By British Psychological Society, UK, February 2022
There’s the science of storytelling, stories about science, and storytelling in science – bringing elements of storytelling to traditional forms like the journal article. Is that a distinction you’ve considered?
Definitely. I’ve done lots of writing about science and had to wrestle with some of the inherent tensions around with that: one of the main ones being that mass market storytelling tends towards simplification and good science tends towards nuance and complexity.
For example, there’s often a pressure to identify the hero of the story – this amazing person who discovered this amazing thing – and of course the reality is usually a team of amazing people.
Some scientists seem to think storytelling goes beyond simplification, to handwaving and fabrication, a means of obscuring and misdirecting…
Yes, and for good reason… if you want to mislead people or sell them your one-eyed view of the world, then storytelling is the best way to do it. It’s as dangerous as it is helpful. But there are ways around that. You don’t have to use storytelling for its most egregious purposes.
There are some basic understandings in the science of storytelling that are separate from this – especially things around structure, cause and effect, and simplicity. For my work I have to read a lot of books written by scientists, and even though I’m fascinated by them, they’re often a real struggle for a layperson like me to get through. They don’t understand some of these basic storytelling ideas. They’re often very discursive, over-complex, tend towards jargon… even the ones that are written for the mass market are sometimes like this. All scientists, but especially ones that are interested in engaging with the public, would be well advised to take some of these basic ideas seriously.