Science and Storytelling: sharing scientific research outside the lab

Georgie CollinsGeorgie Collins
  1 November 2019

This year’s EMBL event, Science as Storytelling: From Facts to Fictions, looked at the role of storytelling in science and the challenges and risks of using narratives to communicate science in the modern world.  Attracting a diverse crowd from astrobiologists and filmmakers, to rock musicians and members of our own EJR-Quartz team, the conference explored the place of scientific research in the world outside the lab.

Held by the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), the 20th conference in its Science and Society series took place in Heidelberg, Germany. Science Editor Joshua Tapley tells us more.

Storytelling and science have always been entwined. As language developed and we began to share helpful stories around the campfire, those who prospered were the ones who learned from each other which trees were safe to eat from and which to avoid. We set in motion the development of the deep human connection to anecdotes and personal experiences. Even today, we find that these connections are often more persuasive than facts and data. Stories stick with us.

At the Heidelberg conference, speakers included scientists, authors, literature professors, and journalists. They brought together a wide range of perspectives on the ways that storytelling can be used in the world of science. The panels covered how scientists themselves can write captivating research papers without compromising their scientific value, using media such as comic books to present science to new audiences in creative ways, and the responsibilities of scientists and journalists in the era of ‘fake news’.

Many speakers echoed the idea that those wishing to misinform and manipulate are free to craft amazingly convincing narratives, without the constraints of reality. But, for scientists and science communicators, the challenge today is to make the truth of our current scientific understanding even more engaging than fiction.

The conference explored how the stereotypes around science and scientists have changed over the last 100 years of entertainment media, the growing interest for stories depicting the work of a scientist more accurately – ‘Lablit’ – and the struggle between artistic freedom and scientific accuracy in film and literature.

In the end, the event left us with its own anecdotes. The opening talk on the driving force behind many scientists – the thrill of discovery – claimed that the excitement of making a breakthrough is shared by scientists, artists, songwriters, authors and many others. This theory was immediately supported by a musical scientist in the audience: “People often ask me what connects my passions as a scientist and a rock musician,” he said. “I always tell them: absolutely nothing! But actually, you’ve hit the nail on the head, they both give me exactly the same thrill.”

Having learned so much over the two days in Heidelberg, we are better equipped to share these thrills with the world in more creative and engaging ways.