Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Earth, We Have a Narrative, part one.

Humans have an instinctual love of the narrative arc. The narrative arc, in which a protagonist confronts problems (including his own problems) and eventually solves them, is as ancient as human language. People have always been telling stories ever since our brains were large enough to do so. Maybe Homo ergaster, whose Acheulean stone technology remained unchanged for a million years, had no imagination; but Homo sapiens certainly has had imagination for the last hundred thousand years or so. We cannot not tell stories about everything all the time. That’s the way our brains work. We know this because the earliest writings, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and all the stories in the Bible, already had the narrative arc form, implying that the form existed prehistorically. In a later essay, I plan to speculate on how and why the narrative arc (or the Joseph Campbell hero story) evolved in human brains, and I mean evolved.

Scientific research, also, consists of a narrative arc. This is why the stories about the Earth, which scientists investigate and communicate, should be so gripping and fascinating to the human imagination. But science has particular problems. First, many scientists are so focused on the details of their work that they simply provide a list of facts, which may be interesting to them but which may be meaningless to almost everyone else. Second, much of what we scientists study is complicated and depends on knowledge that a lot of people do not have. Every bit of scientific research is already a story, but scientists can get through to everybody else more effectively if we embrace the narrative arc mindfully rather than stumbling into it imperfectly.

Protestations of impartiality aside, scientific journals, especially the major ones, tend to publish the research with the most interesting stories. I am completing a research project the conclusion of which is, “Insects eat post oak leaves, more in some years than others, and more on some trees than others, for reasons we do not understand.” Not enough of a story for a major journal; there is a place waiting for it in a minor one, however. Even within the major journals, people read and remember the good stories. Think of the most famous articles in the journal Science. The article about ants walking on stilts and stumps to find their way home; the one about hummingbirds preferring flowers that have been genetically altered; the one about how spiders can scare grasshoppers into shitting out less nitrogen simply by being there (with the spider mouthparts glued shut). Those are certainly the ones I remember. The ones about “this is the number of gigatons of carbon that are fixed by the world’s forests” etc. are valuable, even monumental; I read and cite them, but they are just not gripping stories—sorry, Chris Field. When I eventually publish my article about how warmer winters are causing some species of deciduous trees, but not others, to open their buds earlier in the spring, I think that will be a good story, although I cannot compete with the ant guy.

Science journalists and filmmakers have known this for a long time. In the famous PBS series about Evolution, the first episode, “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” explained the evidence and process of evolution; but they did so alongside a re-enactment of how Darwin came to realize what was going on. It remains one of the best historical movies I have ever seen, as well as a great science film. Another episode, “Evolutionary Arms Race,” tells about the escalating coevolution between predators (or parasites) and prey. But they do this by showing the process of discovery used by Edmund Brodie Jr. and Edmund Brodie III to reveal why certain species of newt were thousands of times more toxic than would be necessary to kill almost any predator, showing them at work in the field and the lab. The episode also told the story of the man who discovered the delta-32 deletion in the CCR5 white blood cell protein, and FIV endogenous retroviruses in wild cats. There were also two very touching stories from Russia: one of a prisoner who had multi-drug resistant TB, and one of a nineteen-year-old woman, on leave from medical school, who had it also. “I’m only nineteen, I have to be hopeful,” she said. The writers of the episode had my students’ hearts in their hands with that one. The series aired in 2001. I keep hearing back from former students about these episodes that I used in class. Now that was some real science education.

To survive, scientists have to convince the general public that what we are doing is not only true but valuable. Often, we fail to do this. If the public tunes us out, we don’t have a chance. We need to have a clear, simple narrative in order to communicate with them. Of course, it’s not all our fault as scientists. We have an important and true story about global warming. It is not entirely our fault the public is not grasping it. It is also the millions of dollars that the oil companies are spending to create misinformation campaigns, at least in America. This appears to not be a problem in Europe. Maybe nearly all Europeans accept global warming because their scientists are better storytellers, but I suspect this is not the case. It is the oil and coal money. But, to do what we can, we scientists have to tell gripping, visceral stories, not merely interesting ones.

Humans also have a limited attention span. I know I do. And I have the visceral feeling that the introduction I just wrote is already long enough to be a blog entry by itself. Tune in next time to see me tackle the problem of the narrative of global warming.

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