Narrating Science and Fear

The great narratives follow a formula, a common theme. We see this theme repeated from fairy tales through action movies. From Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark” all the way through the real stories of the 20th and 21st centuries. The conventional framing of the sinking of the Titanic follows this theme, as does the story of nuclear power.

This narrative is one of hubris, of gall. It is a story of challenging God and failing. It tells us the danger of trusting our own faulty creations and brains and over fate. It is a modern fairy tale, but a fairy tale of the old style. This is not a story of Prince Charming whisking us away to a castle with our singing rodents. No, this is a story of the dangers of disobeying one’s parents and the tragedies that come hence, a story of wandering too far into the woods and being captured by a wicked witch.

This narrative structure has power over us, all of us, whether we are blind to it or painfully aware. We absorb the moralizing stories from an early age. We internalize that we shouldn’t go into the woods alone, or try to fly too close to the sun. We learn that we shouldn’t build our ships too big and that our wondrous new source of power could kill us, slowly, horribly, in the end.

Every child is taught to fear the wicked witch, that old woman who lives alone at the end of the street. Every teen learns the perils of the beautiful ships of the men and their icy or fiery deaths. Every adult learns that Prince Charming has a habit of picking up peasant girls on the side and that Jack grew up and works in middle management in the employ of the giant and his Fortune 500 company.

So why, in this world soaked with warning and foreboding, do people still strive? In older times, there was a counterpoint narrative – the heroic epic. There were Odysseus and Beowulf, Columbus and Genghis Khan. There were heroes who succeeded – or failed – in glorious ways and for great goals.

We also have equivalent stories today. We have Luke Skywalker and John McClane. These are stories of hubris, but a different kind. These stories are about belief in one’s self, and belief in outside forces, Whether that force is a deity, love or, well, The Force.

These are beautiful stories, of heroism and competence, of overcoming limitations. For every story of a dark and dangerous forest warning one not to stray too far, there is another of a determined man making his way through that forest in service of his higher principle.

While these narratives can prove a helpful counterpoint against the warning tales, they are also problematic. These stories model that one can strive to be greater than their current place in the world if and only if they fulfill a condition. This condition is that they must be in service of a greater power.

This narrative element, that of higher service, doesn’t seem to have anything to do with science knowledge on the surface. After all, don’t we all like to imagine ourselves as pursuing a more noble calling? Whether we are sequencing Drosophilia genes or digging up dinosaurs, or writing about the efforts of others to do so, we are doing so in the pursuit of knowledge, right? Unfortunately, unless carefully used, this narrative plays right into the hands of those who are actively anti-intellectual. While the value of the pursuit of new information to add to the sum of human knowledge is obvious. Everyone working in the sciences understands the need for research that may not have immediate benefit, but will form the basis of other research in the future which may help us in unimagined ways.

The key phrase in that previous sentence was “everyone working in the sciences”. While people in the know are good at communicating their information to each other, they’re not so good at getting their message across to those outside of the sciences. This isn’t necessarily a problem of their own. There is a previous framework that they must fight against before they can even begin to show the importance of the scientific endeavor in general. This is the framework of the higher purpose. The cultural baggage of portraying scientists as the self-serving villains or hapless centerpieces of the warning narrative runs deep. We read the romantics in school – the warnings of Shelley and Hawthorne. We learn about the Manhattan project. We watch countless B movies from the 50s and 60s where the scientist unleashes hell on earth through his studies.

The collected marginalia of our culture underlines the industrious scientist and says “here is the villain” or “here is where he went wrong.” Even our current cultural intellectual obsessions highlight this point. The Collapse of Jared Diamond’s hypothesis is that society strove to do too much in too little space and abandoned the harmony in which they used to live. The warnings about the internet changing the brains of young people are the collective fear of the new and unfamiliar fruits of technology. The yearning for a more “natural” way of eating of the Paleodiet and the “chemical-free” nonsense is a push-back against a world where understanding benefits requires a more in-depth and specialized knowledge than the ability to point to a plant and say “if you eat this, you will die”.

People want to understand. They really do. Even those who tout the power of ignorance do so because it is easier to understand a world defined by a lack of knowledge or by rules from on high. The idea that something is good because my ancestors did this and my gut tells me so is a much easier rule than searching through fifty studies on the effects of caffeine on the body and determining the costs and benefits.

On top of the ease of ignorance, the narrative arc that we so desperately cling to also tells us to trust the gut, trust the traditions, listen to our parents. There is no traditional narrative to evaluating evidence to find the best course. Even the stories of the great scientists are simplified into leaps of faith and moments of decision rather than the slow accumulation of bits of knowledge into a coherent idea. Think about Newton, what is he known for? By society, I mean, not by scientists. If you asked someone in a coffee shop about Newton, the first thing that they would likely mention would be the story of the apple, the gut instinct or the insight literally falling from above, not the careful thinking that made the insight possible or translatable.

Why is this all important? Why do we care about narrative ideas and cultural baggage? After all, we, as scientists or the interested public, know that science is important. We know that the careful thinking, the seemingly irrelevant studies, the wrong turns and occasional disasters are important to the way every person on this planet lives their life. We see the future gains that outweigh the temporary setbacks. We are the toddlers who can resist grabbing the cookies in front of us long enough to gain the greater rewards later. We’re even probably pretty good at communicating these ideas, at least among ourselves and a few open-minded outsiders.

We tell ourselves that we can continue chipping away at the biases person by person, and we can. We may not reach a large audience individually, but exposing those around us one by one can slowly create a sort of herd immunity to the distrust of new ideas and careful analysis. This is a worthwhile goal and one that we should continue to pursue. The popular format of research blogging papers is an important piece of that. By explaining, carefully, small pieces of the scientific canon, we slowly and subtly give people the tools to analyze the other bits of science that filter into their world, whether through the dubious claims of Dr. Oz or the New York Times’ science page.

That way is useful, but there is another way that seems to be emerging and even more effective. We can use the heroic narrative to communicate that the sciences do fit in with the traditional idea of a good and worthy pursuit, and not just as the villains or warning character. In order to do so, we have to understand the narrative of the culture in which we are working. We have to first of all acknowledge that the traditional storytelling has a tendency to demonize the work we’re doing. We need to write stories like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Emperor of all Maladies, which take the methodical understanding at which scientists excel and write those pieces into the narrative format that resonates, a larger audience starts to open up.

The recent explosion of longform, narrative explanations of science and scientists is the best thing that can happen for an understanding of science in the larger public. It brings us into the fold of cultural striving. It opens up the woods as a valid place to explore rather than just the abode of the wicked witch. It gives you a method to not only disobey your parents safely, but to systematically and carefully test what of our ancestor’s collective wisdom is good and what needs to be supplanted with new understandings. It allows us to see past the tragedies of melting wings and sinking ships and see how those, as horrible as they are, add to the collective knowledge as well. Rather than forbidding each person’s desire to fly closer to the sun, science, with the backing of good storytelling, shows us how to do it in a way that will let us all soar.

Science Communication, Museums and Teaching with Respect

In many ways, the museum environment is very similar to the science communication community online. In the hallway where my office is located, we also have the staff of the Children’s Museum, the Natural History and Science staff, School Programs and the rest of my department – Public Education. Off the top of my head, the knowledge base represented includes, but is not limited to:

Biology, Environmental studies, Civil war history/reenactment, Jewish history in the Civil War, Some sort of geology that is not invertebrate paleontology, theater, early childhood education, North American archaeology, biological anthropology, art history, fine arts, forensic anthropology, physics and people with no formal education but years of experience in museums/raising children. (In this list, I’m leaving out the history museum staff, not because they aren’t a group of fantastically educated and helpful people, but because I can’t shout at them down the hall.)

This variety of disciplines and knowledge has the obvious effect of making sure there is always someone who knows the answer to a question, or at least has the book on their desk that can point to an answer. This is useful, particularly in a field that has no standards or tests to teach to. It means that when a visitor asks me what people did with dead horses on riverboats (while I was teaching a program on horse evolution, no less), if I don’t know the answer I can call someone and ask. The diverse knowledge means that we can serve as a learning institution much more effectively than we could if we just had natural history people working in the natural history museum.

However, it also has a less-obvious and equally important effect.

It means that, in the course of my day, I am always explaining things to people who have absolutely no background in a subject, but whom I have deep respect for.

As I’ve touched on in earlier posts, it’s all too easy to assume that because you have knowledge in a subject that A) everyone else has that knowledge and/or B) that those without that knowledge are idiots. We as science communicators or museum educators or researchers start with the idea that not only does everyone know the basic ideas of our field, but that everyone should know the basic ideas of our field, no excuses.

This assumption is easy to run with. In an academic world you tend to be surrounded by people who know the things that you do. They may not have the same depth of knowledge, but they at least have the same foundation. They share the language and jargon of the field. This is what you want in a lab, but it definitely makes communicating across disciplines more difficult. Because each and every discipline has their own language, it can make people in other fields seem woefully out of touch with this super exciting and important knowledge(!!!) in your field.

In the museum we don’t have that shared background, which means that even if we are working on a program on the same topic, we come at it from all different directions. We’re all working on programs related to Pompeii at the moment, but with different subjects I’m working on a program on food culture in the ancient world, someone else is looking at volcanos in geology, someone else is writing about physical evidence of past life (I believe they’re comparing fossil casts to the ash body cavities), etc. We always share ideas about our programs, but in this particular case it has been interesting both observing and participating in the discussion. None of us actually have any background in this subject. I have a minor in classics and there’s one person who studied art history and looked at art in Pompeii, but that’s as close as it gets to any real knowledge base.  Instead, we’ve all been frantically researching, each in our own way, in order to bring ourselves up to speed.

Because we’re all approaching it from different topics. Trying to explain a pyroclastic flow to an art historian or food symbolism in the mosaics to a geologist is equally fraught. If, for instance, one of the geologists was explaining what happened when Vesuvius erupted to another geologist they would use a shorthand of shared volcano knowledge. If you’re explaining it to an art historian it’s not so easy. You have to actually stop and think “Okay, do they know how volcanoes are formed? Do they even know what a stratovolcano is? How do I explain that a pyroclastic flow is actually a gas and not lava?” It means you have to stop and carefully think through your information in order to make sure you’re correctly communicating a concept. Also, if you act condescending because they don’t know the information, they’re going to immediately call you on it and then tell you something you don’t know from their field that makes you look equally ignorant. You may have a different background, but both of your knowledge sets are worthy of respect.

This is a bit of a pain when you just really, really want to share some really cool and obscure fact of geology you just learned and are met with a completely blank look. However, it’s invaluable when you’re actually communicating to visitors and other non-museum people. You’ve already gone through the process of carefully pulling out the information you need to communicate without talking down to someone. Not only do you now have a better idea of what the visitor is going to want to know, but you will be unconsciously approaching them with the same respect with which you approached your colleague. That respect will show through to the non-specialist, even if you aren’t aware of it.

In science communication community there is a similar effect. We are all deeply knowledgeable individuals, and we are all deeply curious individuals. However, we can’t assume that everyone, in spite of their curiosity, will know the basic information upon which we are building. So we need to step back and take a minute to think about what other people know. We need to carefully compose our message so that not only are they getting the new and interesting information, but they also getting the foundation on which to place that information.

This, I believe, is the real strength of this community. The very act of dissecting our knowledge in order to share it with others both gives us a deeper understanding of our own field and strengthens our ability to communicate with everyone at whatever level we need to meet them.

This post was partially inspired by Ed Yong’s fantastic On jargon, and why it matters in science writing and partially by a long discussion with my coworkers about how we learn and teach information in areas that aren’t our specialty.

See also this excellent post on how scientists need to learn how to communicate to other scientists Dude, you are speaking Romulan.

Relearning the “Beautiful Basics” of Science

(This post is inspired by Bora Zivkovic’s excellent post on Circadian Clocks without DNA which reminded me just how much I still need to learn and how exciting that can be when learning from the right writer.)

I have a pile of favorite popular science books as long as my arm. Literally. I measured it the last time I had them all in one place. (Currently they’re mostly on loan to various people who absolutely *needed* to read them.) This list reads like a who’s who of scientists and writers. It runs from Carl Sagan, who was my first favorite science writer when I was 13, to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which I read last year and have been obsessively throwing at people since then. (Where can I get a button that says “Ask me why HeLa is relevant to YOU!”)

However, my favorite popular science book of all is one that I initially resisted reading. It’s a book I bought for my father, who is a brilliant man and a voracious consumer of science writing, but doesn’t have that much of a formal science education. He knows more about different scientific fields than most people, but he hasn’t had a basic science class since he was in high school and that some of those basics are either completely different or were never thoroughly explained to start with.

This has lead to many, many strange dinnertime conversations, where he asks my brother, sister and I question after question about some subject he’s just read about, or where he reads a passage from a book that he finds particularly fascinating and we go “Well, yeah. That’s cool, here’s what’s really happening….” At least one of us usually knows what he’s talking about already. We have a weirdly diverse range of knowledge for three children raised together and following similar educational paths.

That brings me to the book that now has pride of place at the top of my science books to lend to people. That books is The Canon by Natalie Angier. I had seen it on bookshelves repeatedly when it came out, but brushed it off as not intended for an audience in my demographic. When I read “A whirligig tour of the beautiful basics of science” I assumed it would be so far below my knowledge level that I would read a chapter, become bored and put it aside. I did this for six months before actually picking it up.

So what made me change my mind? Well, I had just lent my father Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Sean B. Carroll’s fascinating and fairly basic book on evo devo.  I had read this book and thought it was perfectly written and expressed, so of course I wanted others to read it. Dad read through it over the course of several months, interspersed with questions about details and concepts that I had never really considered that he wouldn’t know already. The same thing happened with other people who read Endless Forms.

After having several of these conversations, while wandering through the bookstore, I gave The Canon another look. I had read a good review of it somewhere and it occurred to me that it might be the answer to a lot of Dad’s questions. I bought it for him for his birthday and forgot about it.

Then something amazing happened. It was around Christmas time when my siblings and I were all at home. Dad pulled out the book he was reading and started with “Did you know this? This is fascinating!” and then he read a section from The Canon about static electricity. I had only been half paying attention, when suddenly I realized that I was actually learning something I had never known before.

I knew in a basic idea how static electricity works, and could even probably have explained it if called on by a museum visitor to do so. However, I had never thought about it in depth This was so cool! How come I had never thought about it before? I expressed this idea to my family and while Dad agreed with me, my high school brother rolled his eyes and expressed disbelief that this was new to us.

Wait, wasn’t that what I had been doing to everyone else? Assuming that they knew the basics and that those basics weren’t particularly exciting, because, of course everyone knew them already. Get to the new and interesting things already!

This was a huge breakthrough for me. It made me realize I had been missing one of the best opportunities to get people excited. Tell them the basics and tell them in a way that is interesting enough that they can then take and explain to others. That wasn’t necessarily new – after all, I had been using the various descriptions of the length of geologic time as party facts for years, but that tendency hadn’t been expanded to other fields or other situations.

So I picked up The Canon, read it, not only learned things I hadn’t previously known about the world around me, but also learned what I didn’t know. This book managed to not only teach me facts, but open my mind to other concepts out there that I wasn’t previously aware of and that I then needed to pursue. More than that, it taught me that teaching the basics doesn’t boring and learning the basics is one of the exciting things one can do, as long as they’re taught in the right way.

This is a lesson that all science communicators could learn. Just because something’s old hat to you, it can still be new and exciting to everyone else. We just need to take care to present it in that way!

Elements of an Effective Public Education Toolkit

The world of a museum educator is a fly by the seat of your pants endeavour. No matter how much education and experience you have in one field, the museum visitors to whom you talk aren’t going to stick to that field. You could be innocently talking about calcium formations in caves when Bam! Out of nowhere you’ll be asked about the use of caves for shelter, food storage and black powder production in the civil war. And that’s the most relevant question you’ll get. Most of them will be more along the lines of “So, what do you think about von Däniken’s ideas about aliens?” or “I heard that Jesus was actually born in a cave, not a barn” or “Batman lives in a cave! There are BATS! Are you Batgirl?” (Usually the last is from a five year old who will then go on to ask you a complicated question about adaptations to bat senses which allow them to live in caves.

Sometimes you’ll have an answer. Strangely, I’m probably better equipped to answer most Biblical literalism questions than most creationists. Sometimes there is no good answer and you’ll be left thinking. Von Däniken, really? Did they really just quote Chariots of the Gods at me? Really?

However, there will always be a question that is perfectly valid and pretty interesting. The moment they ask, you’ll wish you knew the answer. Partially for knowledge, but partially to reward the visitor for asking such a good question. But you won’t know the answer. And that’s okay.

The most important tool in a science communicator’s arsenal is the ability to say “I don’t know, but here’s where you can find out” or some variation on that. It’s also one of the most difficult things to learn how to say. My colleagues at the museum are a group of highly educated, fairly young professionals who have ended up here through a wide variety of paths. They know their fields backwards and forwards, and are usually pretty good at speaking with the public about them. However, they are mostly young enough that their primary method of learning and reporting has been as the student part of a student-teacher relationship.

This has a huge impact on the way they present information. They are used to working in a very narrow field with people who are actual experts in said field. They never really heard “I don’t know” coming from their professors, so they don’t immediately consider that a valid answer.

Instead, they will treat a visitor’s question in the same way they treat an essay exam – as if they have to give some answer, no matter how tangential or speculative. The ability to say “I don’t know” has never been an acceptable answer in their life before, so why should it be now?

This is a problem, and one I see repeatedly among young educators and communicators. They know that their position has changed from a theoretical position, but they haven’t made the transition to “expert” from “student”. They don’t quite realize that everything they say while on the museum floor is going to be approached by the visitor as gospel truth. They are “the authority” according to the people who walk through our doors.

To highlight this idea, I have to tell a story that one of my friends told me. When I first started at this museum, my friend Cel was in art school. Now Celia is truly a renaissance woman, who aside from being talented in art, is also an incredibly logical thinker and absorbs knowledge like a sponge. Unfortunately for her friends who don’t quite share that ability, she also has deadpan delivery of the most ridiculous statements down pat. While she was at art school she managed to convince several of her roommates that there were “giant, human-sized preying mantises” that lived in the sewers of New York. The evidence that she used to support this was that “her friend who worked in a museum” told her it was true.

This story is interesting from a couple points of view. First of all, the fact that she assumed that they would immediately know it was ridiculous because of course human-sized praying mantises couldn’t exist. Non-aquatic invertebrates just don’t get to that size! Those of us with even the smallest background in sciences generally take it for granted that people outside of the field will know these basic facts, when that is just not true. The second interesting idea is that they accepted that of course the girl who worked in a museum was a valid authority, not knowing anything about me. Heck, I could have been working at a modern art museum for all they knew.

I bring up that story because it’s one that has stuck with me since it was told to me. I have always had a tendency to use sarcasm and humor to get my point across. If I considered something a ridiculous question, then I would answer in kind*. Or if a question was out of my realm of knowledge, I would speculate based on half-remembered facts and concepts. I shudder now to look back at the things that 18 year old me told people because I didn’t know that there was a better answer. Things that those people might still believe and be telling others.

It took me years to be able to honestly say “I don’t know the answer to that question” gracefully and without embarrassment, and it’s the single biggest accomplishment in my ability to explain the intricacies of the world at a basic and intelligible level. It also took me years to be able to not assume that concepts that were basic to me (laws of superposition, natural selection, etc.) were not basic to people who had studied something other than a hard science, or to people who had spent their lives learning how to run a business or do a trade. However, that didn’t mean that they were dumb or not interested. It just meant that those ideas had never come up.

My current ability to explain at an effective level owes much to my ability to switch between a student role and a teacher role. In the student role I am a researcher, learning from other people and from the world itself. I’m always trying to expand my breadth of knowledge in order to be able to answer whatever question is thrown at me. In the teacher role, I am conscious that what I am saying may not be interpreted in the way I was saying it, and that making up something or using a silly answer to bunt a question so that I don’t look ignorant isn’t the most effective way to create a more knowledgeable population. Admitting ignorance and then giving them the tools to find the answer themselves will be much more effective in the long run.

My Public Education Toolkit

1. Explain things from a position of knowledge, but don’t go beyond that knowledge without checking your facts. If you can give someone an idea of where to look for an answer to their question, then you’re not failing them by saying “I don’t know.” In fact, you’re probably engaging them further in their own process of learning than you would if you just spouted out a fact.

2. Explain things at a basic level, but not in a way that is talking down at the visitor, particularly if you’re speaking to a group. One-on-one you have an opportunity to ask specific questions to find out their knowledge level. In a group, you don’t have that ability. My favorite method for this is to engage the children in the group in a Q and A. If you get them to explain things, then the adults feel good that their children are smart, plus they’re probably learning along with the kids.

Both Radiolab and Science Friday on public radio provide great examples of how to explain complicated concepts on a layperson-friendly level. Also, I’ve been repeatedly known to steal wholesale from Carl Zimmer’s explanations (with citation!) when talking to visitors. If you find an explanation that works, don’t be afraid to use it! Chances are, your visitors don’t read science blogs or popular science literature. And if they do, then they’ll recognize and be able to engage with you on that level!

3. Humor/sarcasm can be used, but it has to be used carefully. If you make a visitor feel bad about what they don’t know, then you’ve lost all ability to communicate with them. If you make them feel like they’re in on the joke, then you’ll probably be able to engage them on a more in-depth level, and they’ll probably go away from the discussion remembering the humor and therefore the concept.


*E.G.: to the question “You know how St. Peter said ‘and on this rock you will build my church?’ Well, I was wondering what kind of rock that was.” my instinctive answer was “Pumice. Because it’s holey”. However, the visitor was asking a serious, if misinformed on many levels, question. And by answering in a serious way, I might have helped him at least straighten out the question he was asking in a way that wouldn’t have happened if I had given the humorous answer.