Science needs to take storytelling seriously

30 Jul 2018

Broom Bridge, Dublin. Image: Joaquin Ossorio Castillo/Shutterstock

Elaine Burke learns from a weekend surrounded by expert science communicators how storytelling can bridge our historic past and scientific future.

Science and storytelling are strange bedfellows. It’s hard, dispassionate fact versus fluid, evocative truth-stretching.

But as long as people have shared stories, they have done so to spread word of a community’s values and its expectations. A fable-inspired hero can stand up for what is deemed right and just, and be warned of the lurking dangers (though they may not be dragons).

There is certainly a place for scientific reason amid the values of a 21st-century society that values education, progress and technological advancement, but communicating those values takes more than research papers circulated among the elite group qualified enough to read them.

This month, Dublin hosted its fifth annual Festival of Curiosity and the first conference event in the series: Future/Story. The target audience was science communicators and factual storytellers, and the line-up included academics, TV producers, National Geographic explorers, puppeteers, virtual-reality experimenters and an Oscar-winning animator.

One of the day’s first speakers, Dr M Jackson, made the case that “human stories that are not packageable, that are not neat” are nonetheless important to share, even when it comes to communicating complex scientific issues.

A glaciologist, Jackson’s work is entwined with a contentious science-based topic the public is becoming more and more engaged with: climate change. But Jackson doesn’t see scientific reports inspiring the public to act on climate change. “I don’t see truth bridging to action,” she said. “Metrics don’t move us any more.”

Something that undeniably did spur the public consciousness to consider humanity’s environmental impact was a TV show that was cited multiple times by the storytellers at this event. Blue Planet, according to wildlife documentary producer John Murray, changed the game in his industry. Up to two years ago, he said, there was little to no interest in conservation stories from commissioning editors. Then came a series spending upwards of £1m per hour to produce, reaching 14m viewers in the UK alone and, in the final moments of its glorious seven-episode celebration of the beauty of marine life, they took on what Future/Story MC Dr Claire O’Connell dubbed “the plastic elephant in the room”.

As much as Blue Planet was hailed for its effective communication of an important message grounded in science, much derision was directed at other media that the general public voraciously absorbs. The Kardashians and Kylie Jenner were both name-dropped, and not favourably.

Thankfully, Dr Niamh Shaw – one of those all-time greats in science communication who has made a career of it – called out this snobbery in her on-stage chat with Helen Matsos, the producer of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Emmy-nominated chat show, StarTalk. Following on from Jackson’s observation that scientific truth is an ineffective bridge to public engagement, Shaw spoke about being the bridge herself, putting herself in the public eye to tap into the celebrity attraction we all know can reach people. “A win is if I get a feature in the Daily Mail or The Sun,” she explained.

Shaw sees this as an exercise in matching people’s values and, in doing so, she can remind them that “essentially, we are all curious”.

Later, a panel discussing ‘An Island of Creativity’ dodged a question on the reduction of history’s place in our secondary-school curriculum (blame it on time constraints), though the issues of building limitations and narrow views into education were addressed.

But, if we’re going to talk about storytelling, we cannot ignore the importance of history in that respect. Stories embedded in a past, narratives taking place over time, heroes we may have forgotten – these things can inspire and educate. O’Connell herself used the example of William Rowan Hamilton scratching the quaternion equation into the stone at Broom Bridge to open the day’s proceedings.

And, if we are talking about science, we are talking – in an ideal world – about progress. Progress should mean improvement. If we don’t know our past, how can we say our future will be any better?

In Ireland, it feels like storytelling runs in our veins. Our native language was enriched by the verbose tongue of the seanchaí. To recount an absorbing tale was a revered talent. Catherine McGuinness is someone who has that in spades.

During the Festival of Curiosity, I attended four walking tours that immersed me in the history of my home city and I am all the better for it. Did you know there are 350m-year-old shells visible in the sandstone of City Hall? And 400m-year-old sea creatures decorating the walls of the National Library buildings?

McGuinness, our tour guide, has a background in zoology but an evident passion for the past. For one of her entertaining tales, she credited a key custodian of Ireland’s science history, Mary Mulvihill, who confirmed that Copper Face Jack was indeed a real person who once lived in Dublin, thus inspiring McGuinness to find out more.

I frequently share the science history tidbits I’ve collected from storytellers such as McGuinness and Mulvihill. If I, too, am a science-communication bridge, then without history in my storytelling I would be at a huge disadvantage. There’s magic in the telling of Hamilton’s scribblings at Broom Bridge, or how the Trinity College railings connect to the father of seismology. And there’s importance to applying a modern lens to the retelling of Prof Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s overlooked achievements in astrophysics and the recognition of Dr James Barry’s trans identity.

As I was discovering fossils and other ancient structures across my fair city, we visited Wood Quay. These two words – especially if coupled with the name Sam Stephenson – often ring as an alarm bell to those who respect history and its preservation. For all his forward thinking in architecture, it was Stephenson who infamously poured concrete over the Wood Quay site to build the Dublin City Council civic offices, despite this being a rich area of archaeological discovery.

With “Wood Quay” ringing in my ears following the Future/Story presentations, my hope is that we will not pour concrete over our history and make it solid, static and impenetrable. History needs revisiting and revision. And storytelling needs these deeply rooted starting points so we can keep building bridges of communication.

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic