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March 30, 2012 / shortfletch

The Story of Science

“I don’t want to hear any of your excuses, just give me the facts”

Unfortunately, only stating the facts makes it sound like I’m at fault. What I need is to tell my side of the story. Only then will my dad understand the (almost) logical reasons for my actions and maybe, just maybe he will feel bad for me.

I use stories (aka narratives) all the time. Those who know me well will attest to the fact that I never just state what you need or want to know, but start at what I believe is the beginning of the story, and then continue on, and on, and on… Admittedly, I’m not a great storyteller. Often my stories end up becoming the long, incoherent ramblings of a very strange female; however, I strongly believe that when done well, a story is so much more exciting and memorable then just the facts.

But how do you turn a list of scientific facts into an enthralling story? How do the characters, plot and science all fit together?

Larissa MacFarquhar depicts the stories of kidney donors: who they are, why they donated, and how they felt afterwards. For me, I found that the science played a supporting role in these stories. It was the characters that kept me engaged, but the science moved the plot forward.

The same relationship occurs in American television shows. Consider this: could you still watch House, Grey’s Anatomy or Bones if you only saw the characters’ home lives? Probably, since the characters are fantastic, but the plot lines would probably start resembling Desperate Housewives. It’s the need to solve the current medical or murder mystery that propels the story forward. Relationships are built as science occurs.

Now, could you watch the shows without the characters. For me the answer is no. I love my carefully constructed plot and often life doesn’t fit together so nicely. I have spent many a night forgoing sleep to feed my tv addiction. I can honestly say the same is not true for science textbooks. In fact, textbooks often put me to sleep. That is why I really like scientific narratives.

Another reason I prefer science narratives over listed facts is that, unless you are unfortunate enough to be reading the next Hemingway, written scientific narratives conjure more vivid mental images then textbooks do. I find the authors of the narratives employ more descriptive adjectives. The improved mental images, makes it easier for me to learn. Who knows though, maybe by the end of the day, all I will remember is the story and no science at all. I will recall who kissed who, and whose lives were completely ruined, but if asked to explain the symptoms of breast cancer, I will become uncharacteristically silent.

What do you think? Is the narrative or the science more important.

Reference: McFarquhar, K. (2010). The kindest cut. The best American science writing 2010; Eds Groopman, J, Cohen J./em>

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23 Comments

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  1. caitiedunlap / Mar 31 2012 11:08 am

    I tend to agree with you. Firstly though I think you have done an excellent job and made this really easy and honestly enjoyable to read. It definitely poses and interesting question though.

    I think about my dad and how he loves his crime shows, such as The Mentalist, CSI and Law and Order..and dont forget NCIS.. and to take away the science element of these shows would remove the reason he likes them so much. Hes not going to sit down to Desperate Housewives, as you mentioned, or Jersey Shore or Happy Endings, even though Happy Endings is an incredible tv series and I definitely encourage anyone who hasn’t watched it to get on board straight away. His interest is in the science in these shows, but he is not going to sit down and read a book filled with crime and autopsy reports. Even though he is interested in the theme of the shows, being science, it is not the reason he keeps watching these shows week after week. Its the characters. Its the head slapping Gibbs provides DeNozzo every week and the annoyingly accurate way in which Patrick Jane solves all his cases. The science influences the type of audience which a show attracts, but to have a show and let alone have it be successful, you need characters which viewers feel passionate about, positively or negatively.

    So in short its the narrative which is more important, however the science does influence the audience which a show can attain.

    • shortfletch / Apr 3 2012 10:33 am

      I love those shows as well (again I watch way too much tv). I just started watching Happy Endings, but school has massively interfered with my tv watching (too much homework). Anyway I think you make a fantastic point about how the science influences the type of audience that the show attracts. I bet the way science is presented also influences the type of audience that the show attracts. Your dad and I clearly are attracted to the narratives but maybe others are more attracted to science documentaries.

  2. axl1228 / Mar 31 2012 6:24 pm

    When I was in high school, English textbooks always make me sleepy, then Science textbooks. So for me, an English science book will be disaster.
    I don’t know how much scientific information I can remember after reading a narrative science article, but a science article in narrative style will more likely catch my eye.
    So, besides headline, I think a narrative style is another important element that can make readers stay on your article. People are inpatient nowadays. We just glance at lines to find some interesting words or quotes then decide if we will click the Next button.
    Because of the overload of information, a good story is important not only for communication, but also for grab the chance to communicate.

    • axl1228 / Mar 31 2012 6:27 pm

      Ah, forgot to say, nice work, Jean. Your article flows so well. It’s not easy to write on iPad, but you made it. Well done!

    • elenav90 / Apr 1 2012 2:13 am

      “People are impatient nowadays.”

      Why is this?? I mean, isn’t it terrible that this is a truth?
      I think it’s a consequence of the Industrial Revolution and the decrease in time required to complete a task thanks to new machineries which became competitors to human work in the production system.
      So comes the notion that time = money, and everything speeds up, and we now need to be as productive as possible, during as much time as possible. So if a task is taking up too much time, we become more and more frustrated by all the other things we could be doing…
      Surely we are not machines and therefore need our downtime eventually – this is too often just moments before we “crash”. BUT, I fear that if we were to continue with this trend, we’d have a society that values “doing” over “being”, and this is a scary thought.
      It’s also interesting to contrast this Western tendency to other cultures. The conception of “Pilbara time” for example. Or even travelling throughout Italy from the North to the South, and being confronted by the different speeds of lifestyles.
      I don’t suppose people who are less “productive” are any less happy – quite the contrary. Yet it doesn’t seem easy to exit this fast-mentality, productive-and-competing way of life. So we enjoy it? Does it give us a true sense of fulfillment?

      Take a big breath 🙂

      • shortfletch / Apr 3 2012 10:48 am

        @ elenav90

        While these are very interesting points to consider, you are slightly off topic. So what do you think is most important in a science narrative, the story or the science? Why?

    • shortfletch / Apr 3 2012 10:44 am

      @axl1228

      First, do you think you would have liked science better if you had read chinese stories that incorporated science into them (I assume you did modern chinese literature or something similar in school, but maybe not because I don’t know a lot about China sorry.) Say for instance you were learning about little Lin Yongzi who bought an egg from the market and then proceeded to watch it hatch and the chicken grow up. Would science be more exciting then? And if so whould you like to know more about Lin Yongzi or about the life stages of the chicken.

      PS thanks for letting me borrow you stuff and putting up with my 1/3 baked ideas (if you understand that expression)

  3. priscillalyf / Apr 2 2012 2:31 pm

    I really like your post, it really relates to me, as most of the shows you mentioned I do watch.

    Most of the shows I watch are more for pleasure rather than for information/facts. To tell a good story with scientific facts, I think it is pretty hard to do, like you said, people remember the story rather than the scientific facts. But if someone is able to do that, he/she is a great story teller. Good analogy of those dramas, because if there was no characters as well, I would find it very hard to follow each week, for years on end, as many shows last more than 5 years. I do watch for entertainment and if I do learn something from them, even better, but more often than not, I don’t. So in this case, I think narrative is more important than science, because I would remember the plot of the story rather than the facts about scientific information.

    What do you think of scientific documentaries? I was watching this program called Planet Earth, and they show videos of living things and/or landscapes and there was a narrator explaining what was happening, I found that interesting because a good narrator was used. Do you think that is good story telling?

    Nice post, maybe the next time I watch one of my shows, I will try to remember an interesting fact! 🙂

    • shortfletch / Apr 3 2012 11:36 am

      We should make it a goal. Learn one new science fact from a television show an episode.

      I think that if you found the documentary interesting then it probably is an example of a good narrative. For television the narrator is definitely important. Why are David Attenborough documentries so popular. It’s because he is an amazing narrator (at least that’s my opinion).

  4. bonnyp / Apr 2 2012 2:40 pm

    I thought this was a really interesting post. I think scientific facts are hard to incorporate into a narrative, but when done well stories can really help to make science more engaging. (And as someone who is also doing an English degree, I love narratives!)

    However, I personally find that science is more important than the narrative when trying to communicate science. I have a good memory for facts, and facts are the first thing that I want to find out about when reading an article or watching a show on a science topic. Narratives can be interesting and emotive, and I think they work really well in some cases. I particularly like reading “patient stories” such as the kidney donors that you mentioned. However, the main reason I will read a science article or watch a science show is because I want to be informed, and I think narratives often take away from the scientific content.

    Narratives are also slower to read than more factual articles. I normally find that if a narrative style article fails to capture my interest after the first paragraph or so, I will simply stop reading. On the other hand, I will always skim read to the end of a more “boring” article to get all the facts, even if I don’t really feel like reading through the whole thing. Obviously, both narrative and factual ways of presenting information each have advantages and disadvantages.

    I’m not much of a TV watcher, and I have never seen Grey’s Anatomy, House, Bones etc, but I have friends who are obsessed with those shows. I think it’s great that people enjoy watching medical/science shows but from what I’ve heard about them, I don’t think the way they present science is very factual or accurate. Science communication isn’t just about the stories!

    • shortfletch / Apr 3 2012 11:56 am

      Thank you for commenting. It’s nice to get different views.
      I know I am a very impatient person (like axl1228 said). I don’t give very much time to narratives (especially if I can’t stand the character’s or the character’s logic. Poor life decisions drive me insane (I guess I’m not that tolerant either). I give even less time to science stories. I don’t tend to skim them either. I was trying to figure out why. It’s something I might have to ponder for a few days but if I have an epiphany I will let you know.

  5. kellyfitzsimons1 / Apr 3 2012 2:36 am

    Firstly, well done on a well written and engaging blog.

    I would have to agree that narrative is an important element in engaging an audience. Without the quirky characters, their different lifestyles, the developing spine-tingling conflict and the resolution it would be very hard to capture the audiences attention- (especially one that is not interested in science).
    In saying that, without the element of science it just becomes a story.However, I agree with bonnyp that shows such as Bones and Grey’s Anatomy are not exactly factual or accurate and at times are misleading in medical procedures. And I would like to ask you: Where do we draw the line between entertainment and communicating factual science?

    As for the question priscillalyf posted about regarding documentaries. I usually love documentaries, and I think the ones that stand out are the ones that present characters with a personality and share their personal struggles. Even documentaries on animals do this- the narrator often gives the animals in the herd a name and describes their personality. In conclusion, I think story telling is all around us and to be successful in science writing we cannot dismiss the importance of including both narrative and the science facts.

    • muza2009 / Apr 3 2012 7:09 am

      Is the narrative of science more important? Good question…I think it depends on purpose…is your purpose to entertain or inform? Can you do both well? Or do you end up compromising one? To side track a bit……since we talking television…have you guys ever heard of the CSI effect (from Wikipedia: exaggerated portrayal of forensic science on crime television shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation influences public perception)? The CSI effect and I guess the “Big Bang Theory effect” are supposedly influencing students career’s choices..with more students studying forensic science and physics….are there particular elements of those television narratives that are influencing students..is it maybe how the science is portrayed through a narrative?

      • shortfletch / Apr 3 2012 12:06 pm

        Purpose probably is important. I would suspect that if your purpose is to entertain then you would be more willing to sacrifice the science. However, I will leave your second point (can you tell a good scientific narrative while emphasizing accurate science facts) incase others still want to comment.

        I have heard of the SCI effect but not the Big Bang Theory Effect. Perhaps we need to make a successful television series about us awesome science communicators so that more people will join our program.

    • kflint93 / Apr 5 2012 2:06 am

      I absolutely love programs such as Bones, House and CSI however I have to realise that, whilst the science shown there is awesome, it is also highly improbable. As much as I would love these situations to be real, they aren’t.

      Our first duty as ‘science communicators’ is to convey science accurately. The first priority of a TV program is to entertain and gather an audience. Whilst science in a TV show may propel the story along, it certainly isn’t the main focus. You could say they were ‘scientific entertainers, but certainly not accurate communicators.

      I have to say however, that I slightly disagree with kellyfitzsimmons1 and shortfletch (below) on their points about narratives in documentaries. I am a huge fan of documentaries and have (what I consider to be) a fairly comprehensive collection at home. The documentaries that are often aired on TV may incorporate narratives more so, but I find the emphasis is generally the nature of nature. The filming and photography is priority, and then a narrator can emphasise, describe and inform the audience.

      Perhaps there is some confusion between a narrative and a narrator describing a natural process.

  6. shortfletch / Apr 3 2012 12:02 pm

    @ kellyfitzsimmons1

    First, I love how you referred and built on comments from earlier posts. Well done. It helps keep the discussion flowing and evolving.

    Second, you make a great point that sometimes narratives sacrifice science. Is this for the sake of the story, or just because they writers don’t know any better.

    Third, I personally am not a huge fan of documentaries. I can’t even give you a good reason why. However, you are right. They do tend to include narratives about the animals. I also think that this is very important.

    Overall, I just wanted to say great comment.

  7. rhiandyer / Apr 6 2012 12:18 am

    I have never really enjoyed fiction. From a really young age I would get the same thoughts going through my head when something unrealistic happened in a movie…

    “As if, that would never happen….but if it wasn’t so unrealistic they would never have made a movie about it….I suppose that is the way is has to be otherwise I would be sitting here watching a movie about people going to work and drinking coffee…not really any point in making that movie…well I suppose I just watch this one then…yawn”

    Its just not that interesting when you know it is designed to have something unexpected happen. You know anything can happen in a movie or story, so no matter what happens you can never really be surprised.

    Our minds have to create rules about the world to function in it. I think the real impact of science narrative (for me anyway) is when unexpected/unbelievable or counter-intuitive things happen to real people because it is breaking these rules.

    The example that immediately came to mind was the story of Sharon Roseman, who has a condition that makes her visual perception rotate by 90 degrees. Not only is the condition unfathomable but the way she learned to treat herself is so unbelievable that it really should be from a movie.

    http://www.radiolab.org/2011/jan/25/you-are-here/
    (it is 20 minutes but you can get the idea in the first five minutes)

  8. rhiandyer / Apr 6 2012 12:42 am

    I think it is really important that the narrative adds something to the science. In my example here the science was intriguing neuropsychology but the narrative created detail about how it affected people in society, same as your kidney donation example.

    The way I see it, if it doesn’t add anything it probably detracts or at least distracts.

    (Sorry this is in two posts, I havnt learned how to edit comments yet)

  9. stinaboroe / Apr 6 2012 3:42 am

    Hi!
    I like your personal style as it has allowed you to take an interesting angle on things. You put forward the idea of science adding to the narrative nicely, and when I think of it myself, i completely agree.
    Having that said, if we are to think about science and narratives for educational or learning purposes, I’m not sure SCI type TV shows will be sufficient. So how can we combine science and narrative efficiently when it is the science and not the story that is the priority?

    Happy Easter! 🙂
    x

  10. markforeman92 / Apr 6 2012 6:54 am

    I thought your post was really well written, particularly when you compared facts to stories as obviously as possible; text books, compared to tv shows, and i absolutely agree with you in that text books can bore me no end! Studying straight facts becomes tedious from almost the moment we start. Whereas watching shows like CSI or house are far more interesting. But i have to agree with a couple of previous posts in that these shows can often sacrifice scientific legitimacy for entertainment. But to what extent do these shows manipulate scientific methods?

    The show that hasn’t been mentioned which certainly doesn’t “mess” with science is Mythbusters. The characters in this show aren’t exactly riveting (from what i gather, i have only seen a few episodes), but this show is extremely popular worldwide now, and they don’t really tell a full narrative. Perhaps it’s the little anecdotes behind their myths that keep people enthralled, or maybe it’s just the fact that they constantly blow things up. But this science show is a winner. I think it’s a winner because they manage to present science in an interesting way. Interesting and entertaining. I think that’s the main task of scientists; present the facts or investigations in a way that keeps non scientists interested and entertained without sacrificing scientific credibility. Not easy!

  11. amber0699 / Apr 6 2012 8:16 am

    The narrative or the science? Personally I think both are important, but I am leaning more towards the narrative side myself. Even though mathematics and formulas are not conveyed as well in narration, I still personally like it a bit more as I am simply not a mathematics and formula enjoying person, and enjoy the descriptions of science more.

    You did a good job writing your post! It was an interesting read, especially being made personal by writing about telling stories to your dad. Very entertaining! The only thing I could think to improve it might be to compare story telling to something other than t.v. shows as they are not very scientific, but they are more relatable to read about and do contain scientific information, so that could just be me being picky. Nice work!

  12. studentname23 / Apr 6 2012 12:02 pm

    Hello, It’s an interesting science story to read. Jean, I agree your argument for certain extent. However, important point is as in Muza’s lecture, after a period of time the stories help in keeping the facts in our memory. You have discussed or analysed well comparing with other programs. In my opinion, you would have analysed the story or the facts in bit detail. Overall It’s well done.

  13. noelynn / Apr 8 2012 12:24 am

    Jean, I like the way you posed the post. Though storytelling in science does good to some people, sometimes I find it boring. This happens when the story is leaning more towards imaginary unreal pictures and perhaps discussions in movies. When I cannot relate well, then I get frustrated with the story and aboveall miss the concepts.

    But on the other hand, using story in science probably varies for the age and different people. So it’s not a bad approach at all to use in science. It is a good way of introduction maybe.

    Overall, good job Jean.

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