Narratives in science

I’ve been asked to contribute to an EC whitepaper on the use of narratives to convey science, particularly with respect to the impact of digital tools and community engagement.
 

Here’s what I wrote for them. I had to keep it short because of their incredibly low word-count (800 words). I’ve incorporated thoughts on interdisciplinarity, digital tools and community engagement. Though there’s much more to say, I tried to at least touch on all the important and pertinent aspects that I could.

 

Any comments and thoughts most welcome – I’m going to meet at the EC next week.

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Everyone loves a good story. Whether it’s a well-crafted artful narrative or recounting a personal experience, the multiple layers within it and self-reflections of the listener/reader/experiencer increase engagement with the content on a cognitive and emotional level. Indeed narrative is often more compelling than facts, something that campaigners on the side of the data should remember when addressing emotive topics like vaccination and climate change.
 

How can society harness the power of narrative for science? There are the various means, some more traditional than others.  Communication of science by public lectures and the written word began with scientists themselves. But as the printing press brought journalism to the masses so science journalism began to carve a space for itself, and scientific ideas were made accessible to more people.
 

The growth of the narrative form in popular science writing was inevitable, and employed most often by professional writers supported by a small proportion of scientists. We also observe narrative form in public science lectures, most often performed by scientists to double as science communicators.
 

Aside from these “straight” forms of science communication, we must not neglect the more oblique modes by which scientific endeavours are introduced into popular culture. Visual art raises questions about science – take the bioethical questions raised by SymbioticA’s Tissue Culture and Art project as a well-known and challenging example – and opens the doors of science to the public mind. Poetry, science fiction, and science-informed fiction, are also powerful tools through which the public become aware of scientific processes. One should note that this is often this can be to detrimental effect – the oft-employed “Apocalyptic” narrative form for example.
 

These have been the mainstream forms of engaging the public with science. However, recent developments in technology have catalysed radical changes in information delivery in terms both of the volume and content available to, and generated by, the everyday person. Web 2.0 tools – blogging, forums, social media especially – alongside an explosion of connected technology worldwide, from 3G and 4G smartphones to SMS based information platforms and mesh networks in less well-connected areas, mean that everyone is empowered not just to consume content but also to create it.
 

Increased access to information of all varieties is fundamentally shifting culture to a more interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary form of engaging with the world. We are more open to cross-overs between concept and fact, driving us to think in a meta, contextual way. It is also shifting us away from text-based narratives to visual narratives, as engagement through images, including data visualisation, and video are the preferred medium in a digital environment [see also The Age of the Image by Stephen Apkon (Farrah, Strauss and Giroux, 2013).
 

Increased ability to generate content has also brought about fundamental shifts. In journalism for example, we have seen a remarkable increase in crowdsourcing for verification, research and story leads. Sites like Storify mean that anyone can easily create a story by curating social media input to fulfil a particular narrative.
 

Crowdsourcing also affects the sciences, and communication of science. Previously scientific research was the pursuit of a few, trained individuals. With the rise of citizen and DIY science, we see the practice of science leaking out of institutions and into the hands of the crowd. While this raises plenty of questions about ethics and scientific integrity it is an inexorable process and undoubtedly impacts on the scientific narrative by opening up a possibility of the public not only generating narratives for science, but of them generating both the science and the narrative.
 

If the aim is to promote public engagement with science, these processes should be encouraged. Promoting transdisciplinary goals can be achieved by providing funding (including travel grants to promote collaboration), training and outreach events such as festivals that amalgamate arts projects, science, and more, into non-delineated intellectual pursuits. Establishing an annual award for crowdsourced science journalism would be a groundbreaking way of encouraging the science media to interact with both the citizen/DIY science movements and the stories they generate. Similarly, I would suggest funding citizen/DIY science initiatives that have an outreach element, such as MadLab in Manchester.
 

Engaging particularly with data visualisation and video is also advised. Recently at New Scientist’s CultureLab I ran a Quantum Shorts film competition with Singapore’s Centre for Quantum Technology. We received a number of quality submissions with narrative structures around quantum science, and we had a high degree of engagement from the community. I would recommend an annual competition of this sort combined with a fund dedicated to setting up a video channel that both generates and curates/republishes excellent science video content, promoted by dedicated social media channels.
 

However, a note of caution must be added to these exciting possibilities. There are ethical considerations to employing narrative in communication of science. These centre on the sacrifice of fact in favour of a coherent narrative structure. The degree to which this is acceptable and accepted depends upon the medium and the author’s voice. To draw an example from another genre, in the Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown adopted an authoritative tone, referenced real places and keyed into a prevalent meme – the corrupted and obscured machinations of the church. The result was confusion on the part of the public, many of whom found it difficult to believe that the story was not largely factual.
 

Concerns for employing narrative in science communication cannot be ignored largely because of the serious implications should the dictates of the narrative form be obscured, and scientific information compromised. Digital media change traditional narrative forms and the way in which they do so is constantly evolving, for example increasing non-linearity in information delivery and its effect on prevalent narrative structures and memes. We need to understand more fully this process, and I would suggest that it is paramount that research into this is funded. Sociological research into the dynamics of upstream research processes is coming on leaps and bounds. I would suggest building on what we know of this process and funding a digital community led research project into the impact of digitisation on narratives around science.
 

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