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Science and Stories

Michael D. Jones is an associate professor at Oregon State University's School of Public Policy. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Oklahoma. His research focuses on the role and influence of narrative in public policy processes, outcomes and scientific communication. I asked him some questions about the relationship between science and narrative.

1. How can we acknowledge the uncertainty of science and still use the knowledge it provides as a basis for our policy decisions?

This is a difficult problem. On the one hand, to be true to the craft of science, one must acknowledge the uncertainty. On the other hand it is well-documented in the literature that interests often use that same uncertainty as a wedge to generate doubt, which is quite disingenuous when those findings have very high levels of agreement.

Personally, I would recommend words and phrases that reflect the actual levels of scientific agreement (e.g., most, some, almost all, etc.). Others I have spoken with who are concerned with science communication advocate simply ignoring uncertainty—if you are confident about the science.

Their reasoning is that the interests mentioned above will almost certainly exaggerate the uncertainty, so the point will not be lost in the debate, especially if the issue in question is already highly politicized.

2. You say, “the primary means by which human beings order their social reality is through narrative.” Why do you think this is, and how should science impact the way laypeople experience and describe their lives?

We think this claim has a high degree of what we call “face validity.” That is, when making the claim, most folks simply nod in agreement because they tell stories and actively recall information in story form. It is also well supported in several academic literatures that narrative is important in both how we communicate and how we understand the world. The only real questions about the claim involve “how often?”, “how much does it matter?” and “when?” In short, I don’t think it is a controversial claim at all.

Additionally, we think having a concept that more closely approximates what people do is superior to using abstractions that are a few stages removed from their behavior such as frames or memes, etc., which also have large supporting academic literatures. In short, narrative translates well into what people actually do.

3. Do you think the fact that people make decisions and process information based on personal beliefs and emotional understandings of the world is distancing people from reality?

No. I think reality is derivative of our emotional understandings, which then constitutes what you might call personal beliefs. This is supported quite well in the academic literature as well (see for example the work of Taber and Lodge at Stony Brook). The short of it is that we do not process information in a vacuum and have to actively determine what incoming information means. How do we do that? We use emotions (or affect in academic parlance) which are essential to situating incoming information within our life worlds.

A favorite example I often give in my lectures is that of a donkey placed equidistant between a carrot and an apple; the ass would starve to death without affect (I believe this comes from Dimaggio, but I am not 100% certain). We, as human beings need affect, so the important part for science communicators to understand here is that people will experience incoming information differentially based on their emotional understanding of it.

So, you need to understand where their emotional interpretation is coming from, which means that folks will have different takes of what parts of the world matter, but these differences are not random. People lean on the groups they belong to, the people they trust, love, etc. to help them make sense of the world.

4. You suggest that being a storyteller means to connect with people on a more human level in terms of what matters to them. Is this a step toward, or away from truth and how so?

Without getting into deep discussions of ontology and epistemology, it is probably safe to say that there is reality out there, it exists independent of humans, and that it isn’t all in our heads: gravity exists, rocks are hard, and when you run into a wall it hurts, etc. But what all of those things “mean” varies. It is that meaning, supplied via emotions embedded in narratives, that constitute what people understand to be the truth.

If you want to bring new information or relationships to people’s attention so that they share your understanding of it (as scientists often want to do), you also need to understand where they are coming from. You need to bring how you understand reality closer to theirs. This is really the fundamental problem of science communication.

Think of it this way: There is a “true” world out there, but it is always interpreted through our senses and emotions. We tell stories to make sense of it. Those stories vary quite a bit, but not infinitely nor randomly.

5. Are there pros and cons to “emotionless objectively sterile information.”

Absolutely. If you try to communicate in what might be termed “objective” or in a neutral fashion, you are essentially letting the emotions of that information be assigned strictly by the personal biases of the individual. You are consequently providing no emotional guidance. If the community you are communicating with is predisposed to reject it, or interpret it in a way that downplays its significance, then your message will bounce off a cultural shield of sorts.

On the other hand, if you tell a compelling story, loaded with affect, you most certainly risk coming across as an advocate. For scientists in particular this can be a HUGE problem, as it damages their legitimacy. I tend to think this makes the role of science communicators, like science writers such as Dan Vergano at Buzzfeed, critical. They have a little more leeway than point source scientists in terms of affectively structuring information and still maintaining their legitimacy.

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