25 November 2013

From Silent Spring to . . . Jaws? Using Stories to Communicate Science

Posted by oambrogio

By John Calderazzo

Rachel Carson. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Rachel Carson. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Guest blogger John Calderazzo, a nonfiction writer and Colorado State University English professor, explains how storytelling isn’t just for fiction anymore—it can help you communicate your science and bring it to life. This post is part of a series from Professor Calderazzo on the subject of science communication; he will also lead a panel/workshop at Fall Meeting this year on Sharing Science in Plain English.

Quick now, what’s the difference between these two sets of information?

The Queen died.
The King died.

Or:

The Queen died.
The King died of a broken heart.

Answer.  All the difference in the world!

The first contains data points that may or may not be connected in time.  The Royals are dead. Too bad . . . I guess.  But the second two sentences leap off the page with cause and effect, real consequence.  Maybe the King was a lousy ruler, but gosh, the big lug loved his wife so much he couldn’t go on.  Who can’t identify with that?

This dramatic contrast between bullet points and a story comes from the British novelist E.M. Forster.  But fiction isn’t the only kind of compelling, empathy-inducing story that we find in our lives–or in science, which is just packed with great tales waiting to be told.  So why not try to convey the content and the consequences of your research by using nonfiction stories, large or small?  It’s a great skill to have in your communication toolbox.

Rachel Carson had it.  In Silent Spring, that history-changing book, she does not start by mentioning DDT or chemistry.  Though trained as a marine biologist, she’s writing for the general public, not her colleagues.  So she opens with this: “There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.”  But then “a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change.”  Including, she adds, the health of children.

Thus, she draws us in with the ancient storytelling rhythms of the fable.  Only when we’re hooked and worried about the kids (and the puzzling silence of the fields) does she start laying in the science.  Scientist-writer to non-scientist reader, she stakes out common ground before introducing concepts like synthetic pesticides, chemical intake, etc.

Plus, the fable she employs here offers universal appeal.  A stranger comes to town, and then important things start to change.  Notice how the same story structure applies to some of the most wide-reaching narratives in human culture:  the wanderings of outsiders like Jesus and Buddha, the epic poem Beowulf, whose title character must battle the intruding monster Grendel.  Think also of pop culture blockbusters like the Alien movies (stranger in a guy’s chest!), ET (good stranger), Armageddon.  And oh, yeah, Jaws.

Such storytelling can powerfully convey science and make it personal.  Certainly, the ozone hole appeared to us on “village Earth” as a stranger that we had to deal with, even if we caused it.  The same for acid rain.  The same, nowadays and in myriad forms, for climate change.  The hidden bones of these stories are practically embedded in our DNA.

The point?  If it’s appropriate, try to tell or write a story about scientific inquiry bumping up against the unexpected, and, really, your audience will take it to heart.

— John Calderazzo is Professor of English at Colorado State University and co-director of Changing Climates @ CSU.