Why Narrative Works In Science Communication: Part II

This post is largely inspired by Michael Dahlstrom, an Associate Professor in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University. Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of hearing him lecture in my class LSC 430: Communicating Science with Narrative.  

In a previous post, I discussed why narrative is more effective than data in communicating science.  Dahlstrom’s presentation yesterday built upon this idea by explaining just how powerful, and thus necessary, narrative is to science communicators.  

Dahlstrom began by providing examples from a government website on the benefits of vaccines and compared this to an excerpt from an anti vaccine website.  Take a second to guess how these websites differed.

Have you formed a guess yet?


On the government website, there were statistics and facts about the efficacy and safety of vaccines.  They cited clear reasons why parents should vaccinate their kids: prevent diseases, keep others around you safe from disease exposure, etc.  The anti-vaccine website said something along these lines: “As a mom, I have four children.  Two were vaccinated and two were not.  I can tell you from personal experience that my two unvaccinated kids are more healthy.”

Now, any skeptic or scientifically minded person might roll their eyes at this statement.  What does this person mean by “healthier?” What experiments were done?  Where is your measureable evidence?  From personal experience, I can attest to the fact that it is hard for science trained people to accept that others are more receptive to anecdotal, non-data driven “evidence.”  However, as a science communicator, we can’t brush off these types of websites, because they ARE having a great effect on vaccination rates and disease prevalence.  While the range of measles cases in the U.S. was between 37-220 from 2001-13, there were 667 reported cases in 2014.  

Overall, Dahlstrom’s conclusion was that pseudoscience movements are using narrative more than scientists.  Because of this: 1) People are more likely to trust pseudoscientists 2) People are more likely to be swayed by misinformation and 3) People are less likely to listen to scientists who provide counter-evidence.  

This information should be a wake up call for science communicators out there.  When we finally accept why no one is listening to us, we can make the switch to win the public back.  As mentioned before, the key is not isolate our audience and use narrative to our advantage.

Have you tried to use more narrative in your own science communication strategies?  Share your stories and opinions in the comments below. 

As always, thanks for stopping by my blog. In my next post, I’ll talk about the power of using stories in communicating science.  Make sure to subscribe to my blog and follow me on Twitter or Facebook for the latest updates.


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