Storytelling and Science: The Unifying Theory of 2 + 2

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Humans are great consumers of stories. We are fascinated with them and storytelling is a dominating force in many forms of media, engaging people from all demographics. Stories resonate with us and have the power to profoundly change our perceptions of the inner machinations of the world around us. Simply put: stories inspire thought. Perhaps unexpectedly, particularly in the face of stereotypes of scientists as Vulcanesque creatures, science necessitates a high level of adroitness in communicating ideas and concepts in a provocative way. Scientists tell stories every day to wide types of audiences. We write proposals and papers, give research talks, and discuss our work with colleagues and non-scientists alike. Moreover, we are tasked with the Herculean challenge of motivating why our research is significant to the body of human knowledge and merits study, despite the fact that we are often among only a few handful of people in the world who are experts on the matter.

Though communication of such ideas to other scientists can be difficult, improving public awareness and understanding of scientific pursuits is an ever increasing pressure. We are presently living in a time where great efforts are being made to better STEM education in schools across the country and the impetus towards diversifying the faces of the scientific community is at the forefront of many minds. The need to connect with the general populous has become vital to catalyzing many of these changes. Yet, depictions of scientists in media often skew towards what I call the “genius stereotype”, whereby some people are simply born to do science (apparently severely lacking social skills to boot) and if you happen to not be born that way, the implication is you simply lack the aptitude for science. I believe that we, as scientists, have a social responsibility to break this wall and start engaging the public in meaningful ways. As you, dear reader, have undoubtedly guessed by now, I think that one of the most promising approaches to this end lies in the act of storytelling.

Stories allow us not only to teach and communicate ideas, but they do so in a way that is deeply felt. Hacking into our basic, almost primal, need for narratives, which tell others who we are and how we fit into the universe, gives an opportunity to present science in the context of a social act which is ubiquitously meaningful. In the words of a very prophetic mentor, Dr. Brian Coppola,

“…it isn’t so much the academic argument, it isn’t so much the evidence, although those things are important, but what is really significant to the person at the end of the day is the story. Stories are important. You know that already. People love a good story. Why do people love good stories? There’s lots of reasons. Good stories teach. Good stories get repeated. Good stories inspire other learning, because you want to figure out more about it.”

Framing science concepts and research efforts in this narrative structure  grabs the audience’s attention and fosters its sustainment. Explaining science like you would tell a story makes interaction with the material more accessible.

Currently, I think that scientists are really good at showing the general populous that science is cool and remarkably useful. We can put together extravagant demonstrations to illustrate fundamental principles. Robots and satellites and 3D printers abound. Important advances in technology, medicine and other areas that affect our everyday life are primetime news staples. So, I don’t think that it is preposterous to say that people know science is important. That said, I do think that it is reasonable to say that many people think science, particularly active participation in scientific learning and the scientific process, is best left to the Sheldon Coopers of the world. This is simply not true. Furthermore, I think that as long as this perception exists, we will be missing out on a great number of clever and brilliant, yet undiscovered, scientists hiding out there. Science literacy, learning, and culture will be kept locked away in its zoo exhibit unless we provide a deeper approach for people to connect with the subject.

Suffice to say, it is not enough to show the setup and results, the first and last chapters of the book. Rather, we need beef up our interactions with the general public by taking them on a journey to the results. In other words, we need to tell the story of the science. This brings us to what screenwriter Andrew Stanton calls “The Unifying Theory of 2 + 2”, which is to say, people want to work for their bread. As described by Stanton,

“We’re born problem solvers. We’re compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that’s what we do in real life. It’s this well-organized absence of information that draws us in…and it’s like a magnet. We can’t stop ourselves from wanting to complete the sentence and fill it in.”

Certainly,  it would be ridiculous to expect someone who has never deeply studied subject material that challenges researchers today to fill in the sentences that often still lack endings, but I think this concept highlights a need to fundamentally alter the way we teach and discuss science to non-scientists. For instance, I think we need to replace listing off facts and definitions with more experimentally-centered explanations about how certain concepts were discovered. This is after all, demonstrative of how scientists approach problems. Part of what makes good stories riveting is active engagement in figuring out what happens next. By describing science in this way, we can motivate interest. However, with all our technomumblejumble and sometimes showboating, we choke engagement through active learning and understanding. This robs our community and the larger non-science community. If, rather, we give people the chance to figure out solutions on their own, I think that they will be more likely to be inspired and thrilled with science, more likely to participate in science, and more likely to want to learn about science. We need to get them caught up in the plot.

Excitingly, there are many emerging ways of doing just that. Programs like our very own Calbug offer “citizen scientists” the opportunity to participate in ongoing scientific pursuits. Likewise, sites like Backyard Brains contain a slew of activities demonstrating important and interesting concepts for anyone to try out for themselves.  This is a fantastic start, but more work yet remains towards evolving the way in which we engage and educate the public. It is not enough just to say science is interesting. Of course, science IS interesting. Yet there so are many other things in the world which are just as compelling.  It’s how we discuss it, interact with it, and  learn about it that makes a subject accessible. This is an area in which, I humbly submit, science can, with a little help from storytelling, stand to reach a little higher.


“Storytelling…[is] knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal, and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understandings of who we are as human beings. We all love stories. We’re born for them. Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories. It can cross the barriers of time, past, present and future,and allow us to experience the similarities between ourselves and through others, real and imagined.” – Andrew Stanton