are portrayed on TV: “They don’t behave like real scientists. They’re not doing any experiments – when I see scientists on screen, I just turn off my brain. There’s no way they’re going to do it properly and convey how science is really done …” No way, unless scientists become scientific consultants for TV shows.

Edwards himself served as such a consultant for the TV series ReGenesis between 2003-2007. Dahlstrom also writes, “The Science and Entertainment Exchange connects science experts with entertainment writers and producers to encourage frequent and accurate portrayals of science within entertainment media narratives as a powerful avenue of reaching the public with science content”.

Perhaps science stories can also be used in the classroom. Ting Wang, MT OISE 2014, in his dissertation “Investigating Storytelling as a Culture Transmission Device Among Science Educators” suggests that the use of stories in the classroom is potentially so powerful it could, for example, help reverse the trend in declining science enrolment.

Relating to students such stories as Einstein’s quest to unify physics, Galileo’s house arrest, and the Wright brothers’ inventing the airplane (and later retelling their lives in a nursing home), can illuminate scientific fact. Wang, however, suggests that non-canonical stories about non-white and female scientists, such as Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to the discovery of DNA structure, should also be told to students.

The stories do not even have to be about famous scientists. On its website, Research2Reality (an initiative co-founded by U of T’s Molly Shoichet) features short science stories about world-class scientists and their work in an accessible way that is appealing for people without a science background.

Another strategy teachers can use is to bring stories of current affairs, like the recent direct detection of gravitational waves, into the classroom to encourage students to talk with stories. Wang writes, “Current affairs is an engaging way to encourage the students to talk with stories … storytelling examples involving flight, space, and electricity [seem] promising in encouraging … students to imagine with stories”.

Wang suggests that such stories have numerous benefits. They encourage imagination; grab attention; spark curiosity, engagement, and deep thinking; and above all they make science relatable. Storytelling, Wang argues, forces audiences to link ideas together and to communicate complete thoughts when they comment on them. One educator Wang interviewed for his thesis pointed out that although there can be suffering associated with learning science (because it can be difficult to grasp scientific concepts), using stories as a teaching aide can alleviate that suffering.

Students who have successfully gone through the science pipeline to become scientists can also use stories for their own benefit. In her blog “Scientific Storytelling Helps Researchers Communicate their Findings in a Competitive Publishing Environment”, Paige Brown Jarreau recommends that instead of just piling fact upon fact in their research papers, scientists should employ narrative devices and arcs to get their work published, “because scientific journal editors and peer-reviewers, just like the rest of us, love stories”.

Interestingly, Jarreau also suggests that the concept of storytelling can even shape the way scientists conduct their research by having a plot in place even before data collection begins. Results are then assembled into a message that answers research questions.

Some schools are, in fact, breaking down the barriers between science and storytelling. Ivan Semeniuk, a Science Reporter for the Globe & Mail, teaches a course in U of T’s Graduate Professional Skills program called “Introduction to Science Journalism”. This course focuses on how science becomes news, where science journalists find stories, and how they prepare stories in plain English. Another popular course, “Freelance Science, Medicine and Public Health Writing”, is offered through U of T’s School of Continuing Education. Taught by award-winning journalist Paul Webster, the course is for such professionals as scientists, physicians, nurses, public health professionals, and freelancers, as well as students. It has been described by some as a must-take for anyone who wants to write about science and science-related issues.

As well, Atif Kukaswadia, a Toronto-area epidemiologist, argues in “Science and Storytelling: The Use of Stories in Science Education” that scientists need to do a better job teaching non-scientists about science, and one way to do that is through stories. Stories, he argues, can engage audiences by helping them to ponder such questions as, Why did this happen? What should be done next? How is this possible?

Kukaswadia is clear, though, that science stories should educate and not just entertain. He writes, “The idea of a scientific story is an interesting one, and it is one that famous science communicators have used to great effect with the public. However, we have to ensure that the focus of these stories remains the science, and that [it] does not get hidden beneath fiction”.