Truthtellers or storytellers?

The answers to the question what makes a good science video almost always comprise the advice: It must tell a good story! Indeed, storytelling is a central element of video, and there is an ongoing discussion whether scientists should engage in storytelling, or rather stay away from it. Stories tend to tell things from a subjective perspective, they give meaning or even multiple meanings to situations and events, they structure things in a suitable way to thrill and emotionally engage people. But what scientists strive for is different: They seek the most accurate approximation to objective truth.
A few weeks ago, however, Nick Enfield, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney, argued in The Guardian that »Science can’t exist without storytelling. The question is not, whether we should use it, but how we should use it best.« He concedes that there are conflicts – stories tend to have a preferred result and an end, whereas science has neither (or shouldn’t have). But he also argues, that people’s brains have not evolved for dispassionate thinking. So if scientists want to engage with people, they have to find ways into those brains. And storytelling happens to be a pretty good hack for that. In this podcast Enfield discusses the issue in more detail with a screenwriter, a theater maker and two scientists.
And while we are at it, here are two German posts that debate similar issues: In June, the Fraunhofer Institute for Medical Image Computing (MEVIS) had invited film and media creators for a workshop about the future of artificial intelligence in medicine. Among other findings, the extensive workshop report that can be downloaded on the site (in German) points out that films are able to focus on exactly those negative collateral effects of new technologies that are often dismissed by too optimistic perspectives on new technologies.
Meanwhile, on the blog of our colleague Jan-Martin Wiarda, former head of communication of the German research organization Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft, Isabella Hermann argues, that science fiction movies are civic education. This is, of course, not exactly news to sci-fi-fans. For them, »1984«, »The Left Hand of Darkness«, or »The Parable of the Sower« are valid and instructive commentary on current and potential political and social developments. (But we are always pleased when the establishment catches on 😉
Hermann is scientific coordinator of the interdisciplinary working group »Responsibility: Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence« of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and a member of the jury of the Berlin Sci-Fi Filmfest. In her text, she mentions not only well-known blockbusters, but also interesting »smaller« films, like the documentary »Pre-Crime« about predictive policing.
The least we can learn from these discussions: Science and storytelling may have different methods and different goals. But if done right, they are both, in their very own ways, seeking as well as telling the truth.

Leave a Reply