The Stories We Tell

Scientists are often reluctant, if not downright obstinate, about using storytelling in science communication. I think we feel this way because we somehow believe that science information should not need any ‘dressing up’ to make it palatable to an audience. I felt this way at one time but changed my mind when I saw the power of storytelling. As I explained in the last post, a story can overcome extreme distaste about a particular topic and even change the viewer’s overall perception of the subject.

But there is more that stories can do for those of us in science.

We can use stories to not only make our science more palatable to others, we can change stereotypes about science and scientists by telling our unique stories—especially through video. I’ve been pondering stereotypes in science for some time now, especially as it relates to women in science. Despite much effort by many organizations, negative stereotypes persist in the public’s mind, which can dissuade students from going into science. The old-fashioned image of an old, white male with frizzy white hair in a wrinkled lab coat is what the average person thinks of, even though there are exceptions on TV and the Internet (Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox). Women in particular suffer from negative stereotyping, which has prompted numerous reports about why so few women choose science as a career (there are many reports, but here’s one and here is a series of articles in Nature); recognition of the problem has led to various efforts to attract more girls to science fields (here’s an example).

I think the efforts to attract girls and minorities to science are laudable but that they will not be effective unless we can overturn those negative stereotypes that dissuade students from considering a career in science in the first place. Those of us in science, particularly women and other minorities, can help overturn stereotypes by telling our stories and showing those outside (and inside) science fields that scientists are a diverse group, that science is an exciting and rewarding career, and that anyone can do science.

I connected the two topics, stereotypes in science and storytelling, when I watched a video: The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She describes how we develop inaccurate and narrow views about other people or countries when we hear only a single story about them. Essentially, she’s describing how stereotypes arise and persist. Take a look and then we’ll discuss these ideas in relation to stereotypes in science:

Ms. Adichie describes how her perceptions of the world were molded by the literature she read—literature that she found fascinating and memorable. She describes how as a budding writer, she began writing stories that were about the characters she had read about—white, living in temperate climates, and preferring ginger beer—even though she was Nigerian and had quite different experiences. Even after she realized how that narrow view had delayed discovery of her authentic cultural voice, she found herself succumbing to other stereotypes.

I thought about the examples Ms. Adichie used in her TED talk, which reminded me of the mad scientist stereotype that persists probably because of a single memorable story—told over and over again—which can be traced back to Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein (1818). One could argue that there were precursors to the ‘mad scientist’ in Shelley’s novel; however, the average person on the street likely only knows the story of Frankenstein, which has been repeated in multiple movies since the original 1931 version. Moreover, the ‘mad scientist’ stereotype crops up repeatedly in popular film—from Dr. Strangelove to Dr. Curt Connors (The Lizard) in The Amazing Spiderman. Stories about mad scientists apparently resonate with people and have created an indelible image in the public’s mind. The average person, who has never met a scientist, has only such stereotypes to guide their perceptions about what type of people become scientists or what it is like to be a scientist. Even students who are interested in science may be unclear about what life in a scientific field is like.

A few educators are recognizing the need for storytelling—that is, telling stories that fire up students’ imaginations—to attract more students to STEM fields, especially girls. We scientists can also help by showing what it’s like to do science. And using video is a very effective means for showing what scientists look like and how they go about doing science (however, see this post for how not to do it). Used correctly, video can be an effective recruitment tool by showing real scientists at work:

This video is ostensibly about an expedition to study the Agulhas Current, but it really is about how women can be successful in a field like oceanography. The video makes it clear that women are not only capable of being oceanographers, they find it exciting and fulfilling. This message is driven home by not only showing a female in the chief scientist role leading the research cruise but by featuring numerous other women working in various positions such as graduate students, data analysts, oceanographic technologists, and ship’s mates and technicians. The interview with the captain reiterated the key role that female scientists and crew play in the success of the cruise and that their presence is now commonplace on such research cruises. The video also makes an important point about female role models who are needed to show younger women that it is possible to make it in a field that may be dominated by men or that involves intimidating work. The video’s message is summed up by the chief scientist who says, “Why should men have all the fun?”

I can’t imagine a girl watching this video and not being impressed with the idea of a career in oceanography. In fact, a video very much like this one that I saw in high school motivated me to want to study marine science. Even though I was discouraged from going into science by almost everyone (this was the 1950-60s), the vision I got of a life in science from that film kept me going. Any scientist, especially if you are a female or other minority, can make a difference by creating videos that show what real scientists look like and how someone can have an amazing career in science.

Perhaps if enough of us tell our stories, the public’s image of the mad (white, male) scientist will fade and be replaced with a more accurate one.