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Opinion: Finding the plot in science storytelling in hopes of enhancing science communication

  1. Stephen L. Macknika,b,c
  1. aDepartment of Ophthalmology, State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, Brooklyn, NY 11203;
  2. bDepartment of Neurology, State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, Brooklyn, NY 11203;
  3. cDepartment of Physiology/Pharmacology, State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, Brooklyn, NY 11203

Like the proverbial tree falling in a forest with no one around to hear it, science discoveries cannot have an impact unless people learn about them. The act of communication is part and parcel of doing research. And in an era increasingly defined by open access, crowdfunding, and citizen science endeavors, there is a growing demand for researchers to communicate their findings not just within their field—via institutional seminars, conference presentations, and peer-reviewed publications—but to general audiences as well. One of our main endeavors as scientists then, must be to present discoveries about which the public will care.

Storytelling and narrative can help communicate science to nonexperts and improve the odds of science communication success. Image courtesy of Dave Cutler (artist).

Borrowing communication strategies from the arts and humanities can help, and scientists would be wise to do so more often. As recent scholarship in science communications has suggested, an “information deficit” is not, by itself, the root cause of a poor understanding of science among portions of the lay public (1). Simply providing more information about a given issue won’t necessarily change minds or prompt, for example, a skeptical audience to accept the science of climate change.

Recent work indicates that storytelling and narrative can help communicate science to nonexperts (2), within the wider context of “framing” as an important feature of public outreach. Creative writing—and fictional storytelling—offer clues on how to improve our odds of science communication success. Pursuing such strategies can help tackle what continues to be a monumental science communications challenge.

As noted in a recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report on the state-of-the-art of science communication, the complexities that stand in the way of effective science communication are many, varied, and very often interdependent (3). They are not limited to the difficulties posed by …

?1To whom correspondence should be addressed. Email: smart{at}neuralcorrelate.com.

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