Science Is Bad News: Beyond Heroes and Headlines To Social Storytelling

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Katie Mack, an astrophysicist based in Melbourne, recently tweeted the above missive, which began an interesting conversation among science communication tweeps, and got me thinking about what exactly makes science so ill-fitted to the modern sensibility of story, and the 24-hour news cycle of mass media.

Amy is an undergraduate at my institution, studying psychology. I asked her recently if she would be participating in the Senior Symposium, a day for students to act like their academic mentors and present papers, senior theses, honors projects, and the like. Amy is going to talk about her independent study research in nueroaesthetics, specifically her experiments exploring whether young children’s brains are wired for consistency in aesthetic choices (do they tend to order random images the same way time after time, even with longer periods of time in between?) She has just begun the research, and on the symposium day she’ll still be analyzing her data.

Even when completed, her research is unlikely to spark a revolution. Amy’s contribution is interesting in the context of the wider field, especially in how it expands on the research interests of her advisor, who has been exploring the same theme with Alzheimer’s patients. But for a general audience? It seemed to Amy to defy any reasonable expectations the audience would have of how long science usually takes, and how dramatic any one scientists contribution usually is. I might suggest she use a prop, like a snapping Tesla coil, and break her presentation with maniacal laughter, but would even that be enough for the audience to lift their eyes from Farmville?

Heroes

Another tweep echoed Amy’s concerns in an odd intertextuality that characterized the day I spent thinking and writing out the first draft of this post:

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And here we have some of the core difficulties of science communication laid bare. Isaac Newton famously wrote way back in the 17th Century “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” He wasn’t kidding. The expression “to stand on the shoulders of giants” dates to the 12th century, and even then it was used to refer back to the ancient Greek and Roman scholars the medieval Europeans were trying desperately to hold on to. Newton wasn’t just standing on giants, he was standing on regular people too, from the earlier but less remembered explorers who provided some of the pieces he put together, to the assistants and students that helped him with everything from peeling apples to taking dictation.

But humans like their superheros. Our religions are filled with them. So are the histories we have been handed down. Written by rulers or their elites, they naturally reinforce the idea that it’s, essentially, they who move and shake the world. It’s not in their interest to do otherwise.

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The US subspecies, Homo Sapiens Capitalistus, remain particularly caught up in the Great Man TheoryWe worship the lone wolves, the last person standing, the underdogs fighting adversity against all odds, the great leader who started from nothing, and pulled himself up into greatness. I continue to use masculine pronouns because hero worship of this sort remains largely but not totally misogynistic. We have a political party that wants to base social policy on this tired 19th century meme. And the media loves it too. It’s one of the few story tropes their eyes and ears are still sensitive to. “That’s our hero shot,” Cristof said in The Truman Show, probably echoing a line spoken in every newsroom around the country, multiple times a day.

Part of the incompatibility between science, the audience it hopes to reach, and the media that carries the message, is that the hero story is even less appropriate for modern science than it was during Newton’s time (and it was inaccurate then, too.) The work of science in many fields has become so technical, complex and sophisticated that experiments often require many principle researchers and a supporting cast of many others, including fantastically powerful computers and billion-dollar installations. The days of Tesla tinkering in an garage that smells like motor oil and ozone, or rooms of women “computers” doing calculus full time to figure out moon-shot trajectories, are long over.

Astronomy remains a field in which individuals can make a discovery or take part in essential science without having a Large Hadron Collider in one’s back yard or a PhD to one’s name. But even then it’s particularly hard to frame a hero shot with your fingers. In 2008, 14 year old Caroline Moore discovered a supernova, a story which briefly grabbed the headlines. She was presented as a young hero, an intrepid explorer on the outer reaches of human knowledge, like the dude who jumped out of the weather balloon really high above the earth, except with a more common-sense risk horizon. It rang a bit hollow.

What was really remarkable about Caroline’s discovery was not her personal achievement, but rather how her discovery, named Supernova 2008ha, represented the maturity of a complex and informal research system made up of multiple components, of which Caroline was just a single (and decidedly determined, smart and young) part. Caroline found the supernova on a computer screen. The images she was inspecting were taken by four automated telescopes in a private observatory in Georgia owned and run by Tim Puckett, who also set up the data-sharing system that plugged people like Caroline into the game.

Caroline’s father nurtured her interest in astronomy. I would hope some of her school teachers could legitimately take some credit. And then there are the people who invented the robotic systems Tim Puckett used to automate his observatory. You see the point that Tom Forth was making above, and yet, can’t you also start to see a different, compelling story in all of this? Who are these people, other than clearly not professional astronomers, and how did they set up a system that can do cutting-edge research without a million dollar NSF grant?

Headlines

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Science is also a tough news sell because of the disproportional popularity of a rather rare event, the Eureka Effect (also known as the Aha! Moment). The bolt from the blue, the apple hitting Newton on the head, the light bulb over the dude in the white lab coat. As Katie points out, water seems to be discovered routinely on Mars, and each time it’s presented precisely within the framework of the Eureka moment. What’s really happening, and it’s likely happening on either side of the press conference, is that the real story, which is Scientists have found additional evidence supporting the hypothesis that Mars was once wet, is getting spun into something that reads like a 19th century tabloid article about gold being discovered in the Black Hills. Water on Mars! Mars Once Habitable!

It’s easy to see why this happens.

Just look at Hollywood movies; we like our resolutions fast and big, with lots of orchestral crescendoes. And explosions. Good heavens, the definition of a modern American science fiction movie is pretty much: an explosion that happens in the future. And real science isn’t anything like what you see in a future explosion film like Prometheus (Don’t get me started on that again.) If there is actual science happening on-screen, it’s often rushed. They need to get quickly to the explosions.

If the Mars Curiosity landing went according to a Hollywood script, the poor robot would have barely landed before it discovered chlorophyl (and it’s not just chlorphyl, sir, it’s showing signs of intelligence!) just moments before in turn the whole thing would get trashed by the Martian version of the Radish Spirit. This illustrates both the problems of modern Hollywood and the difficulty science has in communicating its comparatively logical and nuanced process to a general public seriously misled about not just how science works, but about the basic mechanics of reality.

And the real shame is that the actual story of the Mars Curiosity landing is so darned compelling. It’s sad that so many of us have lost our basic ability to be thrilled with reality. It’s sad that our media is so convinced of this fact that they don’t even bother trying. And it’s sad that our scientists have decided that Great Man Theory and the Eureka Effect are so ingrained in our collective psyches that they work hard to fit their work into those tropes. It keeps the grant dollars flowing.

Beyond

Katie wrote that it’s “hard to build a good story around work of thousands of years.” It may be hard, but it’s not impossible, and it might just be what science communicators need to start doing.

Interestingly, that’s what the recent film Cloud Atlas was trying to do; give the audience the sense of a story arc over many generations, itself just a piece of an overarching arc called human history. It succeeded and failed in various ways, but the attempt was praiseworthy. When one of the main characters is chided for a pointless sacrifice, a mere drop in the bucket, he retorts: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

Howard Zinn tried to recast American history as just such a multitude of drops, and his book A People’s History of the United States is a powerful example of how compelling social history can be. Zinn’s chapter on the Civil Rights movement, for example, provides a start contrast to the mainstream interpretation of the Civil Rights Movement, which is dominated by just two names: Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.

Zinn’s Civil Rights movement has a cast of thousands of regular people, all doing their part to build a movement monumental in its collectivity. Here’s an excerpt People’s History that will stay with me forever, a snippet of conversation between a young activist (his name was James Craword), a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and a voting registrar in Lee County, Georgia.

REGISTRAR: What do you want?

CRAWFORD: I brought this lady down to register.

REGISTRAR: (after giving the woman a card to fill out and sending her outside in the hall) Why did you bring this lady down here?

CRAWFORD: Because she wants to be a first class citizen like y’all.

REGISTRAR: Who are you to bring people down to register?

CRAWFORD: It’s my job.

REGISTRAR: Suppose you get two bullets in your head right now?

CRAWFORD: I got to die anyhow.

REGISTRAR: If I don’t do it, I can get somebody else to do it. (No reply)

REGISTRAR: Are you scared?

CRAWFORD: No.

REGISTRAR: Suppose somebody came in that door and shoot you in the back of the head right now. What would you do?

CRAWFORD: I couldn’t do nothing. If they shoot me in the back of the head there are people coming from all over the world.

REGISTRAR: What people?

CRAWFORD: The people I work for.

This is just one dramatic instant of thousands, probably millions, in the years of the Civil Rights Movement. Last year, when I visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC, I was disappointed, though not surprised, at the cult of personality, and I couldn’t help believing that Dr. King would have far preferred a Civil Rights Monument to that cartoonish statue of himself, something that would have paid more sober homage to the thousands of people like James Crawford who put their lives on the line. Most people don’t realize that Rosa Parks wasn’t acting alone, that she trained in civil disobedience, that the boycott was planned, the effort of many people, yes, but also normal people, not Gods or Ubermenschen, but people just like us.  Many drops of water making a tsunami.

One of Zinn’s points is that our history is diluted, it’s empowering strength sapped, when social movements are presented as the result of the efforts of a few great leaders. Obviously it’s safer for those in power that the general public not be too sure of its agency. Who does it serve to rob science of its similar potential to motivate the common person?

Science communicators would do well to consider Zinn’s commitment to the citizen-participant and the many modest people that make big things happen. This modes of storytelling is not boring at all, in fact, it’s at once powerful and empowering. It suggests that normal people can be contributing players in the process.

For inspiration on this point, I turn to novelist Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost, and the superb memoir, Running in the Family, among others. One of the aspects of Ondaatje’s writing that always fascinated me was the recurring theme of informal family. His novels often chronicle a small group of people, unlikely perhaps in their associations, who come together and have a powerful effect on one another. “But what did we really know, even of one another? We never thought of a future. Our small solar system – what was it heading towards? And how long would each of us mean something to the others?” he wrote in The English Patient.

When Michael Ondaatje visited a nearby college to give a talk, I was lucky enough to ask him a question, after basically telling him that I loved him. “In many of your novels, characters come together to form informal families, and these communities seem to be your real subjects. Is this a conscious decision of yours as a writer, or simply how you experience reality?” Or something like that. I won’t even try to quote his response.

But basically Mr. Ondaatje said it was a little of both. He wrote novels with strong protagonists, he said, but after a while it didn’t ring true to him any more. He felt that storytelling was social, history was social. He could have, but didn’t, quote Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham jail: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” I believe he even said that he didn’t think we needed stories with single protagonists anymore, that the solutions to our problems lie with each other, and that our stories need to speak to that. “We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience,” he wrote.

This focus on social storytelling is not exclusive to either literature or Mr. Ondaatje. It works on TV.  Joss Whedon has turned informal family into a long-form art, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Firefly. In fact a lot of modern TV storytelling seems to conjure these temporary autonomous zones where a variety of characters come together, sometimes to love, sometimes to torture, sometimes to assist, one another. The pleasure of these stories is just getting to hang out with the characters, and enjoy their enjoyment at hanging out with each other. I suspect the popularity and resonance of this kind of story appeals to a certain lack people sense in the societal reality around them.

Interestingly, Whedon tried a more hero-centric approach with his Buffy spinoff Angel, but after a season or so realized that what the series was lacking was the strong ensemble that he had always relied upon. He began to add characters and build that ensemble, and the show began to connect. Firefly, which only lasted one season, was remarkable for how quickly the ensemble cast gelled into a convincing informal family. We believed they had known another for a while, and the single first season looked convincingly like what most series achieve only later in their runs.

How can social storytelling work with science? I can’t say I’ve seen much of it. I’d like to. And I’d like to try it myself. But if Firefly can last only 13 episodes but generate a long-lasting fan base with enough clout and momentum to get a blockbuster-style theatrical film made, well, there is definitely potential here. Earlier on this bog I reviewed Space Brothers, a Japanese anime in the hard science fiction vein, that features an ensemble cast of astronaut trainees. It’s quite realistic, and compelling.

How would a more social form of storytelling effect NASA mission press conferences and academic papers? Many will chafe at the suggestion that the story of science be anything other than data. But what’s the advantage of placing that data within communal context in which it was collected and analyzed? It might just be more people down the road trying to join those communities.

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