Narrative: friend to engagement, foe to science?

When a soldier known only as Patient 39 awakes from a coma with no memory, so begins the search to discover his identity and past.

This is the teaser for a short film, Patient 39, which I am currently working on. As part of my involvement I have been speaking to our science consultant, Professor Andrew Lees. Andrew is currently writing a blog post about what it is like to be scientific consultant, working with people who take a more creative rather than clinical approach to specific area of science. I posed some questions to Andrew to get him thinking about this. However, it also sparked some thoughts in me.

I have been thinking about the role of scientific accuracy in narrative, both in fiction and non-fiction broadcast media. Do we, in creating narratives, distort science?

Science in fiction

I believe that people allow fiction a little leeway when it comes to scientific accuracy, as long as there is no glaring obvious errors/hideously inaccurate science. Dr Stu Clark recently advised the Royal Shakespeare Company on an adaptation of ‘Life of Galileo’ by Bertolt Brecht. Speaking on the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast, he summed up the how accurate scientific information should be in fiction (even fiction based on true events):

“I think that where the great value of plays and literature and films can come into this is that they can make a real emotional connection between the audience and the scientists, and the science even, that’s being discussed… I think that you have to accept that in the dramatization process there will be a certain blurring of the facts, and the truth if you like. But if the production remains true to the values of what was being discussed in the science then I think that’s fine.”

It’s something that Writer/Director of Patient 39, Dan Clifton, has recently written about for the Royal Institution’s Ri Channel. He writes that, although historical and scientific accuracy is important, the film is fiction. “[The] period or scientific details should be broadly true – getting that stuff wrong is distracting and takes you out of the story, removing the focus from the characters. But unlike in a documentary, the weight of the piece lies in a different kind of truth and I hope that it is at that level that audiences will receive the film.”

Science in non-fiction

But what about science documentaries where the focus, as Dan writes in his blog, is often more of the scientific content rather than the human characters behind them. What is scientific fact and scientific fiction?

As in fiction, narrative is key to communicating science in non-fiction. But in generating compelling narratives, do we sometimes distort science and scientific information? This is something that David Ng explored in a post after a session at the Science Online conference that recently took place.

For instance, when using more creative methods, perhaps one will inadvertently dilute, distort, or even get the “truth” or the science wrong. Or maybe it’s not even a case of being scientifically sloppy, but rather one paints a slanted version of science culture by consistently focusing on the stuff that is deem interesting, strange, entertaining, or dramatic – we leave out the boring bits, which arguably present a more accurate portrait of science. As well, a lot of the science used to capture interest, might not be the sort of science that is quote-unquote “important,” or at least important in terms of civics and public good… in the discussion.

This quote (whilst implying that science is ‘pure’ and maintaining this purity is the main problem in communicating it, which is slightly problematic…) highlights the ways in which scientific content can be used to put together stories.

This has been the subject of a lot of discussion in relation to natural history documentaries and dramas recently, after a post by Cristina Russo on PLOS blogs’ Sci-ed blog.

I recommend reading Jason Goldman’s storify of the twitter discussion that followed the post.

However, it’s not the obvious ‘cherry-picking’ of scientific facts to suit a predetermined narrative and clever editing to cut out ‘less interesting’ bits that had got me really thinking.

Recently, I gave an introduction to Science Communication talk to Communication Design MA students at Central St Martins. After the talk I spoke with a group of students who are currently working with researchers at Kings College, London, to design and produce a project that will communicate their research on the neurology of zebrafish.

There was one thing from that discussion that has stuck in my head. There had apparently been a small sticking point when the students and researchers were talking about how to communicate the possible future applications of the researchers’ work. Although both were on the same page about the fact that the research could have serious application in the treatment of neurological disease, the terminology left the two parties seeing at odds.  Whereas the scientists spoke of the future applications with caveats, ‘it may be possible’ and so on, the designers used distinctly different words.  They referred to the possible future applications as fictions because they are not real today; a different use of fiction than is used everyday. This understandably caused some friction.

Regardless of the debate about the use of terminology (and how this affects collaborations), it did make me think about the construction of narratives in documentary making. When scientists report on their work they do so in scientific papers that outlines their processes and the limitations of their work. This is often lost when communicating science – many people would not appreciate the ifs, buts and maybes of science. But more importantly, when constructing many narratives we often talk about the future applications of research with a certainty that may lead to inaccurate assumptions about how and when those applications might happen.

It may seem like a minor point, but it’s an important one. A compelling narrative is essential to engage an audience – but we must accept that it almost certainly will generate a different view of the science being discussed than researchers or other people who have communicated it have had before. However, being more aware of how the choices we make in generating our stories lead to these changes will help.

Narrative, friend to engagement, but foe to science? I think not, but as communicators of science, we have to be careful.

6 thoughts on “Narrative: friend to engagement, foe to science?

  1. Thought provoking post! I have often wondered whether part of the challenges facing science communication have to do with the fact that we are trained not to communicate it in a narrative way. When communicating most other things, we are inclined to tell a story– of one sort or another. Oral narrative has such a long history in human development, and telling stories is something that we humans naturally do. But at risk of distorting science, we describe things in a different way. I don’t have any solutions, really, but I do wonder whether the lack of narrative is why some people find it difficult to respond to science or engage with it in a real way. But the plethora of medical dramas, natural disaster movies, etc show that it’s not that it’s boring– but that when framed by a particular sort of narrative, it can be universally engaging…

  2. In my sheets I often quote Stuart Kaufmann:

    Surely story is not the stuff of science. I’m not so sure. Story is the natural way we autonomous agents talk about our raw getting on with it, mucking through, making a living. If story is not the stuff of science yet is about how we get on with making our ever-changing livings, then science, not story, must change. ….

    To me that is sufficient to answer your questions 🙂

  3. Hi Lizzie! Wonderful post 🙂

    My musings….

    What do we really mean by “accuracy” in a narrative containing a scientific dimension? Does it only mean scientific accuracy – a rigid adherence to technical procedure mediated by experts? What about narrative accuracy – the structural commonalities of story that resonate with human narrative cognition? Or even cultural accuracy – communication that chimes with our societal outlook and aspirations? What might such “accuracy” look like, and who measures it?

    I think the most valuable scientific narratives embrace a wider concept of truth, rather than being bogged down with the semantics of accuracy. The communication of ‘truth’ in culture – values, ethics and feelings – have influenced our society for millennia. For me, a fixation with what science *does* can narratively miss the point of what science *means* as a valuable cultural artefact. ‘Does’ and ‘mean’ exist at different cultural levels – equally true and valid in themselves, but not fully commensurable in narrative. For me, there is no hierarchical relationship in narrative based upon the supremacy of “fact” over “meaning”.

  4. the fact that we can’t agree on what ‘accurate’ means worries me. Science is measured, so accuracy has a specific meaning.

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