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.