A recent Impact Blog post extolled the benefits of using a storytelling approach when writing a scientific paper. However, while such an approach might well make for a compelling read, does providing an arresting narrative come at the expense of the reader’s critical engagement with the paper? Thomas Basbøll argues that the essential “drama” of any scientific paper stems from the conversation that reader and writer are implicitly engaged in. It is more efficient to think of your paper as series of claims to be supported, elaborated or defended according to the difficulty a knowledgeable reader will experience when faced with them.
“Scientists and scholars are not writing to delight or even to persuade”, I tweeted in reaction to Anna Clemens’s post about how to write a scientific paper as a story. “They are writing to open their ideas to the criticism of their peers.” Now, I grant that storytelling plays a role in the social sciences (Andrew Gelman and I have written a paper about this) but I worry that good stories are coming to be valued above good arguments. Anna was kind enough to respond. “When you follow the story structure”, she suggested, “it makes it easier to spot weak arguments”. There’s some truth to this, but I think we need to be careful.
Anna is right about the power stories have over human cognition. In fact, that’s exactly why I’m suspicious of storytelling as a means of conveying scientific ideas. The history of science is a history of checking our biases with logic and reason, as Francis Bacon famously suggested in his account of the “idols” of the mind. “The Idols of the Tribe have their origin in the production of false concepts due to human nature”, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells us, “because the structure of human understanding is like a crooked mirror, which causes distorted reflections”. Let’s put this alongside Anna’s celebration of human storytelling:
“Why are stories so powerful? To answer this, we have to go back at least 100,000 years. This is when humans started to speak. For the following roughly 94,000 years, we could only use spoken words to communicate. Stories helped us survive, so our brains evolved to love them.
Paul Zak of the Claremont Graduate University in California researches what stories do to our brain. He found that once hooked by a story, our brain releases oxytocin. The hormone affects our mood and social behaviour. You could say stories are a shortcut to our emotions.
There’s more to it; stories also help us remember facts. Gordon Bower and Michal Clark from Stanford University in California let two groups of subjects remember random nouns. One group was instructed to create a narrative with the words, the other to rehearse them one by one. People in the story group recalled the nouns correctly about six to seven times more often than the other group.”
Stories, it turns out, are the very medium through which the idols of the mind are propagated! Why would we encourage scientists to present their ideas in ways that key into 100,000 years of conditioned responses, hormonal stimulation, and emotional shortcuts? The Idols of the Market Place, the Stanford Encyclopedia again tells us, “are based on false conceptions which are derived from public human communication. They enter our minds quietly by a combination of words and names, so that it comes to pass that not only does reason govern words, but words react on our understanding”.
And yet Anna would have us exploit precisely this weakness for narrative to implant ideas in our readers’ minds from which they will have a harder time freeing their memory.
I’m trying to present my concern as starkly as possible. It seems to me that a paper that has been written to mimic the most compelling features of Hollywood blockbusters (which Anna explicitly invokes) are also, perhaps unintentionally, written to avoid critical engagement. Indeed, when Anna talks about “characters” she does not mention the reader as a character in the story, even though the essential “drama” of any scientific paper stems from the conversation that reader and writer are implicitly engaged in. The writer is not simply trying to implant an idea in the mind of the reader. In a research paper, we are often challenging ideas already held and, crucially, opening our own thinking to those ideas and the criticism they might engender.
I have no doubt that, working as an editor, Anna is able to impose better structure and clarity on a paper she’s been given to edit by using her storytelling heuristic. I have no doubt that writers can improve a first draft by thinking along the lines she suggests. I will even grant that this might sometimes make the argument clearer and therefore its weaknesses more apparent to a trained eye. But I will insist that it is much more efficient to think of your paper as a series of claims that are supported, elaborated or defended according to the difficulty a knowledgeable reader will presumably experience when faced with them.
Anna promises that storytelling can produce papers that are “concise, compelling, and easy to understand”. But I’m not sure that a scientific paper should actually be compelling. I agree with Ezra Zuckerman that the null should be compelling, but that’s not the same thing. A scientific paper should be vulnerable to criticism; it should give its secrets away freely, unabashedly. And the best way to do that is, not to organise it with the aim of releasing oxytocin in the mind of the reader, but by clearly identifying your premises and your conclusions and the logic that connects them. You are not trying to bring your reader to a narrative climax. You are trying to be upfront about where your argument will collapse under the weight of whatever evidence the reader may bring to the conversation. Science, after all, is not so much about what Coleridge called “the suspension of disbelief” as what Merton called “organised skepticism”. Or, as Billy Bragg astutely noted many years ago: scholarship is the enemy of romance.
This blog post originally appeared on the author’s Inframethodology blog and is republished with permission.
Featured image credit: Conversation by Sharon Mollerus (licensed under a CC BY 2.0 license).
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
About the author
Thomas Basbøll is the resident writing consultant at the Copenhagen Business School Library.
Thank you, Thomas, for sharing your thoughts on Anna Clemens’ piece, which I found to be a very sensible heuristic for presenting an academic argument (story-telling and argumentation not being incompatible at all).
Predictably, I disagree with much of what you say. This is because you assume that language and argument have univocal referents and suffice to establish truth. Stanely Fish, Stephen Toulmin and a great deal of the history and sociology of science (see, eg, Charles Bazerman 1998 on ‘Shaping Written Knowledge’) are not as confident as you. Galilei famously had to bypass his readership, what you would call his ‘knowledgeable scientific community’, and write a dialogue using the vernacular (not Latin) to engage a wider audience. And thank goodness he did, or else we’d still all be living on the edge of a precipice.
If it were as simple as ‘writing for a knowledgeable Other’ who shares all of our correspondences between words and their referents, we’d all agree with each other about the ‘facts’ in front of us. Clearly we don’t, and one reason we don’t is that we are motivated by different needs. The facts can be the same, but we care about them in different ways which means we readily dismiss them when they don’t suit us.
Story-telling, understood as a rhetorical device whereby the author shapes knowledge, evidence and support by sequencing it in a way that creates rapport and holds our attention long enough to engage with the ideas, seems to be a good way to establish rapport and a sense of caring, not combat, with our readers. Academic writing does not have to be a battle of wills where there is a winner and loser.
Academic writing is also there to inform, engage, enlighten, sensitise, re-established priorities and trigger reflection. And it does need to include new and wider audiences, not just the handful of ‘knowledgeable others’ that would render it stale and self-serving. This means that it can and should take different shapes to serve diverse academic purposes.
Its function is not to be constantly open to criticism and combat, which is why I think the faith you invest in its ability to establish fact and truth is mis-placed.
Hi Julia, it’s always great to get your take on things. Naturally, there are (dark) moments when I share your pessimism (though I’m sure you wouldn’t call it that) about establishing the facts in writing. I think you’re right to connect the enthusiasm for storytelling to a loss of faith in Truth. But, as a always, I also feel there’s a lot of common ground between us.
One of the main differences between your approach to academic writing and mine is that you want the genre (or set of genres) to include the full variety of interests and activities that occupy academics. You seem to want an account of what academics are doing whenever they are writing. My view is that much of what academics are doing, even when they are writing, is not “academic writing”, and I want a narrow enough definition of this activity to allow me to protect (or “conserve” if you will) the particular function of telling the truth to people who are qualified to detect a falsehood. (It’s not a “knowledgeable Other”; it’s a knowledgeable *peer*.)
So I’d say, yes, *academics* are also there to inform, engage, enlighten, etc. but they can do this in popular books, textbooks, documentary films, and of course the classroom. What qualifies them as experts in their subject, however, is not this storytelling ability. Indeed, I worry that good storytellers, especially as we increasingly valorise their talents, will outmanoeuvre good researchers for academic positions, to the detriment of science.
Two more points. First, I’m confident that my position is wholly compatible with Toulmin’s model of argument, at least in its classic form. His point was precisely that it should be possible to identify the structure of your reasoning, even when it’s neither formal nor univocal. Second, let’s remember that Galileo’s accomplishment was precisely to dismantle one of the more powerful narratives that has ever been. By liberating us from the grip of this narrative he invented modern science (and scientific argument). It is that accomplishment that I’m trying to respect. But note that what I just did there was to tell a simple story about Galileo that historians of science would no doubt want me to think more seriously about. They’d want to me free it from the grip of the narrative in which it normally occurs. They’d do this with argument and evidence. They wouldn’t just tell me another good story.