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Storytelling: What’s it good for?

A story can be an effective way to send a message. Anna Clemens explains:

Why are stories so powerful? To answer this, we have to go back at least 100,000 years. This is when humans started to speak. For the following roughly 94,000 years, we could only use spoken words to communicate. Stories helped us survive, so our brains evolved to love them.

Paul Zak of the Claremont Graduate University in California researches what stories do to our brain. He found that once hooked by a story, our brain releases oxytocin. The hormone affects our mood and social behaviour. You could say stories are a shortcut to our emotions.

There’s more to it; stories also help us remember facts. Gordon Bower and Michal Clark from Stanford University in California let two groups of subjects remember random nouns. One group was instructed to create a narrative with the words, the other to rehearse them one by one. People in the story group recalled the nouns correctly about six to seven times more often than the other group.

But my collaborator Thomas Basboll is skeptical:

It seems to me that a paper that has been written to mimic the most compelling features of Hollywood blockbusters (which Anna explicitly invokes) is also, perhaps unintentionally, written to avoid critical engagement. Indeed, when Anna talks about “characters” she does not mention the reader as a character in the story, even though the essential “drama” of any scientific paper stems from the conversation that reader and writer are implicitly engaged in. The writer is not simply trying to implant an idea in the mind of the reader. In a research paper, we are often challenging ideas already held and, crucially, opening our own thinking to those ideas and the criticism they might engender.

Basboll elaborates:

Anna promises that storytelling can produce papers that are “concise, compelling, and easy to understand”. But I’m not sure that a scientific paper should actually be compelling. . . . A scientific paper should be vulnerable to criticism; it should give its secrets away freely, unabashedly. And the best way to do that is, not to organise it with the aim of releasing oxytocin in the mind of the reader, but by clearly identifying your premises and your conclusions and the logic that connects them. You are not trying to bring your reader to a narrative climax. You are trying to be upfront about where your argument will collapse under the weight of whatever evidence the reader may bring to the conversation. Science, after all, is not so much about what Coleridge called “the suspension of disbelief” as what Merton called “organised skepticism”.

In our article from a few years ago, Basboll and I wrote about how we as scientists learn from stories. In discourse about science communication, stories are typically presented as a way for scientists to frame, explain, and promote their already-formed ideas; in our article, Basboll and I looked from a different direction, considering how it is that scientists can get useful information from stories. We concluded that stories are a form of model checking, that a good story expresses true information that contradicts some existing model of the world.

Basboll’s above exchange with Clemens is interesting in a different way: Clemens is saying that stories are an effective way to communicate because they compelling and memorable. Basboll replies that science shouldn’t always be compelling: so much of scientific work is mistakes, false starts, blind alleys, etc., so you want the vulnerabilities of any scientific argument to be clear.

The resolution, I suppose, is to use stories—but not in a way that hides the potential weaknesses of a scientific argument. Instead, harness the power of storytelling to make it easier for readers to spot the flaws.

The point is that there are two dimensions to scientific communication:

1. The medium of expression. Storytelling can be more effective than a dry sequence of hypothesis, data, results, conclusion.

2. The goal of communication. Instead of presenting a wrapped package of perfection, our explanation should have lots of accessible points: readers should be able to pull the strings so the arguments can unravel, if that is possible.

P.S. More on this from Basboll here.


  1. Jag Bhalla says:

    As usual, good thinking in public! The Clemens position has become a counterproductive filer in science writing (and non fiction more generally). Its common among editors to now presume that you can’t communicate issues in a compelling way unless you have interesting characters & scenes. Against this recent) norm, it’s worth noting that there are no “characters” in Rachel Carson’s storied, but not story-telling, Silent Spring which shifted national policy.

    PS – handy sentence from Johnathan Haidt, “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor”

    • Kyle C says:

      This is closely related to the universal teaching and use of the “inverted pyramid lede” (a deliberate misspelling of lead) in American longer-form journalism and “feature” stories. The pyramid is: start with a compelling anecdote and work outward to a broader trend or importance, which is summarized in a “nut graf,” roughly the third or fourth paragraph (it often contains words like “comes at a time when,” or “illustrates,” or “is one of many”).

      I only read English, so I don’t know about journalism outside the Anglo-American world, but British journalism isn’t so much like this. In a British paper, even a long investigative article (not an opinion column) usually starts with a blast of the basic information the reader should take away. Only later in the story will you get the anecdotes, witness reports, insider detail, what have you. When i read British newspapers or the BBC website I am reminded of how many hours or days I have spent in my life wading through the cherry-picked opening anecdotes of feature articles to get to the point that caused the editors to assign or run the story in the first place.

  2. Benjamin C Kirkup says:

    There is a tension between the view of papers as scholarship and papers as ‘advertisements of scholarship,’ as was said some years ago. I thought at first this was cynical. Over time, I’ve come around. Yes, papers archive key data and analyses, but real scholars do not count their productivity in papers or patents; but in products sold, patients treated, crops grown, other forms of industry consulting, graduate students taught and subsequently employed, and all the various kinds of ‘impact.’ The papers are indeed often just advertisements for actual scholarship; pointing to an email address where the scholar can be found, for further discussion and collaboration.

  3. dfphil says:

    There was a study that I think I read about on Language Log many years ago, that if one writes “brain scans show…” and then whatever psychological hypothesis one wants, that people – including psych graduate students – are more inclined to believe it. Thus, when evaluating the likelihood of a claim, the first thing to do is to read it again leaving out the part that says “brain scans show.” I think that the paragraphs from Clemens that open this entry should be read that way, and that part of Basboll’s skepticism might be raised by such phrases.

  4. gec says:

    I think it is worth pointing out that when stories are effective, it is largely because they enable someone to apply an existing schema to a new topic. A classic example is from Bartlett’s book “Remembering”, in which he describes how British readers have difficulty remembering and reproducing an Inuit story; indeed, when asked to retell it, they would often distort the original story to better fit Western molds. I bring this up to make two points:
    1) There seems to be a widespread assumption that “stories” are universal, when in reality they are learned and differ between individuals.
    2) Stories are only good communication tools when there is a strong match between the structure of the material to be communicated and the schemata that readers bring to the table. Otherwise, either the author distorts the point in order to better fit their chosen schema or the audience is led to misunderstand the material because they apply a mismatching schema to understand it.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that the typical “dry sequence” of the scientific paper is the best way to go. After all, that is just another schema. And I’m sure we all have experience reading an obtuse piece of academic writing that uses that schema to actively suppress rather than expose the potential for logical flaws.

    I think I’m in agreement with Andrew when I suggest that the best route to follow is to have multiple routes of communication, not just a paper, a talk, or a press release. This way, you have a better chance of an audience member finding an applicable schema in their heads that they can use to bootstrap their way into understanding. Of course, the major problem here is to make sure that different communication routes actually do point in the same direction and are not themselves misleading.

  5. Ideally the objective of the author should be to cause understanding in the readers that might be deeper and less wrong than theirs. To me if story telling advances that objective it will have helped.

    Jag and gec: Nice comments “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor” but as gec argues we don’t tell people stories we just induce them to tell them to themselves (don’t remember where I read this) and if they don’t have close enough stories they transmute things to whatever degree to cover the distance.

    • Keith, I appreciate your perspective, but one of the points I’m trying to make is that the objective of a scientific paper should not primarily be to “cause understanding in the reader” but to expose the writer’s ideas to criticism. Obviously, this will require that the reader understands the argument, but the important thing isn’t really to correct or deepen the thinking of the reader.

      Andrew rightly picks up on when he points out that “much of scientific work is mistakes, false starts, blind alleys, etc.” A paper is, first and foremost, an occasion to catch errors and if story telling gets in the way of that it will have hindered science. My objection to Anna’s suggestion is that it almost explicitly encourages us to conceal the argument.

  6. Mark Samuel Tuttle says:

    At the end of the movie, “Quest for Fire” one of the characters is pantomiming the story to his tribe at night around a fire – about how three young men travel across pre-historic Europe in search of fire, as their tribe lost fire when they were attacked. (They could use fire, they just couldn’t start it, and their spoken language is very primitive.)

    My MBA girlfriend, now wife, turned to me and said, “That’s how it all started, didn’t it, telling stories around the fire.” I’ve used that story often in professional inter-disciplinary contexts where storytelling is very important.

  7. Thanatos Savehn says:

    I’ve been having my youngest son read and discuss an Aesop Fable or two every day (it seemed to help his older brother with early reading comprehension – “It’s not really a story about foxes and grapes!”) and so thinking about this issue. It’s hard-won knowledge of common human nature or e.g. the difference between designing an experiment and running one (“Belling the Cat”) that’s embedded in these file-compressed mnemonic devices. And that knowledge came from induction (“the glory of science and the scandal of philosophy”, etc.).

    The long-form science story-telling that most annoys me is that which gets science backwards such that science appears to the casual reader as a sort of Sherlock Holmes affair – a matter of obvious deductions drawn from cleverly spotted clues. The result is a failure to communicate uncertainty and the limits of generalizability. Apparently, many writers seem to think the problem of induction risks spoiling a good story, and fail to notice that the best stories are those drawn from many trials and many errors.

  8. In ancient literature, like Bible or Elder Edda or Odyssey, the separation of genres did not really existed, so you have narrative parts mixed together with lists of stuff. Im a little surprised people want go back to ancient times =)

    I would argue for more separation of narrative and facts in scientific publication. I would prefer that instead of paper we would have (1) blogs like this to tell and discuss stories and (2) wikipedia-like structure where we can store and discuss definition, facts numbers and lists.

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