Should the Truth Get in the Way of a Good Story?

There’s an old saying that you should ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ but when it comes to science is this really the case?

If you asked a scientist they would say “no” pure and simple. Scientists strive for 100% accuracy as it makes their findings so much more reliable. But when it comes to science communication is accuracy the most important thing? Facts, figures and dates all contribute to making scientific work more accurate but these tools of accuracy can bore audiences and, once boredom sets in, you can say good-bye to their focus.

Think of the last scientific paper you read, did it captivate you the entire way through and leave you wanting to know more or did you have to push through it? Compare this to a conversation where someone has described a paper to you. In this description accuracy may have been lost but the key message and findings would have still been there just without boring you in the process. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that accuracy isn’t important – I’m just saying that, when it comes to conveying a scientific message, accuracy may not be the most important factor.

Chapter 3 in Randy Olsen’s book Don’t Be Such a Scientist discusses these conflicting aspects of science storytelling. It compares two very different climate change movies to determine what is more important in communication- accuracy or interest. Olsen compares Al Gore’s well known film An Inconvenient Truth and the lesser known HBO film Too Hot Not to Handle An Inconvenient Truth isn’t 100% accurate, there a few minor errors that climate change sceptics have jumped upon, but the facts are presented by Gore in an interesting form that has captivated audiences around the world. On the other hand, the HBO movie is 100% accurate as it comprises of one interview after another with various scientific experts but it wasn’t nearly as successful. One reviewer of both movies was quoted by Olsen saying:

“It’s brussel sprouts vs. chocolate: one is good for you and certainly something of which everyone should partake, but the other is definitely tastier and more appealing” p.110

Let’s extend this idea- can we overdose on chocolate? Is there a point where scientific inaccuracy becomes too much and your message is lost? Definitely! Take the box office hit The Day After Tomorrow. It has the same message about natural disasters resulting from climate change yet because of the inaccuracy of the science behind those disasters the movie isn’t believable.

If you are able to be 100% accurate whilst still captivating I take my hat off to you but for the rest of us mortals we can’t just focus on the facts, we need to find an interesting way to tell them even if this sometimes means forsaking accuracy.

What do you think? Is it OK for accuracy to be forsaken in order to captivate and reach a wider audience or should the truth get in the way of a good story?

____________________________________________

References

Olsen, R. (2009) Don’t be such a scientist: Talking substance in an age of style. Washington: Island Press.

Juame Lopez (2009). Al Gore: An Inconvenient Truth [Image]. Retrieved from http://www.fotopedia.com/items/flickr-292526441

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By madeleine

10 comments on “Should the Truth Get in the Way of a Good Story?

  1. Hi Madeleine,
    As far as accuracy being forsaken to captivate an audience, I don’t think the essence of the scientific message can be lost. You can always frame a scientific message to focus on an aspect of the science that will appeal to a wide audience, as long as you are not promoting a fallacy to do so. Making the science interesting and relevant isn’t wrong, however promoting skewed data to incite controversy is not something that should happen.

    Great post!
    Carmen

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful post, Madee. This is a question I still struggle to answer. I remember being frustrated growing up that teachers at higher levels would tell us, “Forget what you learnt last year; it was not 100% correct”, and then proceed to teach us completely different facts about the same topic. Looking back however, I realised that it was probably a good thing for two reasons:

    1) The “correct” version was too complicated and abstract for a younger and less knowledgeable audience. Some accuracy had to be lost in order for the basic understanding to be formed, before more accurate information could be built upon it. (Perhaps our teachers shouldn’t have said, “forget everything you learnt before”! I believe we still used the prior knowledge to help scaffold the new information, done consciously or not.)

    2) Being forced to update our knowledge and information accuracy, as we grew in age and experience with the subject, reflected the dynamism of the process of Science itself. New discoveries are always being made. Many times this means old ones must step aside. It prepared me for being open to the fact that what we know today could be completely overturned tomorrow.

    • I absolutely agree – The “well, technically what we said wasn’t true” approach used to utterly frustrate me all through high school. In hind-sight, I can absolutely see the validity in the approach but at the time, not so much.

      I think of it as a ‘sketching before your draw’ or ‘pencil before pen’ type analogy – you’ve got to understand roughly what you’re doing before you set it in stone. And even when it’s finished, there’s always Wite-Out to make small changes.

  3. Great post, such a topical issue with great examples!
    I agree with you that it can be dangerous to lose accuracy in favour of entertaining a wider audience, however I think with issues such as climate change it can almost be an advantage. The first step to communicating science is to raise awareness of the issue and then better develop an understanding. Although the accuracy may not be there, I think we can both agree that ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ and ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ got awareness of climate change out there. With such a debated topic and many skeptics still around I think its been important for media like this to push the concept.
    I do agree that its time to start to promote a better understanding of the issue as if you aren’t aware of climate change by now you’ve been living under a rock!
    Not sure about things in the world of science being 100% accurate though! Especially with an area like climate change where predictions are so varied and hard to backup.

  4. Well done Maddie! Did not get bored for a second while reading your blog.

    I am wondering whether we are not a bit too harsh on ourselves by striving for 100% accuracy and fearing that by complying with this basic desire of a scientist, you loose your audience.
    Maybe accuracy can be swapped for completeness?
    Do we maybe think that the accuracy of a science communication piece is perfectly accurate if it includes all the different elements and interpretations that have accumulated over time while discussing a scientific issue?
    If you agree with me that by striving for accuracy, we strive for an all-inclusive message to be conveyed, then we may let the truth stand in the way of a good story. Hearing new angles on old stories and concepts can sometimes be more interesting and challenging than hearing the full story, that hardly ever is perfectly accurate.

  5. Very nice post! I agree with you that it is indeed very difficult to balance the accuracy in science storytelling without loosing the attention of the audiences. I believe this conflict is a challenge to almost every production in the field of science. It is obvious that if the production is too heavy with all the data, graphs and evidences, then television stations probably wouldn’t air it in the 1st place or if it wasn’t the case, then the audiences would loose their interests in the topic very quickly. In the other hand, if the production is lack of accuracy or in another words, isn’t enough of the scientific angle, then the production is not fulfilling its goal of delivering a scientific concept. I’m not quite sure when you said “when it comes to conveying a scientific message, accuracy may not be the most important factor”. In my opinion, accuracy plays the leading role in any scientific message, just that we don’t always have to strive for 100% accuracy. Plus, it is very important that we do not undervalue the necessity of entertainment in science storytelling.

  6. Hi all!
    Thanks for the comments. In response to buid01 and Carmen I agree that accuracy is important and you should never try to be inaccurate for the sake of a good story. However, once you have a good story if you then realise that maybe you weren’t 100% correct maybe it isn’t such a bad thing as long as your message is clear and accurate.
    Anke- I like the idea of using the term ‘completeness’ instead of accuracy. It ties together the idea that without both aspects (accuracy and interest/narrative) you won’t have good communication.

    Cheers,
    Madeleine.

  7. An analogy is a great example of where accuracy is sacrificed to communicate a scientific message. It is a valuable tool in science communication/education, but limitations must be pointed out.

    An example is the model of an atom. A good analogy of the arrangement of subatomic particles is that of a solar system: the protons and neutrons form the nucleus, which is the sun, while the electrons are whizzing around like the planets in orbit. Anyone who has studied chemistry beyond TEE level will tell you that this analogy is patently false, but nevertheless it is a useful tool for communicating the concept at a basic level. A side debate to this could be “at what point does an analogy become misleading?”

  8. I think one of the major problems is getting the public genuinely interested in science. Maybe remembering the “brussel sprouts vs. chocolate” analogy is a good idea. That way, we can draw the public in with chocolate (like a bribe) and then, once they are interested, they can progress onto the science that is ‘better for them’.

    Accuracy is related to the level of information that a person requires. It reminds me of those medical shows when the patient asks what’s wrong with them and the doctor gives this long-winded, complex explanation of their condition. When the patient looks dumbfounded, the doctor then says, ‘you have a broken leg’, or ‘you have internal bleeding’ or, ‘it means you have a bruise’. Especially with respect to science and the public, yes we need to be accurate (as others above have stressed), but we don’t want that to stop our message getting across.

    Great post Madeleine! I really enjoyed it.

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