June 16, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

Big Science Endorses Storytelling

Big Science turns to Hollywood for help entertaining people with science narratives. It may be OK at times, but facts must take priority.

Everyone likes a good story; scientists do, too. There’s a place for presenting an engaging story in a science presentation, but what if the presentation becomes all story and no data?

Science is supposed to concentrate on facts, knowledge, data, and rigorous observation – empirical things. If these make for a good story later, great. Many nature documentaries are built on stories, which can be highly enlightening when the facts are sound.

For good examples of storytelling in a nature documentary, watch the story about starlings in Illustra Media’s film Flight: The Genius of Birds and the story of sea turtles in Living Waters. The stories are compelling, but the scientific information is sound.

Unfortunately, many highly-charged political subjects like evolution, climate change and psychology, where reliable data are hard to come by and often subjective, are tempting targets for “scenarios” in narrative form as substitutes for the hard empirical work of science, as shown in the following cartoon by Brett Miller:

Hollywood Teaches Scientists

In Nature last week, scientist-turned-screenwriter Josh Ettinger shared ideas on “What Hollywood can teach researchers about scientific storytelling.” It’s an ‘entertaining’ read itself. Josh does have good tips for anybody interested in improving their communication skills. The danger comes when the story becomes the engine, and the data the caboose.

‘Tell a story’ is solid advice for scientists, but I sometimes feel that it doesn’t go far enough: in my opinion, scientists should learn from screenwriters, who are experts in crafting narratives.

Danger signs of a temptation to craft narratives at the expense of  factual reliability can be seen in some of his tips, reworded slightly except where quoted:

  • “start with a compelling hook, locking audiences in from the start.”
  • Begin with a frenetic, action-packed scene to get the viewers’ attention.
  • Tell about the scientist’s experience of gathering the data, especially if it is adventurous.
  • Tell about the scientist’s struggles and personal challenges during the research. This helps audiences “connect in profound ways with characters who struggle, learn and grow.”
  • Tell how the scientist reacted to the data. Express the emotions and feelings.
  • Connect the research to something the audience cares about, that is important to them.
  • Give the audience something to cheer for (the “save the cat” technique).
  • Use the “identifiable victim” effect, like zooming in on what climate change might do to a farmer near the seacoast.
  • Tie the script together into a uniform narrative.

It doesn’t take long to see how these principles can be abused. Useful as they are in Hollywood, science is not show biz. Unless the data are reliable, and the explanations sound, these are propaganda tools!

At CEH, we see these strategies used all the time in stories about Darwinism, climate change, and political hot buttons like gay marriage or transgenderism. For instance, in “science” stories about transgenders, reporters will focus on the emotional struggles of a particular sexually confused person rather than describing the physical harm of puberty-blocking drugs. In stories about tree ring dating, reporters or their quoted researchers will be sure to tag a line about anthropogenic climate change, even when the data are about past times long before the industrial revolution. And in Darwinism, news articles and papers are almost 100% pure storytelling! You can tell with their high perhapsimaybecouldness index, glittering generalities and reliance on futureware.

This is why debating Darwinism with evolutionists is so frustrating. All Darwinists are well-practiced storytellers. Let’s illustrate by telling a typical Darwin story, using all of Ettinger’s tips listed above:

  • 66 million years ago, the ankylosaur swung its powerful tail against an approaching T. rex.
  • The sky flashed lightning-bright. Bam! A meteor struck the Yucatan, raising a gigantic mushroom-shaped cloud. Within hours, the sky was black and the dinosaurs were gasping for air.
  • This was the scene that Steve Storyteller investigated on June 8, his rented Jeep sliding through muddy back roads in the Yucatan.
  • Steve was on his 9th expedition for clues to the devastation, hoping against hope that this trip would be different. Would he find what he was looking for?
  • Native Mexicans Steve had hired complained about the hard work. Steve wondered if he was being fair to them, especially to Mario, his friend, who had endured eight unsuccessful expeditions in the harsh conditions and, though sticking it through, was clearly wondering how this work was going to help his poor family.
  • As Steve lifted the crystal in his hands for a closer look, his pupils brightened. Was this the missing piece he had been seeking all these years?
  • If this crystal helped explained the radical ecological catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs, it could also explain the rise of mammals, including us humans!
  • Steve handed the crystal to Mario. “Mario! This could be it. This could make us famous!”
  • Bouncing back to camp in the jeep, Mario held back tears of joy. Steve told him he would take his whole family to town for a decent meal, and promised him extra funding for his years of work. He reassured him that the world would remember his contributions to the understanding of evolution.

That, readers, was all pure balderdash. I made it up within a couple of minutes. See how easy it was? No rigor. No scientific explanation. A whopper of a story, full of emotion and drama, signifying nothing. I bet you were feeling empathy for the mythical Mario. Try it yourself and see how quickly you could write a Darwin screenplay that would create job security for storytellers, including animators. You can picture a Hollywood Director with shades and cap, calling central casting already. The science was total baloney, but what a story!

For shame.

Don’t be snookered by the Hollywood Darwinists. Demand rigor. Demand integrity. Shame the storytellers out of academia. Leave the storytelling to the Left Coast.

 

 

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