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April 6, 2012 / 20944082

Anecdotes clarifying science…one story at a time.

How do you get a real estate agent, who has been proudly selling houses for 20 years to understand the complexity of how neutrinos were supposedly caught breaking the cosmic speed limit in 2011. I don’t know about you, but when I hear that sentence my face distorts into something that replicates a confused monkey.

Anecdotes are a powerful and popular technique that science writers adopt to help create an understanding of science. If successfully done, they can become a spine-tingling explanation of the latest science discoveries. Poorly done, and they can leave the reader even more confused and turning the page to the next story.

There are over 3.5 billion women in today’s society. Most of them will never understand the complexities of their own bodies. This is mainly because the science is not been passed on from the scientist to you and me. However there is some good news!

Natalie Angier has managed to unlock the secrets and provide and inquisitive explanation into the woman’s body. With its wit, humour and copious research the novel- Women: an Intimate geography takes the reader on a journey of discovery without sacrificing the scientific fact.

But how does she do it? Why did some of her anecdotes leave me wanting to know more while at other times I found myself skimming over the text desperately trying to catch something that caught my interest again?

In Angier’s chapter ‘Wolf Whistles and Hyena Smiles- Testosterone for women’, anecdotes are regularly used to engage, inform and promote emotional responses in the reader. One particular anecdote that stood out for me, described the life changing mood swings experienced after a 10 year old girl called Rebecca, lost consciousness after a head injury. The anecdote was used to support the claim that humans that suffer head injuries may display aggressive, impulsive, violent behaviour.  It is hard to explain why this anecdote affected me more than the others. Maybe it is because I am can still remember the difficulties or growing up as a teenager and the additional stresses that this girl suffered left me shocked and empathising with her. Maybe it is because she is a young girl that has had to deal with a major life change that I cannot comprehend the length of. I would love to hear your opinion on this story. It is on page 282 of the chapter. How did you respond? Did it add to the scientific evidence? Do you have a different favourite anecdote in the chapter?

In my opinion a good anecdote is one that sparks an emotion within the reader, whether it is humour, empathy or anger. I argue that if you don’t have an emotional response to the story then it was unsuccessful. Do you agree/or disagree? Can an anecdote be successful if does not provoke a response?



Leave a Comment
  1. elenav90 / Apr 6 2012 11:56 am

    Nice reader engagement 😉

    I think an anecdote’s effectiveness varies depending on the reader’s values and experiences: as you write, you connected with the anecdote particularly due to your own personal memories and experiences. Like you, a mother of a teenager might be more impacted by it than, let’s say, a fly-in fly-out single male worker in his early twenties. The anecdote might not transfer as much of the seriousness of the consequences of head injuries.

    That being said, there may be cases when an anecdote is effective without it necessarily provoking a personal emotive response. It might instead make a reference to phenomena on such a large scale, or concepts so distant and unreachable that they are overwhelming to us little people. In a painful attempt at creativity, I’d suggest considering the infinite number of possible stars and planets in the entire universe, as an anecdote to help consider the number of cells in our body, or even that make up one of our organs. I wouldn’t say that such an example provokes an emotional response from me personally, but rather an analytical, rational, science-invoked one; still, it would help me get an idea of the huge amount of cells which make up my body.

    Well done on your post. Just one critique – you didn’t actually give a clear definition of an “anecdote”!

    • muza2009 / Apr 11 2012 2:05 am

      A great illsutrative example from the reading of the effect of an anecdote! I agree with Elena who writes that anecdotes dont always have to illicit an emotional response and can be used to elaborate or simplify complex concepts. In addition to her question on what is an anecdote, do they differ from stories and vignettes?

  2. ashfonty / Apr 11 2012 7:20 am

    I agree with Muza and Elena that anecdotes don’t necessarily have to evoke an emotion in the reader. While this is one way to effectively use an anecdote it isn’t the only way. My understanding of an anecdote is that it is a recounting of a story or event that happened. The aim is to tell of a ‘truth’ that happened to someone or something, however over time I’m sure they can become more fictional or warp from the truth a little – a bit like Chinese whispers.

    This particular anecdote of the 10 year old girl certainly pushed my buttons. I speak to carers and patients of mental health and physical disabilities every week in my work and so I am sensitive to how difficult these kinds of issues can be. They really are life changing for everyone involved. \

    I spose from my understanding of anecdotes I would say that they can still be effective without needing to provoke a response. Some anecdotes wouldn’t have emotive or neccessarily very significant messages and so may just roll off people. But the message would still have been received.

  3. sthompson / Apr 13 2012 6:27 am

    Although I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary for anecdotes to evoke an emotional response, I think that the message they are conveying probably is stronger and received better if they are able to do this. I think that is one thing that makes some anecdotes so much more effective than others, their ability to resonate with the reader, and connect with them on a personal level.

    Having said that, I think this is a really hard thing to do, and I agree with Elena in that the strength of response really does depend on your own personal experiences. So for a writer to anticipate this for all their readers would be a very difficult thing, and probably why people may respond differently to the same text.

    Some anecdotes don’t aim to do this though, if they are simplifying a concept or widening your understanding of something, then there is no need for an emotional response. Therefore I think that an anecdote that doesn’t create that kind of response can be just as successful. However, it does seem that the ones that do are more powerful.

  4. lodoubt / Apr 13 2012 12:10 pm

    I’m pleased that I read on after your title, because this article was very engaging. I like that the first sentence in almost every paragraph was something that leapt out of the page as interesting. That said, the title was kind of… well it was generic enough that I actually felt quite mislead.

  5. mmaideni / Apr 13 2012 5:10 pm

    This post, really, Kelly has articulated how the writer managed to explain ‘the secrets of the woman’s body in the most humurous way’. This has helped bring the argument as why the woman is still believed to be aggressive though it does not involve fatal outcomes though regretable in their behaviour. How enjoyable it is to learn a scientific concept using anecdotes and you have just done that to support how they have been craftily used to support your attitude in their use. It helps the reader to compare the scientific notion that women are more aggressive due to the hormonal effects than men, though men have all the excuse to be by figurative presentation. The anecdotes have helped to emphasise on the difference between male and female behaviour in this story. While I exclusively would like to commend your way of explaning how Angiers used the anacdotes and in support of the other comments on the blog, it still leaves a taint of unclear explanation of the science that we need to understand here as readers. This is a limitation on its own. You have clearly given the bad side of the use of the anecdotes that confuses the reader to stay put though managed to give a conclusive opinion of the science in question.
    As woman and a mother this story has helped me to think twice whether there is really any excuse to be aggressive at all. Let the neutrinos take charge of this emptiness ‘… story at a time’.

  6. kellyfitzsimons1 / Apr 14 2012 11:31 am

    Thank you everyone for your constructive comments, it has been great to hear what you have thought and I believe that I now understand better how anecdotes can still be powerful without creating a strong emotional response from the reader.

    I completely agree with elenav90 in that the effectiveness of a anecdote depends on the reader’s values and experiences. Also well done on providing a clear example to strengthen your argument.

    For those of you who are interested: An anecdote is usually a short story about a real event, person, place, science ect. They are usually used to help illustrate complicated topics in a more familiar and easier to understand context.

    Thank you lodoubt for your positive feedback and I reading back, I agree with you that the title could have been improved. Something that I will keep working on 🙂

    I particular liked ashfonty’s reference to the childhood game- Chinese Whispers. This example provided me with an understanding of how from ashfonty’s view sometimes anecdotes become “more fictional or warp from the truth”. I completely agree with you and believe that this is a challenge that we, as science communicators may face- how do we keep the science factual as time goes on?

    Thanks again 🙂

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