Storytelling in Scientific Research

By Kevin Ho

In this post, we share a few of the lessons we learned in reading “Presenting Science Concisely” by Bruce Kirchoff. To learn more about the book, read our review. To get your own copy, visit the publisher’s website or Amazon.

Keep reading to learn about science storytelling, why it’s important, and how to improve your science storytelling skills.

photo of an open book illuminated by string lights
Photo by Nong V on Unsplash

Facts matter in scientific research. If your data is tampered, your methodology flawed, or if your hypothesis is ill-conceived, you probably won’t get very far as a scientist. In science, just as in any other field involving the discovery and application of knowledge, the way facts are communicated can be just as important as the scientific foundation those facts are built on.

Having a solid grasp of facts, hypothesis, and methodology is often not enough to succeed in science. Your research needs to be delivered in a format that is vivid and compelling. This is doubly important when communicating your findings to a general audience who might not know as much about the scientific concepts that lead to your conclusion as you do — or to any scientists who are not experts in your field. If you don’t, much of the significance of your research may be lost in translation, or worse, misinterpreted. 

Scientists see science as a process, while the public sees it as a means to an end

Science has historically been a field that has enjoyed broad trust among the public across the globe, and even moreso in the pandemic. This stable level of trust in science persists despite the public’s ambivalence towards emerging technologies like artificial intelligence. The public’s trust in science is built on a totally different interpretation of science compared to how scientific researchers view science. While scientists view the scientific method as a process to test different hypotheses using gathered data, the public views science as a set of answers about the laws of the universe. This is largely because, while scientists are more process-oriented when it comes to science, the public does not often interface with the scientific process — just its results. The general public is not trained in hypothesis testing, the scientific method, or critical thinking. They see science as a means to an end, and this is amplified in news stories that discuss scientific findings, often without much context about the way they were obtained.

While scientists are more process-oriented when it comes to science, the public does not often interface with the scientific process — just its results.

This difference in perception between scientists and nonscientists is especially apparent in how scientists communicate their findings between their colleagues and how they communicate those same findings with the general public. When scientists communicate their findings among their peers, they often do so in the form of data, graphs, and specific terminology. This is appropriate within the context of academia, where both the reader and writer are familiar enough with the subject at hand and the terminology of the field.

However, this approach falls apart when trying to communicate scientific findings to the general public, who are eager to find solutions to the problems that they don’t understand in their lives. The public usually gets only a watered-down, oversimplified version of a very complex conclusion. 

When the public only understands science as a series of answers to problems, rather than a process of finding answers, this leads to a whole host of misunderstandings. Most scientists doing research know that their findings come with a large variety of nuances that can cause a researcher to change their approach or conclusions about a problem. Most people are not aware of this process, and when a scientific conclusion is unsatisfactory — whether due to vagueness, lack of data, or changing evidence — this can lead to a public feeling betrayed by scientists. This misperception of science is further complicated by the limited communications training that researchers have, and the popular perception that scientists are cold, unemotional beings. 

As the misunderstandings of science build up in the age of improved communications technology, more people start to question the validity of science as a solution to their problems. This skepticism can range from the resignation that scientists are just humans that make mistakes, to insidious conspiracy theories about researchers having a malicious agenda because a scientific conclusion contradicts someone’s worldview. One can see examples in discussions of climate change, COVID-19 science, and so on. This type of thought process is becoming increasingly popular among the public in recent years, thanks to a combination of rapid scientific changes, proliferation of communications technology, and fumbles from scientific institutions in offering advice to ongoing problems.

The And-But-Therefore (ABT) Model can improve science storytelling

The problem of trying to communicate scientific findings to a general public was one that marine scientist and filmmaker Randy Olsen would attempt to tackle head on. He posited that the process of scientific research is no different from the structure of a story, and that scientists should lean into that similarity when they can.

Historically, scientists primarily communicated their findings in terms of data, graphs, and terms only other scientists would know. This overreliance on data made communicating research to the public difficult, leading to the growing trust issues we face today. Dr. Olsen developed an approach, called the ABT system, that would bridge this gap in trust and make complex scientific research more digestible to the public.

ABT stands for And, But, Therefore. The A stands for “and,” which introduces two things that are true and observable. This is followed by “but,” which posts a problem that challenges conventional wisdom. Last is “therefore” which is meant to show how the research is concluding the problem.

The ABT system is designed to structure research conclusions in the style of a three-part narrative story, in which the audience is introduced to the world as they know it, then to a disruptive factor that causes conflict, and lastly, the process to resolve this conflict. By utilizing the ABT system for science storytelling, a scientist can condense an otherwise complex conclusion into a format that is understandable and compelling to the general public. 

In the wake of “post-truth” narratives sprouting on social media, and given the large percentage of the population not trained in science and the scientific method, the need to communicate scientific research that shows the process just as much as the results is more important than ever. The audience must be able to understand how science has a tangible effect on their lives. While graphs and tables show how the research was conducted, the ABT statement shows why the researcher’s data is important, and what it means for the lives of everyday people.

To learn more about ways to tell better stories as a scientist, get your copy of “Presenting Science Concisely” from the publisher or on Amazon.

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