Dr. Leslie Saxon and Ed Saxon Speak on Science and Storytelling at AIHce EXP 2019

“We think in stories,” Edward Saxon told attendees during the closing session of AIHce EXP 2019 in Minneapolis. It was an unsurprising declaration given Saxon’s day job as a Hollywood producer whose credits include the critically acclaimed films The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. Stories are Saxon’s life, after all. But he went further, declaring that the thousands of industrial hygienists and occupational health and safety practitioners in the room had a facility with stories that they perhaps weren’t fully aware of, a hidden knack for narrative. “All of you here who aren’t in the storytelling business are remarkable experts in categorizing stories,” he said. “Thinking deeply about the stories we’re telling as we do our jobs is a way to be more fully effective.” 

Edward Saxon addresses attendees at the Closing General Session of AIHce EXP 2019. 

Saxon’s presentation was the latest example of a growing awareness that stories have an important role to play in areas not typically thought of as rich in narrative possibility. Scientists, in particular, are recognizing that storytelling is a useful tool in explaining their work to laypeople. For scientists whose projects depend on public funding, a good narrative about how their research helps humankind can keep the dollars flowing.

Effective storytelling may also be a solution in situations where an audience rejects scientific consensus. In this era of “fake news,” communications researchers are examining ways that scientists can better communicate with the public, and storytelling is an area of emphasis. Since 2012, the National Academy of Sciences has held three colloquia related to what NAS calls the emerging field of “the science of science communication.” Papers from these events are freely available online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and two papers in particular, from the second NAS colloquium, specifically address the use of narrative to convey science-related information.  

In “Using Narratives and Storytelling to Communicate Science with Nonexpert Audiences,” Michael F. Dahlstrom explains why narratives tend to be more effective with lay audiences than technical, “logical-scientific” explanations: 

[B]ecause logical-scientific communication aims to provide general truths as an outcome, the legitimacy of its message is judged on the accuracy of its claims. In contrast, because narrative communication instead aims to provide a reasonable depiction of individual experiences, the legitimacy of its message is judged on the verisimilitude of its situations. This difference confusingly allows logical-scientific communication and narrative communication with opposing outcomes to be judged with equal levels of “truth,” and partially explains why narratives can rarely be effectively countered with facts. 

Dahlstrom, a professor at Iowa State’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, goes on to enumerate the advantages of storytelling as a communication tool. These include narrative’s association with increased ease of recall and comprehension, benefits that are especially relevant for IHs and OHS professionals responsible for instilling safe, healthy behaviors in workers.  

But these benefits can work the other way, too: false or misleading narratives are difficult to supplant once they’ve been accepted by an audience. Writing separately in PNAS, Julie S. Downs of Carnegie Mellon University cautions that “narratives have a greater potential to convey biased information, given their high emotional impact and limited ability to provide citations.” 

Dahlstrom’s observation that a good story often trumps facts is a key theme in the 2017 NAS report Communicating Science Effectively. The communications experts who contributed to the report argue that people make decisions based on a variety of things, not just science, and that most people accept information that is consistent with what they already believe. Facts matter, but facts alone aren’t enough. 

IHs and OHS professionals who want to use storytelling in their training initiatives or other communication efforts should be aware of some of the difficulties associated with narrative. Stories intended to sway behavior can backfire if the persuasive intent is obvious, Dahlstrom explains. Similarly, Downs writes that stories featuring worst-case scenarios can undermine an audience’s trust.   

But the potential benefits of storytelling suggest that narrative is a technique worth exploring for science communication, not only (in the case of IH) to influence workers’ behaviors but to help the wider public understand the value of the profession. Frank Sesno, an Emmy-award-winning journalist who moderated the third NAS colloquium, made a point that holds true for all scientists but especially, I would argue, for industrial hygienists: they have great material to work with. “A great story is compelling characters overcoming obstacles to achieve a worthy outcome,” Sesno said. “That’s what science is. It’s compelling characters—people in the labs, people in the field, people all over—overcoming obstacles—of the unknown, of every economic and financial sort—to achieve a worthy outcome—to gain knowledge and to move humanity forward. If we can’t tell stories from science, we can’t tell stories from anyplace.”