Journalist Advises Scientists to Tell Stories
Caltech may be the egghead capital of America. The prestigious university where Einstein and Feynman hung out may be weak in sports and arts, but is unsurpassed in science and engineering. Caltech graduates are so adept with mathematics and advanced physics, many of them would probably have a hard time at parties telling their relatives and friends what they do for a living. To avoid making others think they live on an alien planet, ABC/NPR journalist Robert Krulwich has an idea: tell stories.
Krulwich gave the commencement address this past June. His remarks were just printed in the fall issue of Caltech’s quarterly magazine Engineering and Science (E&S). The opening caption reads, “Stories matter, and in a nation where belief in alien abductions is on the rise while belief in evolution is on the decline, the best way to defend science is to tell your friends a good story.” Newton, he explained, was private and secretive to a fault, whereas Galileo knew how to serve up an engaging tale. Stories are a must when communicating science to party-goers and reporters (though those two groups are not mutually exclusive).
More importantly, he said, the Caltech graduates are not going to be able to win against pseudoscience unless they can outdo it in storytelling. What pseudoscientists did Krulwich have in mind?
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.
We all know about creation-science movements in America. But what you may not know is that such movements are spreading all over the world.
From there he launched into details of Adnan Oktar’s lavishly-illustrated Atlas of Creation that has been sent free to schools across Turkey and Europe. “It’s written in clear and simple language, using fabulous pictures, and the pictures are designed to ‘prove’ that fossils show no evidence of evolution.” This is definitely bad, Krulwich argued, using Oktar, a Muslim, as his prototypical creationist.
Krulwich appealed to Galileo’s Dialogues Concerning the Two World Systems as an example of effective storytelling. Then he used some dialogue between nitwits on Friends to illustrate the scientific illiteracy of the general public. Metaphor to the rescue: “Stories with gripping visuals and good punch lines, stories that make intuitive sense, that make sensual sense—to your eyes, to your ears, to your touch—can convince,” he preached. “They have power.”
For recent examples befitting modern science’s penchant for abstruse disconnection from reality, he pointed to the well-known Schrödinger’s Cat illustration, and to how a visitor to the Grand Canyon might bring its vastness down to earth with a line from Loren Eiseley, “the magnificent violence hidden in a raindrop.”
Krulwich saved his best example for last. He referred to Mary Schweitzer’s research on medullary bone in dinosaurs, and how it compared with ostrich bone (see 06/03/2005). It could be dull scientific stuff until it is dressed in the storyteller’s art:
So Mary and her two assistants collected the dead ostrich, which was in the farmer’s backhoe bucket, and drove it back to Raleigh, and what do you know? The former ostrich had been a pregnant former ostrich, and the bones looked pretty similar. The next year, Mary published a paper in Science with the dinosaur bone right next to an emu bone, which looks even more like Bob’s. And since then, another T. rex, this one in Argentina, was found to have the same calcium structure—more evidence that when you look deep inside dinosaurs and deep inside birds, what you see is very, very similar. Which gives us yet another reason to think that the robin in your front yard is an itty, bitty dinosaur.
If your nonscience friend listens to that story, and leans in a little, and hears how scientists work with bones and dead birds in buckets, patiently looking for patterns, you have just placed a sword in her hand. The next time somebody tells her that scientists are know-it-alls who toss off opinions, that science is an elitist plot, she would think, “welllll, but I did hear this story . . .” and the scientific method gets a little more defense, a little protection.
But better than that, the next time your friend sees a robin, she’ll see, I hope, more than a robin. She’ll glance at a little bird pecking for worms on the lawn, and she’ll travel 70 million years back to a time and a place that creationists say did not exist, but now, because of your story, your friend has a pregnant tyrannosaurus in her head with the unfortunate name of Bob. Which makes robins and sparrows and chickadees and crows and all birds just a little more amazing, and a little more delightful to look at. Which means, you win. The creationists can’t beat delight. You have smote them with your story.
A published address cannot reveal the audience reactions, but the fact Krulwich was invited, and Caltech published the address in its magazine, would seem to indicate the administration at least approved of his case for storytelling.
Robert Krulwich does have a point. There is a place for metaphor and narrative in science. We use it often in our commentaries (for a recent example, see the last paragraph of the 10/17/2008 entry, below). Good teachers, preachers and public speakers know the power of metaphor in rhetoric. Rhetoric was one of the classical and medieval skills taught to all students. An academic field known as rhetoric of science emerged after Thomas Kuhn’s 1961 thesis, to explore the ways in which rhetoric aids persuasion within paradigms and by challengers; the book Doubts About Darwin was built on Dr. Thomas Woodward’s PhD thesis that explored the interplay of rhetoric around the emerging Intelligent Design Movement. Rhetoric of science departments even have their own vocabulary, and plenty of examples in the history of science to draw from. There are cases to be made that some important scientific paradigms were won or lost by the power of rhetoric.
This is all very interesting and fine. Scientists ignore rhetoric at their peril. It’s not persuasion that’s the problem; it’s propaganda. Here is where Krulwich erred. We often accuse the Darwinists of engaging not just in storytelling per se, but in “just-so storytelling,” which is made-up stuff. Scientific explanations, even when aimed at Joe Six-Pack or Joe the Plumber, are supposed to be based in evidence and logic. Often, Darwinists trade in fables concocted to save their paradigm, even when faced with incriminating evidence.
Krulwich committed several propaganda errors in his address. First, he divided all humanity into two classes (the either-or fallacy): scientists (e.g., those with honesty, brains and integrity, like Caltech graduates) and the rest of humanity, including scientific dunces like Phoebe on Friends, those who believe in alien abductions, Adnan Oktar, creationists and Bible believers. He followed this with some fear-mongering about how powerful the bogeymen are: “this is not a gentle competition,” he said, giving the students a sword to conquer them. After having consigned all non-Caltech-scientists to absurdity, it conveniently allowed him to set up a straw man to push over with very few ergs of energy. He should read the material of the great creation scientists and best of the ID philosophers. That’s what we do here: we take on the leading Darwinists in their leading publications. We challenge their Goliaths. Why does Krulwich associate creationism with the dimwits on a TV sitcom? Let him sit down with the PhDs (some from Caltech and MIT and Cambridge) who deny Darwin, and learn a little about his own vulnerability. Then he gave a vastly oversimplified view of science (the old truth-seeker in the white lab coat using “the scientific method,” whatever that is). Doesn’t he realize that view went out in the 1950s?
Finally, his sample story about robins being itty-bitty dinosaurs, besides being downright silly, sidestepped the major point of Mary Schweitzer’s work: that finding soft tissue and medullary bone in a dinosaur essentially falsifies the belief they are 65 million years old. He swallowed the Darwine to the dregs without tasting it first or submitting it to qualitative analysis—the very thing a good scientist is supposed to do. Consider the flaw, also, in his logic that similarities prove ancestry (see circular reasoning). If you look deep enough into a man’s DNA and a banana’s DNA, you can find all kinds of similarities. Darwinists pick and choose the kind of similarities they like, which they call “homologous traits” – or make up terms like “convergent evolution” and “analogous traits” to explain the others – whatever it takes to maintain their belief in Darwin’s metaphorical Tree of Life. It’s rigged to protect their belief system from falsification.
Overall, Krulwich gets the gong for giving advice built on half-truths. So while we do not challenge him on the usefulness of being able to communicate scientific ideas effectively using narrative, we hope the graduating seniors of Caltech were discerning enough to smell the baloney in the hot dog.
As for Krulwich’s line, “The creationists can’t beat delight,” this has to be one of the biggest lies of the year. Creationists, like Louis Louis Pasteur stand amazed at the work of the Creator. You could not find a happier group – just look at the number of praise songs they have about creation. Compare this with the vitriol of the Darwinist People of Froth (e.g., 09/26/2005, 06/22/2007) and there is no contest. Then, Krulwich said, “You have smote them with your story.” In a way, he’s right. We’re dumbfounded at the thought of a journalist telling scientists to fib, and with bad grammar at that.
For more on the power of metaphors to mislead as well as inform, see “Metaphors Bewitch You” in the 07/04/2003 entry.