This recent article by Michael D. Jones discusses the merits of telling a good story.
Right… So we know that already. What else do we already know? How about this: recent Gallup poll data reveal that only 57% of the American public believes that the main cause of global warming is human activity. Now, what if I told you that in 2003 that number was 61%. Don’t believe me? See for yourself:
Perhaps the most interesting statistic deals with the public’s perception of scientists. When the public was asked what scientists thought about global warming, 62% say that scientists think global warming is occuring, 28% say scientists are unsure if it is happening or not, and 6% say that scientists don’t believe it is occurring. What do we (scientists) really think? See above. We almost unanimously agree that “global warming” is occurring and that we (humans) are the cause.
So… why doesn’t the public see it that way, and more importantly, why do a large amount of them think we don’t see it that way? Communication. We as scientists aren’t always very good at that. In fact, on average, we are bad at it. Science attracts a lot of solitary people who want to get lost in a deep and meaningful question. People who thrive in social situations don’t generally want to spend hours on end alone in a lab. Plus, we tend to specialize on one issue, organism, or system. So much so, that when we speak about it we don’t expect many people to know what we are talking about (even within our own departments or disciplines).
Papers are often written using all sorts of specific jargon and terms that are only decipherable by colleagues and compatriots. And all of that is fine. In fact, it’s great. That is how we progress science. We share our findings with those that can use them. However, much of the time all of this is taking place in a place that the public cannot access (cue “ivory tower” stereotypes). That is an issue. Based on poll results, science is not doing a good enough job at communicating with lay people. We cannot always live solely in the world of fact and jargon. Sometime we need to find and utilize a device that the public can relate to. This paper suggests that we use narrative (story-telling) as a way to leave an impact on people. A paper stating simply that climate change is occurring and a lot of bad stuff can happen is not as memorable as a story featuring a clown fish whose home is slowly being destroyed by the pollution and disregard of major corporation, only to be saved by the actions of a citizen scientists. My example pitted straight, boring (for some) facts versus a hero and villain narrative with a specific victim. this manner of story-telling appeals to the emotions of people and has been shown to be more effective at communicating a message. The paper provides 3 climate tales as well as a control (which is just a scientific paper) and plots the amount of people who didn’t know what the cause of global warming was by the end. The scientific paper returned a “don’t know” percentage of about 41%, while the three stories returned percentages of around 10-12%. With results like these, why don’t we try narratives more? Effective communication is the est way to educate and education is the best way to be sure that informed decisions can be made. Advocates and scientists alike should consider a story like approach more often. Perhaps there will be an example sometime in the near future on this blog. Stay tuned for that.
A project launched by fellow UNC grad students is targeting this particular facet of science writing already. Check them out here: http://www.scientistswithstories.com/
In the meantime: check back later this week for some Halloween themed content, featuring bizarre, frightening, and cool creatures of the deep!