Tell a Story!

Although I’m trying to cut down on my podcasts use — to see if a bit of mind-wandering might be good for my brain [1] — I still allow myself to listen to podcasts to alleviate the pain of some of the dreariest of chores (e.g. cleaning the bathroom). On those occasions I’m currently working my way though the podcast RadioLab‘s excellent back catalog [2].

While always interesting and informative, the RadioLab podcast I listened to yesterday is worth a special shout-out. The podcast featured a simple recoding of the speech co-host Robert Krulwich was invited to give at CalTech’s commencement back in 2008 (you can listen to it here). During the passionate (and funny) speech, Krulwich argues for the value of science communication; not just in general, but also when people ask you about your work:

But because this is your day, and because this person loves you, or because he can’t think of anything to say after “hi,” he asks about your work. And to make it still more interesting, let’s assume that if you explain to this person what you’ve been working on, you might have to use certain words like “protein” or “quark” or “differential” or maybe “hypotenuse.” And if you do, he is going to listen to you very, very politely, but upstairs, those words are going to mean not a whole lot. […] So … here’s my question: When you are asked, “What are you working on?” should you think, “There’s no way I can talk about my science with this guy, because I don’t have the talent, or the words, or the patience to do it—it’s too hard, and anyway, what’s the point?” [3]

Now, Krulwich argues (and I wholeheartedly agree) that it’s important to come up with a good answer to this question.

The ‘science story’ is a weapon against the ‘nut-case story’

So the podcast is great, and you should be listening to it, rather than reading this. But just in case you’re not convinced, I’ll highlight a few of the elements I think are most important. First of all, Krulwich has a good argument as to why science communication is important. It’s not because there’s an intrinsic value in enlightening the spirit of man. It’s because reason is at war with all sorts of irrational/crazy causes:

[E]ven if it’s hard to explain, even if you know they don’t really want to hear it, not really, I urge you to give it a try. Because talking about science, telling science stories to regular folks, is important. In a way, it’s crucial. Scientists need to tell stories to nonscientists, because science stories—and you know this—have to compete with other stories about how the universe works, and how it came to be. And some of those other stories—Bible stories, movie stories, myths—can be very beautiful and very compelling. But to protect science and scientists—and this is not a gentle competition—you’ve got to get in there and tell your version of how things are, and why things came to be.

So Krulwich makes the excellent point that to most people a story is just a story. And a science-story is no different from a religion-story. The only way to defend science is to tell better stories; to tell stories that are more compelling — also on an emotional level.

Are metaphors bad?

The other element in the talk that I wanted to highlight is the Krulwich’s discussion of the use of metaphor and (potential) lack of precision in science communication:

And yet many scientists remain wary of metaphors, of adjectives […] But the job we face is to put more stories out there about nature that are true and complex—not dumbed down—and that still have the power to enthrall, to excite, and to remind people that there’s a deep beauty, a many-leveled beauty in the world. What scientists say is hard-won information, carefully hewn from the world. It’s not the offhand opinions of a tribe of privileged intellectuals who look down on everybody. It’s my sense that if more scientists wanted to, they could learn how to tell their stories with words and pictures and metaphors, and people would hear and remember those stories and not be as willing to accept the other folks’ stories. Or at least there’ll be a tug of war, and I think that the science stories will, surprisingly, very often win.

To me, the key words here are ‘true and complex’ coupled with ‘a deep beauty’. It’s true that you can’t really explain measurement in quantum mechanics to someone who doesn’t know what an eigenvalue is, etc. But you can still convey the absolute weirdness and wonder of the laws that govern all things quantum.

Science itself should not be dominated by metaphor or vagueness; science is about incremental discovery of complex relations. This process of discovery is built on the precision and clarity of scientific colleagues and the giants on whose shoulders we stand [4]. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t spin an entertaining yarn to explain and motivate your research. So tell a story! Just remember to stay clear of condescension and to stay true to the complex reality that underlies your work.

Notes

[1] Steven Johnson’s excellent new book Where Good Ideas Come From suggests that a bit of mind-wandering is one way allow ideas to ‘bubble’ to the surface (if I remember correctly). I’m not sure that it works, but I guess that a break from the usual near-constant stream of input can’t be a bad thing.

[2] In case someone’s interested, my other favorite podcasts are (1) the absolutely unmissable Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s Film Reviews which features the best film reviews in the universe (sorry @ebertchicago), (2) NYT’s Book Review, and (3) the classic This American Life.

[3] Text here and in the following was copied from the official transcript. Download it here [pdf].

[4] Some attentive readers may have noticed my subtle reference to Newton’s famous metaphor (which, according to Wikipedia, doesn’t really originate from a Newton quote).

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Sune Lehmann

I’m an Associate Professor at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Computer Science, at the Technical University of Denmark.

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