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?
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