Neeley and Yong extol the power of narrative in science writing

Liz Neeley and Ed Yong spoke about the importance of storytelling to science education — and science itself — as Poynter Fellows on Sept. 23.
Liz Neeley and Ed Yong speak at the O.C. March Lecture Hall on Sept. 23.

Liz Neeley and Ed Yong speak at the O.C. March Lecture Hall on Sept. 23. (Photo credit: Abigail Waugh)

Liz Neeley and Ed Yong have got storytelling down to a science.

As executive director of The Story Collider performance and podcast site and science writer at The Atlantic, respectively, Neeley and Yong have developed devoted followings for their science stories. They say their best work also captures the full range of emotions and experiences inherent in the very human search for scientific discoveries.

Our point today is that stories matter,” Neeley said at a public talk before 250 people Sept. 23 at the Yale Science Building’s O.C. Marsh Lecture Hall. “And not only in a simple way, that they’re entertaining and that they can be educational, but that, in fact, they are inextricable from science itself.”

Science is full of these stories, these elements of failure and success, of joy and frustration, of quests, of mysteries,” said Yong. “These are very much a part of the scientific life.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism, the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry (MB&B), the Yale Microbial Sciences Institute, and The Franke Program in Science and the Humanities. Carl Zimmer, adjunct professor of MB&B and a New York Times columnist, moderated the event, in which Yong and Neeley stood together onstage and took turns speaking.

From the outset, the two journalists made it clear their approach to science stories does not lessen the importance of data and facts. But they said their use of narratives does challenge the “information deficit” model of science communication, which assumes that a lack of information is the problem to be addressed for the general public.

This model comes up again and again,” Neeley said. Yong compared it to a zombie: “It is wrong and it refuses to die.”

In reality, they said, people bring all of their personal feelings to the experience when they read a story, listen to a podcast, or watch a video about science. Neeley and Yong said you cannot displace a feeling or an opinion with a fact; it must come via other feelings, such as the ones elicited from narrative stories.

We are all swirling maelstroms of wants and thoughts and priorities,” Yong said.

Yong explained that when he writes a story, he assumes that his audience is intelligent, highly distractible, doesn’t know as much about biology as he does, can stop reading at any time, and doesn’t necessarily care about this particular topic.

How do you get people to care about something that they would otherwise not care about?” Yong asked.

Neeley answered: “Spoiler alert. It’s stories.”

She and Yong gave plenty of examples: a scientist so profoundly affected by the sight of a hummingbird hovering near his face that he went on to do innovative research on how hummingbirds drink; the sadness and heavy sense of responsibility felt by scientists watching over the last survivors of various snail species; the sheer joy in the voices of researchers coming upon unusual critters in the deep ocean.

Neeley noted that storytelling has become something of a buzzword in science communication of late, with a good deal of hyperbole about the benefits of telling a good story. She thinks of the value of storytelling in science this way:

Stories comprise believable characters who are experiencing some sort of nontrivial event and then must cope with the consequences of those events. … And human beings are so attuned to that search for causality in daily life and everything around us that we do remarkable and sometimes amusing things.”

Yong and Neeley also talked about the “quite common” attitude that science communication should be serious in tone, with an emphasis on concise data and an absence of emotion. In a word, they find this attitude “ridiculous,” they said.

Rather, the two science journalists have developed a thesis of three things narratives can do.

First, they said, stories help people understand the world and attach meaning to complex things. This includes stories that shape science itself, such as science narratives of the 19th century that stressed conflict and survival of the fittest over cooperation and interaction. It also includes stories that spark a coalescence of public opinion by way of social media.

Second, they said, stories help people understand other people. Yong and Neeley cited examples of health and medical stories, for instance, that offer insight into not only technology and healing, but also a wide variety of cultures and communities.

Lastly, they said, science stories help people understand themselves as they react to the narratives they encounter.

Stories are not merely an outward-facing exercise and not only a broadcast mechanism by which we educate, entertain, and shape attitudes and beliefs of audiences,” Neeley said. “Perhaps most importantly, stories also have an intensely personal role.”

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