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Is storytelling an enemy of science?

14 January 2019

Have you heard the one about the linguist, astrophysicist, playwright, cancer researcher and screenwriter getting together to vigorously debate the validity of storytelling in science? This is not fiction, but a true story. 

Hear compelling arguments from both sides, as our expert panel discusses whether storytelling is a friend or foe for researchers. The podcast was recorded at a Sydney Ideas event as part of the University's Innovation Week.

Host: Professor Nick Enfield

Speakers: Professor Nick Enfield, John Collee, Professor Geraint Lewis, Alana Valentine and Professor Jennifer Byrne

Producers: Anna Burns and Megan Crane

Editor: Katie Harkin

Professor Nick Enfield
Linguistics expert

Science & technology

Scientists don't have the luxury of forgoing storytelling

Panel chair Professor Nick Enfield kicks off the discussion. He asserts that researchers should be using storytelling because science is difficult to explain. Scientists are increasingly being advised to use storytelling – a narrative – to get their message across. A narrative helps audiences focus their attention, gets them more engaged, and more likely to remember what they have heard. However, the counter argument is that narrative can contradict some scientific ideals. Scientists want to find out the truth and new knowledge for solving problems, and the case is never closed because science is permanently unfinished. We shouldn’t aim to persuade; only to inform.

Professor Enfield from the Department of Linguistics retells an incredible story to sell storytelling. In 1975 San Diego stay-at-home mum Marjorie Rice read an article in the journal Scientific American, penned by mathematician and science writer, Martin Gardner. The article discussed convex polygons that could fit together to tile the plane, by interlocking perfectly, just like tiles on your bathroom floor.

Picture Marjorie in her 1975 home. In an interview later she said "My, it must be wonderful that someone could discover these things that no-one had seen before – these beautiful patterns." Marjorie then sat down with a pencil and paper. She had no training in mathematics but went on to invent her own unique notation and eventually discovered several new types of pentagonal tilings. She had reopened a puzzle in mathematics. Over the next 40 years, four more pentagons were found, by different people and teams. The last one was discovered just three years ago. There is now a complete set of 15 pentagons.

By reading the story, Marjorie understood the problem and was inspired to work on solving it and make a major breakthrough, so kudos to the author. 

That story succeeded gloriously. Stories are made out of language, and language works like a kind of remote control on people's minds. Stories work because they are well designed for the brain.

Storytelling is an instrument for maximising the uptake of ideas, and getting them to be faithfully taken up and copied in the population. And that's what we need in science. Scientists need to learn the basic tools of narrative because they work, in an instrumental sense, to achieve the goals of communication. When Marjorie Rice read the story of the search for tiling pentagons it exploded her cognitive biases and grabbed her attention. And when it had her attention, it exploited her mind to implant a bit of knowledge and a bit of wonder. And that's why storytelling is good for science.

At the end of a fascinating Q&A with the audience, Professor Enfield concluded that storytelling is good for science, but it can be dangerous, so we need to be very careful when we use it.

Storytelling is designed to be ambiguous: this is a problem for scientists

What is a story anyway? John Collee has been a doctor and a medical journalist and he is now a renowned Hollywood screenwriter (for notable films such as Happy Feet and Master and Commander). He raises the question: how can you tell a story that will embed ideas emotionally? You learn by emotion. Narrative is an amazing way of cramming a lot of facts into people’s heads, if they are sufficiently primed for it. As evidence of that, just look at the incredible success of Harry Potter. Fifty percent of teenagers worldwide could tell you the contents of seven hefty tomes of Harry Potter, with a lot of detail in there. Stories are clearly a method for embedding information.

Story structure is best expressed by the metaphor of a cat up a tree. A story has three acts – a first act, second act and third act. There has to be a problem, a series of complications and a resolution. Picture a story as a tree. A tree is essentially a fractal structure – there is a base, a beginning, branches and tips of branches, which is the end. Every part is replicable, no matter your focus. A cat is owned by a person and that person is the main character. The cat goes up the tree and gets lost. Each choice puts the cat in more jeopardy.

Eventually the main character has to make a fundamentally life-changing decision. The audience is already invested in the character at this point, and when the character changes and has to make a death-defying decision about the cat, we have an emotional rush and realise 'that's the solution to my problem'. 

So that's how stories work and how they achieve their effect. And that's one thing that we can apply to scientific writing. In films, like A Beautiful Mind, we follow an emotional journey and the mathematics is not in it. So you lose all of the other detail along the way.

Science is more than storytelling

Geraint Lewis sits on the fence. He argues that while storytelling conveys the wonder of science, science itself is not telling stories. Storytelling is not how we do science. Science is meant to be impersonal, but scientists aren't. They have emotions and some of them even have personalities!

Take the story of Albert Einstein, a patent clerk – the lone genius who overturned the universe and the way we understand everything. It is a nice but highly inaccurate story. And it misses something vital – the actual act of doing science. It is often left out of the actual story.

Imagination – the stories we tell ourselves – can provide scientific inspiration, but what made Einstein scientifically famous was his ability to describe the universe, not in terms of words and narrative, but in the language of mathematics. It wasn't a story about the universe, but a mathematical description. 

Students are often drawn to science by stories they see in print or other media. They have this mental picture of what science does. But when they get to do some science – actual research – they find their notions of the scientist are actually dashed. The scientist in their mind is actually a myth. The lone genius is rare, if it exists at all. Scientists don't work in isolation. Science painfully inches its way forward, unlike the leaps and bounds that we read about in stories.

The other thing that gets lost is that science is actually quite hard. Science is wrapped up in the technicalities and the complexities of deriving equations, computer code that won't compile and always crashes and experiments that fail. Science is hard and often lost in the stories. There is little room for storytelling when a scientist wants to tell another scientist about their work, such as in scientific papers. These papers are often content rich but light on narrative – they are to the point and just give the facts. The notion of wrapping up scientific work in a story is probably a step too far for many scientists.

Professor Lewis can see the positives and negatives of scientific storytelling. But somewhere in the storytelling, the doing of science should play its essential part. The act of scientific storytelling doesn’t tell people what science is actually all about. We have to be very careful that storytelling doesn’t become science fiction.

On 16 August Professor Lewis will headline a Sydney Ideas event about the ultimate fate of the universe, which is part of the Sydney Science Festival.

Why storytelling is a powerful tool

Alana Valentine has worked directly with scientists as the 2017 Writer-in-Residence at the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre. She argues that storytelling is inevitable in science. When scientists are trying to communicate their findings, they are of course going to use comparisons with things that we do understand to explain things that we don't.  

Alana's work at the centre has taught her that the simple, comprehensible descriptions that scientists use to communicate with us are not science. Science is the pleasure of disagreeing about how the material world functions. We can't expect to understand what someone with a PhD in astrophysics can understand just because they have elegantly condensed it into a story for us.

In drama we use metaphors and conflict to crush a huge amount of information down into a complex nugget of entertainment. A playwright listens, records and condenses months and sometimes years of observations and conversations into a fast-moving piece of drama.

No character every written about in a play will be as beautiful or as awe inspiring as a real human being, in his or her complexity and perversity. But Alana's storytelling techniques might allow an audience to look at their fellow human beings with more nuance, to confront sometimes uncomfortable truths about human nature. Art doesn't imitate life, it tries to make us look at it in a new way.

Storytelling is not a soft skill or an easy turn. The writer-in-residence scheme at the Charles Perkins Centre answers the question of whether storytelling is good for science with a yes, when scientists engage professionals to sometimes work with them, when they build constructive strategic alliances with working writers. Alana suggests that scientists might think of storytelling as a useful tool that, if carefully done, can help us appreciate more deeply the astonishing, complex work that scientists do.

Finding the right balance is critical

Jennifer Byrne really likes the process of writing, but admits that she doesn't find it easy. When she is in the early throes of writing, terms such as “bloodbath” and “fight to the death” flood her mind. She equates this process with fighting a slippery dragon – she has to break its back or it will break her. Imagine then how difficult writing is for the majority of scientists who don’t like it.

She draws on the Sleeping Beauty fairytale as an analogy – the princess who is cursed and falls asleep for 100 years, and during this time a thick thorny forest grows up around her castle. One day a prince arrives, hacks through the forest and finally reaches her, wakes her up and they presumably live happily ever after.

“I think that storytelling is to science as salt is to cooking – add none (or too little) and it’s bland, but then add too much and it’s ruined. The secret is finding the right dose, and I think that there’s disagreement on what that 'right dose' is.”

Sometimes researchers wrap up results and ideas in forests of words that lack structure and overuse complex language. They expect too much of the reader, which can lead to a paper sinking within the literature and falling asleep for as many as 100 years.

It takes a paper referred to as the “prince” to wake up these sleeping papers by citing them and recognising their value. The sleeping beauty then often becomes highly cited and influential, sometimes in other fields.

How many more ideas are asleep in the literature, wrapped in their forests of words? Researchers need to ensure that future papers are accessible and beautifully written. This is really difficult but scientists need to spend more time hacking through the difficulty of our ideas. They should talk more openly about pushing themselves to their intellectual limits and the support they need. It's hard to realise that some people just don't care about your research. Researchers need to learn how to leave out detail.

We cannot afford to let our ideas go to sleep because humanity doesn’t have the next 100 years to wait.

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