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Story telling in science?

21 July 2018

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin

I started thinking about this topic some years back as I often need to write popular articles that make some of the science that we do more generally accessible. But then a few days ago, an article popped up in The Guardian (see here) by Nick Enfield that made me think again.

“No story telling” is a comment that I sometimes make when reading drafts of manuscripts, chapters, and even when editing for journals. What do I mean by this? Stories are deterministic. That is to say that the story teller has an end in mind when they start telling the story, and the telling is a way to get to their goal. A story that’s ‘pointless’ will frustrate the audience and won’t engender them to listen to that storyteller again. In a good story, reaching that goal will often result in lots of twists and turns with the goal shrouded in mystery until it is revealed. In a teaching story (like a parable), the goal may be overt, such that the audience relates to the narrative and buys in to the same conclusion.

If we did science like we tell stories, we would decide on the way the system works before we studied it, and then design the experiment in order to reach our desired goal. You should have recognised by now that this is not the way we do science. This is clearly an undesirable way to go about doing science because we should never prejudice the result that we’ll get from a study before we do it.

We need to approach science in a very different way to storytelling. When I was doing my PhD I was very frustrated as I had the impression that my supervisor knew what result he wanted and designed the study to show it. This is known as “confirmation bias”. When an experiment failed to meet the expected result, he declared that it had failed.

In our studies, we read other studies and observations to formulate a question that we frame as a hypothesis. We then devise an experiment that will test this hypothesis in the most objective way, so that we can fairly accept or reject our null hypothesis (see blog on hypothesis forming here).

Thus our studies are the very opposite of story telling. Or are they?

I often tend to think of the answer to the question as the goal of the study. That I don’t know what the answer is, doesn’t spoil the story for me. The important thing is asking the question. An unexpected answer might send us back to thinking more about the system that we are studying and result in a greater revelation.

A really good example of this is the study published earlier this year by Becker et al (2018). Francois found a strong relationship between probability that Rose’s dwarf toadlets survive and rainfall in the breeding season. More rainfall equals greater survival is what one would automatically think, but that wasn’t the result obtained. Francois found that survival increased with less rainfall. It wasn’t until we made the connection between the fact that increased rainfall during the breeding season meant that the toadlets spent more time in puddles, decreasing their survival. As the toadlets aren’t feeding during this time they lose weight, and also expose themselves to more predation pressure. In a dry year, the toads will head back to their subterranean refuges much earlier and continue to pursue ‘safer’ feeding and hiding habits. While we might intuitively feel that a ‘safe toadlet’ is a better life-strategy, reduced rainfall means reduced reproduction, and so results in a failure for toads that don’t manage to pass on their genes that year. The result is a variable life-history with the weather, something that was previously unknown. To me, that’s a great story!

But the scientific paper that was written about this ‘story’ (Becker et al 2018) doesn’t have a narrative style, and doesn’t fit the description of a narrative that we discussed above. Instead, it follows the formula that we set out way back in the blog (Introduction, Materials & Methods, Results and Discussion: see here). This style does not treat the experiment as a complication on the way to the story’s goal. The structure introduces the rationale behind conducting the experiment, then objectively explains the findings, and lastly discusses their meaning in relation to what is already known. The key differences in the storytelling style from the scientific formula are the absence of a known goal at the start of the process (see a more detailed discussion of this by Yarden Katz here).

But there is a role for stories when communicating science as this increases interest, facilitates understanding, and enhances memory. This is particularly true when communicating science to the public and making it more accessible, but it also applies to interactions between scientists, for example at conferences. The presentations that tell a story and entertain are those we tend to remember. Not easy, but if we do want to communicate well with each other, then we need to learn the art of story telling, without compromising our scientific objectivity.  

Addendum

Having written the above, I've made a point of reading more posts and opinions on story telling in science. Watch out, because this subject is fraught with the multiple ways that people interpret the meaning of a 'story'. Above, I've taken the deterministic interpretation of story telling (a story with a known ending), and I've used this to argue why it is not a good tool for science.

However, there are other fundamentals in stories that are particularly useful and should not be ignored. One notable feature of stories is that they make facts easier to understand and remember. Indeed, there is even the idea that this is why story telling evolved in human societies. For example, most religions are based on stories that are geared to understanding of societal morals and rules.

Can this principle that stories for human memories be used in science?

Some argue that it can, and should be an integral part of scientific writing. In her blog post, Anna Clemens argues that stories should be used within the scientific context. I'll let you read this for yourselves (here), and ask you to make up your own minds. Next time you hand something in, please add a comment if you've decided to take this route!

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