A big challenge currently facing science professionals at a global scale is the ability to convert scientific terminologies, facts, and findings into a simple, meaningful, and relatable language that can be assimilated by audiences with a limited or, in some instances, negligible exposure to science.
Take for instance, sharing the outcome of a food poisoning investigation via digital or print media. To a member of the scientific community, information such as DNA fingerprinting, the pathogen’s incubation period, onset time, and reports from toxicology studies, helps explain the “why” behind the incident. For a reader or listener with a non-science background, they are hearing and/or seeing a different story— a parent’s loss, flawed food testing methodologies, corporations profiting off the common man, etc.
Such is the power of storytelling.
A recent study led by Professor Steven Brown, Department of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Behavior, McMaster University, demonstrated how the human brain responded to storytelling. Regardless of the medium through which the narrative was shared—be it auditory, visual, kinesthetic, or even a combination of the communication channels—the brains related best with the characters in the story by focusing on the thoughts and feelings of said characters. What struck a chord with the audience of the study group was not what was shared, but how it was shared. Different elements of a story engage different regions of the brain. Based on how the narrative is shared, biochemical agents such as dopamine, cortisol, and oxytocin influence how we perceive, remember, and communicate that information.
Storytelling Augments Evidence Synthesis
Storytelling needs to be applied right at the beginning of data collection, and not at the end. Evidence synthesis is a data collection technique that relies on bringing together various data points through a myriad of sources. This approach widens the lens of the “final story” because it also takes into account the biases each of us view the world with. While the science-based approach strives to be evidence-based and objective, sometimes science professionals misstep by emphasizing the pre-validated belief and then working towards finding the evidence to support that belief. This not only widens the gap between the facts and an individual’s perception of the fact, but also facilitates the growth of non-evidence-based theories. Remember the raw water debacle?
Science and Storytelling are Allies
“Science and storytelling are not mutually exclusive of each other, but strong allies. Your role is not to persuade them, but to inform them with empathy.” This was the best piece of advice I received from my mother when she was the regional director of food safety at the time and I was a budding biotechnologist, still green in my career. I am passing this torch onto others with the hope that people will value curiosity.
Good scientists remain curious while being objective. A skill that is underdeveloped and understudied within the science community is the art of storytelling, with an empathic approach. Science is the field of study that bridges gaps, not creates them. The world does not have to be limited to “either-or” when there is plenty of room for “and.”