Science is stuck living in a narrative world ...
The Long History of Narrative: Gilgawho?
Raise your hand if you know who Gilgamesh was. This is another demonstration I do with groups of scientists, and again, I'm no better than any of them. I had no clue who Gilgamesh was until a few months ago when I began writing this book — such are the holes in my humanities education.
Gilgamesh is pretty much where the entire concept of narrative begins. His story is humanity's first story, and is the birth of literature. He was a great and mighty leader 4,000 years ago who supposedly ruled Mesopotamia for 126 years. Early storytellers carved his epic tale on stone tablets. After Gilgamesh, the rest is literally history as we became a "storytelling animal," which happens to be the title of a nice book by Jonathan Gottschall published in 2013. Gottschall makes the point that story (or narrative if you prefer) pervades every aspect of our lives today.
From Gilgamesh we jump 2,000 years to the next major story milestone, namely, Aristotle and the Greeks. Aristotle realized that stories have a distinct structure. In the Poetics he talked about the structure of plays and stories. He broke them into five basic parts. The opening he called prologue, the ending he called exodus, and in the middle he described a series of repeating cycles, each consisting of three parts — parados, episode and stasimon. Even today, when we think of a story, we often talk about the middle part being "episodic."
Now here is the major revelation in thinking about storytelling in science. What are the major parts of a scientific project? You start by gathering background knowledge (introduction), then you repeat cycles of posing and testing hypotheses (methods and results), until finally you discover an answer. At that point you pull it all together with a discussion.
Take a look at those two structures side by side in figure 5. This is the first example of the point I will hit on repeatedly: "Dude, it's all the same story" — which is what my Connection coauthor Dorie Barton began saying to me in our workshops as we discussed story structure. Initially the scientist in me bristled at this suggestion — surely there are many, many types of stories. But these days I find myself pretty much in agreement with her and hope you will as well. This stuff really does come down to the same core structure.
The structure that underpins a story, of course, radiated into all sorts of variations over time. There are so many seemingly different types of stories — romance, horror, comedy, fantasy and more. If you choose to do so you can get lost in the infinite complexity of them. Similarly, you can get lost in the infinite complexity of biological diversity — marveling at everything from the bizarre shape of a guitarfish to the roiling, hydra-like living ball of spaghetti that is a basket starfish. You can sit there and marvel, saying, "Wow, each creature is so different from the next — there is so much complexity in the various species of life!"
And yet ... dude, at the core, their DNA is telling the same story. Their genomes track back to the same original primal sequences of base pairs. You can choose to focus on the mesmerizing complexity, or you can seek the simplicity at the center of it all. Finding the simple core allows you to say, "I see how all these various forms branched off from the one original type." The former is exciting but ultimately directionless. The latter makes sense of the world.
It's the same with stories — all variations track back to a common heritage. This is what anthropologist Joseph Campbell realized in the first half of the last century. He brought an analytical perspective — essentially the mind of a scientist — to the traditionally nonanalytical world of storytelling. Just as an evolutionary biologist looks for common descent among organisms, he looked for common structure among stories told by different cultures and religions around the world.
In 1949 he wrote his landmark book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which he opened by saying, "There are of course differences between the numerous mythologies and religions of mankind, but this is a book about the similarities." That was the prelude to his eventual message: "Dude, it's all the same story."
Campbell saw a single, common structure underlying storytelling around the world. He named this structure the monomyth. And guess how many major parts there are to it — three. Beginning, middle, end. Just as Hegel would have predicted.
Speaking of the number three, guess what else emerged over the centuries in the world of storytelling — the basic structure of plays, novels and eventually movies known as the three-act structure. Today it is at the core of just about every movie you watch — the same tripartite structure, deeply embedded in the programming of the brain. So deep that you can't escape it.
The Short History of Science
Now it's time to think about the history of science. If we know humans have been telling written stories for at least 4,000 years, how long have we been writing scientific papers? The answer is less than 10 percent of that — or about 400 years.
There were scientists long ago. There was Ptolemy in Egypt just 100 years after the time of Christ and the amazing Ibn al-Haytham (nicknamed Ptolemy the Second) in Mesopotamia who, almost 1,000 years later, pioneered optics and experimental physics. But the reporting of scientific research in formal journals began in 1665 with the first volume of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. The early reports of scientific research were written very much in the "literary" style — not broken into sections, but more of a single essay, often written in the third person, along the lines of "Recently Robert Boyle conducted a demonstration in which he ..."
Within 50 years the articles moved from largely descriptive pieces to a form that was beginning to take the shape of reports of experiments written by the investigator. By the late 1800s a clear structure had emerged around the pattern of theory, experiment, discussion (hmm ... three parts, what a coincidence). This eventually gave way in the 1900s to the almost universally agreed upon scientific paper template of today that I mentioned back at the start — the mighty IMRAD. (Please tell me you will never forget that term from here on.) And though there are four sections to the IMRAD, the Methods and Results sections are often combined, reflecting the fact they are, after all, just the middle of the story.
Science is a newly arrived guest in an ancient narrative world. This is the challenge scientists face. Scientists might dream of communicating in a nonnarrative form, where all you do is list information, but ultimately that doesn't work. As I pointed out with the "see it, say it" conundrum, it just isn't that easy. Let me take this a little deeper.
The Programming of the Brain Is Defective
People can listen to a few facts, but not many. After a while their narrative need kicks in. You can give a lecture that is pure information with no narrative structure, and a nontechnical audience might be able to endure a half-hour or so before walking out, but that same audience will listen to hours and hours of good stories. You could show them a Breaking Bad marathon, and they would have no trouble sitting through lots of episodes. Such is the power of narrative.
So that's your first "faulty programming" aspect of the brain. Scientists wish they could just pour out facts, untouched, for consumption. But they can't. The brain needs information packaged in specific ways. This leads to all sorts of distortions that can confound even the best intentions. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof points this out quite clearly in a classic article that I encourage my workshop participants to read over and over again.
Nicholas Kristof Warns the World about Storytelling
Nicholas Kristof is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who wrote an amazingly short, simple (my favorite attribute!) and broadly practical article about the power of story in mass communication. I'm not sure he would approve of my calling his article an essay full of warnings about storytelling, but that's pretty much what it is.
The somewhat surprising thing about the article is that he published it, not in an academic journal or as a New York Times feature, but in the November 2009 issue of Outside. The title, very fittingly, is "Nicholas Kristof's Advice for Saving the World." If I were to summarize the message of the article in one sentence, I would say, "You should realize how faulty the programming of the human brain is before you set about trying to alter other people's brains."
His point is that communication is not about telling people what you think they need to hear or know; it's about figuring out your goals then working backward, mindful of how the brain works, to successfully convey your message. You need to shape your information into the right form for it to work properly when it enters people's brains.
Another way to say this is by dismissing the Golden Rule. I was raised in Kansas with the charge "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Kristof's point is, who cares how you want people to do unto you? What you need to figure out is how people want to be done unto, then work within those constraints.
This is a fundamental problem scientists run into. When they can't figure out why people aren't interested in what they have to say, they get frustrated. They say things like "people need to know this" as they talk about things like the need for greater "science literacy." Of course I agree with their intentions, but before you get angry at "people," you really need to have a basic understanding of how people think.
Singularity: The Power of Storytelling Rests in the Specifics
The most important dynamic Kristof presents, in all its frustrating injustice, is the "power of one" in storytelling, or what we could call the power of the singular narrative. Here's basically (in my paraphrasing) what he says: If I tell you the story of one little girl in Africa who is going to die next year from a disease, you are going to get upset by exactly X number of "units of upset." But if I tell you the story of two little girls in Africa who will die from the disease next year, wouldn't you think you would get twice as upset?
That's twice as many people who are going to die. Think of all the pain you will feel for the first girl's family. Then think about that same pain for the second girl's family. One plus one should equal two, right? It makes sense that you would get twice as upset. But you already know that's not the case. How could it be? You would run out of upset units pretty quickly as the number of victims grows.
This is the sad, illogical, counterintuitive, even dangerous nature of storytelling. Kristof points to the famous saying that "the death of one individual is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic." Therein lies the frustration for scientists — how can it not be as simple as just numbers? A million is so much greater a number than one. Isn't it the same as "sample size," which you always want to maximize?
I'm sorry, but it just isn't about the numbers alone. People care about things that move them, touch them, reach inside them, connect with them — all of those things. The story of one person can do all that to you, very powerfully. But it's harder for five people to do it to you, really hard for one hundred, and for a million ... the people just become a statistic from which you are detached. Which is kind of like what I was saying about taking in the view of a city — so much, and yet so little that will last.
This is a core principle of narrative that you need to commit to heart, and even if you do, you'll still probably make mistakes with it at times. If you don't grasp it, you will be one of those speakers who talks about the 18 different things going on in your lab, all of which you feel passionate about but none of which end up making enough impact for anyone to remember the next day.
It's the "less is more" thing. And it's really, really hard for scientists to grasp. How do I know? Because I used to be a scientist, and I gave the sort of talks that involved 73 slides in 12 minutes. And in fact I still do it sometimes — what can I say, the wiring of my brain is faulty. But at least I've developed a little bit of awareness. So I present this just to make the initial point that narrative dynamics can be fickle. And dangerous. And underlying this is one of the most important rules in narrative, which is that the power of storytelling rests in the specifics.
A story that lacks specifics is not powerful. Politicians often give boring speeches because they don't want to get locked into specifics if they get elected. They say, "If you elect me I will improve our community." The crowd asks how. The politician replies, "In all the ways it needs improvement." The crowd gets bored. They need specifics to stay interested.
If you think about this phenomenon, you see how it applies here. The quantity of one is as specific as things get. Two is less specific. One is where the power is at a maximum. And guess what this rule also reflects — simplicity. The story of one person is simpler than the story of two people.
"People like a simple story." You hear this refrain all the time and it's true in many ways. It's very frustrating to people who want to communicate the truth, which can be complex, but it's what works. And that becomes the challenge — communicating complicated things in simple ways.
Think of what this means. If you go to Africa and get to know three little girls in a village who are dying from a disease and you want to motivate people in America to donate money to save them, your first instinct might be to tell the more complicated story of all three little girls. It's only natural that you'll want to be "inclusive" and mention all three in equal measure. But the sad truth is, if you really want to help them all, you should pick one and tell her singular story in as much depth, power and detail as possible. You will have a higher chance of actually motivating people. All three will benefit the most by your making that decision, as difficult as it might be.
Please note, I am not advocating that you present the research project you conducted with three colleagues as just your story alone. Sometimes it doesn't matter that the story of just one person is more compelling to the broad audience — you don't want to cheat your colleagues. The only thing I am saying is, it's crucial that you understand these fundamental narrative dynamics and use them to your advantage when appropriate.
Telling a simple story can be frustrating, but it may be the single most important challenge for all scientists. The tendency of scientists to present endless piles of facts, unable to find the singular narrative on which everyone can focus, has been a reason many important science stories, including that of global warming, fail to resonate with the public.
Why So Keen on Narrative?
So what's the big deal about narrative? Why is everyone talking about it? Let me address the power of narrative more scientifically by looking at how it works and why it is so beneficial. Just as one small but robust example, let's take a look at a neurophysiology project addressing the effects of narrative.
In 2008, Uri Hasson and colleagues developed the field of neurocinematics. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the brain activity of people viewing film clips with and without narrative structure.
Now let me make clear, I am skeptical about today's popular neurophysiology stories. I loved Adam Gopnik's 2013 New Yorker article, "Mindless: The New Neuro-skeptics," and I'm a fan of the British blog Neurobollocks: Debunking Pseudo-Neuroscience So You Don't Have To, which hits the same notes of skepticism. In light of this, I was impressed that when I spoke with Hasson about his work, he was quick to emphasize its limitations. I tried to ask whether they had measured brain response to all kinds of tiny subtleties. He shuddered and warned me repeatedly about the limitations of fMRI. What I'm presenting of his work here is, as you will see, pretty simple in terms of interpretation.