Friday, December 9, 2016
The Science of Storytelling: Making Facts Matter in a Post-Factual World
As evidenced at the ballot box, Americans and others around the world are woefully misinformed about science. There is an unwarranted deep seated mistrust of scientists. People once revered scientists and politicians once depended on science to make policy decisions. However, those days are receding and we are facing what amounts to the darkest period in modern history.
We have been deceived by clever misinformation campaigns from corporate interests like the fossil fuel industry. We have been duped by conservative ideologies, political organizations and politicians. In the world of new media, fake news dominates and people take up residence in echo-chambers from which they rarely emerge.
Confronted with the multiple shades of grey of the modern world we have regressed to a more primitive state. We have entered a post factual world where destructive narratives are gaining momentum, tribalism and nationalism rule the day and people are coalescing around populist bigots. If for no other reason than to combat the prevailing anti-science and anti-environmental narratives of our times, we need a new narrative.
We are in desperate need of a new narrative that extols the virtues of science. The key is to make science storytelling emotionally engaging while remaining accurate. Understanding this approach is crucial for scientists and environmental journalists alike. The goal is to produce compelling stories that capture the reader's imagination and inform them at the same time.
The crafting of compelling stories is no easy feat in this highly competitive media landscape. The challenge is to engage an audience while providing accurate science-based information. Fact checking is crucial. We cannot communicate the value of science if we do not render it accurately. This is about more than sharing facts in an interesting way, it is about weaving a narrative that resonates with people and encourages them to act.
People need to have science rendered in an accessible language. It is the job of the storyteller to translate scientific jargon into the vernacular.
Science not only refutes the insanity of our post factual world, it also offers us some insights into what we can do to make stories resonate with readers. For example, we know that character-driven stories are easier to relate to and a more effective form of narrative than fact-based stories that are more abstract.
We also know that there is a danger that too much negativity will augur denial. While a pessimistic narrative may be accurate, it can also cause people to turn away. A positive narrative more readily leads to action.
We cannot escape stories and narratives as they are sewn into the fabric of human experience. We are defined by our use of symbols, we depend on stories. Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung and many others have shown how certain themes (sometimes called archetypes) emerge in the stories that we tell. These narratives endure across cultures and generations. Science contains many of the elements of the great narratives that have galvanized human civilizations dating back to prehistory.
A narrative is alluring and enticing in a way that facts alone will never be. A good story has the ability to change people's thinking, foster empathy and transform people. To get there you need to make people feel something. it is not enough that they known, they must be made to feel.
Scientists have been unable to persuade people with numbers and statistics even though they may be irrefutable. Science does not resonate because it forces us to think analytically. This in turn primes us to be more skeptical which decreases the likelihood that we will act.
Narratives are a biological reality for our species and we are genetically predisposed to respond to a good story, it is hard-wired into our brains. The trigger for behavioral change is emotion, that complex array of electrochemical reactions that occur in the brain. As reviewed in a Berkeley University post, The Science of the Story, research suggests that the neurochemical processes set into motion by a good story are capable of inducing profound behavioral changes.
Some research suggests that a spike in both cortisol and oxytocin may play a salient role in behavior change. When we encounter a threat or when we read a good story we release cortisol, which boosts strength and speed. It also engages our attention. Oxytocin is a neurochemical that signals trust and safety to the brain it is also known to be associated with empathy and cooperative behaviors.
We are in need of stories, narratives that capture people's interest and propel them to act. Understanding the science of these stories can help us to be more effective communicators. It can also help us to create a new narrative that eschews the insanity of a post factual world and recognizes the merit, utility and necessity of science.
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