miércoles, 26 de noviembre de 2014

Storytelling and Metaphor in Science Communication

Sabiduría de mi colega Sergio de Sergio de Regules. Enjoy.

Storytelling and Metaphor in Science Communication
Sergio de Régules

I am a science writer working as curator of scientific content for ¿Cómo ves? magazine, a science monthly published by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (www.comoves.unam.mx). Next December, with the publication of our 181st issue, we will celebrate fifteen years on the market.

Our readership is varied. Aimed originally at highschool and college students, the magazine is also read by teachers, scientists, white-collar workers , retirees, and at least one prison inmate (more on that later). Our contributors are science communicators, journalists, researchers, and teachers. A university publication might be tempted to pander to the academic community surrounding it or to university authorities, but ¿Cómo ves? is fully reader-oriented. We want our readers to stay with us and we want them to come back. This means that we will modify originals as necessary in order to make them not only scientifically rigorous, which would suffice to make the end product acceptable to academics, but also clear and pleasant to read. This is more easily said than done: what is a pleasant read?

Storytelling evolves

I am reading a document published by the US Department of Defense. It is titled The Encyclopaedia of Ethical Failures and it aims at providing government employees with guidelines to appropriate conduct. I know, it sounds awful. You might think it is a list of rules and regulations to learn by rote, or a handbook of inappropriate responses in a zillion different circumstances, catalogued by type of violation. But it isn´t that at all. It’s actually fun to read. The Encyclopaedia of Ethical Failures is a collection of stories; real stories about real government employees –the lady who took private business calls through her phone number in the Pentagon, the guy who channeled government contracts to his brother’s company and accepted time with escort girls as a kickback. The EEF is a sampler of human turpitude that would make a novelist looking for ideas drool.

The US Department of Defense is on to something and that something is this: if you want information to really sink home, deliver it in the form of narrative. A narrative is a tale in which people, or characters identifiable as people, vie with each other in order to achieve opposing goals. In the end the goals are achieved, or not, but something or someone is changed in the process. There is something about information delivered as narrative that keeps us reading, holding our breath, and rooting for a particular ending to the story. It’s primal.

Scientists such as Leda Cosmides and John Tooby argue that storytelling evolved in our species as a way of passing on important information about the ways of the world to new generations, or as a way of gleaning from the environment information that is not prewired in the brain. I like to think of stories as a way of downloading apps and updates to the basic programming of the brain, although I know this metaphor will not be palatable to everyone. Nature has provided us with a passion for stories in the same way it has provided us with yearnings, cravings, hunger, and the sex drive –to get us to seek what is useful for our survival. And so the human brain is a sucker for stories generally, whether they contain information that is useful or not.

This is what the Department of Defense is trying to do with the Encyclopaedia of Ethical Failures. The message is too important to entrust to traditional lists and tables and regular encyclopaedia entries. The narrative form is much more potent because it is simply the most natural way for the human mind to absorb information. Lists of facts have to be forced into the brain; stories are sucked in like oxygen into air-starved lungs.

Which is why, when the message has to do with a complex subject such as science, the ideal mode of communication is the narrative form.

Science as a source for the storyteller

The results and formulas we are taught in school are only the end products of a protracted and convoluted process called science. At ¿Cómo ves? we emphasize the process without neglecting the results.

It is approximately true that science is based on observation and experiment, but these have to be planned and performed following strict, formalized, protocols to guarantee objectivity (or as much objectivity as possible), reproducibility, and consistency. Once the data are in, the team of scientists (scientists almost always work in teams) has to interpret them, that is, build a coherent story out of them. Then the research has to be published, or offered for social validation. It behooves the researchers to justify both their methods and their interpretation of the data. Their peers will then try to find fault with the research. If they can’t, then they may start quoting it and using it in their own work –the research has been validated… at least for the moment.

But what happens when experiments fail, or when the only way to interpret them goes against everything we know about the Universe? How are scientific disputes solved? What if they cannot be solved? How does a scientist procure funds for his or her research? This is a simplified version of the process called science, but it may be enough to show that there is plenty of fodder for storytelling beyond simply explaining the results of science. At ¿Cómo ves? we urge our authors to seek every opportunity to tell a good story.

Seven-leagues boots

Many scientists are wary of metaphors. They consider them vague and confusing –even dangerous. For these scientists metaphors are little more than a distraction, a way of speaking indirectly. And scientists hate to speak indirectly.

For poets, writers, linguists, and cognitive scientists, however, metaphors are much more than this. A current trend of thought, perhaps initiated by cognitive linguist George Lakoff and philosohper Mark Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By (1980), views metaphors as handles for the mind. New ideas and concepts are slippery, but if they connect with familiar ideas by way of metaphor, the mind can grasp them. A metaphor is a way of using the structure of a known idea as scaffolding for constructing a novel one. For Lakoff and Johnson, the primary function of metaphor is understanding. And for Laura Otis, author of Literature And Science in the Nineteenth Century, “metaphor plays a key role in original thought.”

More important to science writers, metaphors are a powerful and concise way of conveying very precise ideas, like covering great distances with only a few strides, a sort of cognitive seven-leagues boots.

Recently I showed my highschool students a stroboscope, a contraption they are only familiar with in the context of a party. I took the flashlight-like device out of its box, pulled the curtains, darkened the classroom, and turned on a fan. It started whirring, the blades going at full speed. Then I trained the strobe light on the blades. A stroboscope emits bright flashes of light at a controlled frequency. By carefully tweaking the frequency I made the blades of the fan appear to stand still while the motor went on whirring and the air kept on blowing. I asked what was happening. The kids understood what was going on –at least vaguely—, but they were hard-pressed for eloquent words to describe it. “When you take a long-exposition picture, movements show as continuous blurs or lines”, I said. They knew this, of course. “But if you use a strobe light you can turn these blurs and lines into individual static images of the same object at different points in time. So this contraption is, in essence, a time slicer.”

Although the students had more or less understood the principle of the thing, the sudden appearance of metaphor fired their minds and lit up their faces. The metaphor crystallized the concept. The whole structure of the idea of a slicer (think ham slicer) was grafted onto the idea of a strobe light. This suggested other ideas: time as a substance that can be sliced, time as something we can exert some control on, perceiving things we would otherwise have no access to. Metaphors are like musical sounds: they have higher harmonics, they echo in the mind.

Good will

There is a property of metaphors I find extremely intriguing, as well as very useful in my line of work. A metaphor, taken literally, is nonsense (a time slicer?). A metaphor in itself contains very little information in the mundane sense of the mathematical theory of information. But if the writer has earned the confidence and good will of his or her reader, the reader will actually work very hard to make sense of the writer’s words. The metaphor will fall on fertile soil and a tree of concepts will bloom in the reader’s mind… a tree of concepts that were already there. A metaphor uses what is already in the reader’s mind (their experience, the culture they share with the writer, their personal taste) to actually put new ideas in it. So, in a sense, metaphor is a way of compressing information.

There is even more to metaphor. The human brain loves puzzles and enigmas. This is perhaps a throwback from the days when solving problems and finding relationships between the data of experience was a matter of life and death. The brain rewards us with waves of pleasure when we accomplish acts that promote our survival or our reproduction. There are pleasures associated with eating and sex, but there is also the pleasure of understanding. It is the adrenaline rush of the eureka! moment. Putting two and two together to decipher metaphors gives the reader a thrill. Screenwriter Andrew Stanton (of Pixar fame) said in his TED talk (www.ted.com): “People are willing to work for their meal, they just don’t want to know it.” One way of granting our readers this secret pleasure is offering them stories and metaphors to work on. If we do this, they will stay with us.

Better yet: they will come back.

A special reader

A couple of years ago a very strange letter arrived at ¿Cómo ves? headquarters. It was handwritten on a creased piece of paper and it had been mailed from a Mexican prison. Estrella Burgos, our editor-in-chief, read us the letter. The author, who must remain anonymous, recounted how he was unfairly apprehended during a police raid in a bar and sentenced to prison. One day he got hold of an issue of our magazine. He read it and was hooked. He told us how his new interest in science had sustained him over the years. We cannot hope to have the same effect on other readers, of course, but this wonderful letter gave us a thrilling sense of the possibilities