Science Stories in the Digital Age

I like to ask scientists and science students about their favorite science stories. I have to admit that sometimes I am greeted with blank faces, a fact that stings my science-communicator pride. I use the word “story” because the most compelling bits of scientific information are just that – there might not be a strong protagonist or a cackling witch, but the general narrative arc fits pretty well. Think, for example, about the story of the toxic newts and the super resistant snakes I shared a while back: like most stories there was action, drama, an unraveling mystery, an open ending, and a whole hell of a lot of toxins.

But there’s another reason I prefer to think about science as a series of stories instead of a series of facts. Sure, the facts are there and they’re important, too. But without context, adrift in a sea of other disconnected facts, they are almost meaningless. To me, the real building blocks of scientific conversation are the stories that are created by putting those facts together in a theoretical framework that embraces logic, knowledge, and Occam’s Razor.

Facts can be more slippery than expected: some of them require study after study to really nail them down. In a weird way, sometimes the stories are easier: the big ideas resistant to small shifts in facts. How many of you had to learn about the moths in England responding to the Industrial Revolution? It’s usually a pretty popular story to tell about the power of natural selection. In fact, I like it so much, I’m going to summarize it here.

Long story short, England was just chock full of these pepper moths. Most of the moths were white and black, peppery even, which allowed them to camouflage themselves in their arboreal homes, but a few were darker. As the Industrial Revolution pushed out loads of pollution, the forests in England grew darker. Now, those light moths were no longer inconspicuous when hanging out in the trees – the dark moths were. Over time, the populations of moths shifted from being predominantly light colored to being predominantly dark.

It’s a nice story, but it’s founded on research with some methodological errors. These errors were due to some misunderstandings of the ecology of the moths – where on the trees they perched, when they were active, and which predators they might face. Some of the facts were wrong.

But the story as a whole is remarkably resilient. For starters, the colors of the moths tracked really well with the level of air pollution – once the Clean Air Act and its counterparts were enacted, moth populations became lighter again, a response to the lighter color being a better camouflage in the new environment. For seconds, different parts of the big idea of the story have been verified through other studies.

I don’t want to come across as an advocate for bad science, but I am advocate for talking about science in a way that is honest about how messy it can get. With blogs making cutting edge scientific research much more accessible than in the past where only those with expensive journal subscriptions could get it, the conversations about the new stories in science can happen in real time. While this means that sometimes it is hard to see the story, the same way it can be hard to see the forest when you’re in it, it also means that the discovery of scientific stories can be a more dynamic process in which everyone can be involved. It may be messy, but it’s real and accurate, and there’s value in that kind of conversation.

3 replies on “Science Stories in the Digital Age”

Actually, I think what probably makes the celebrity scientist types so popular is that they could explain science as stories. I mean, who doesn’t like having Carl Sagan tell them that they are made of star stuff?

Of course I am somewhat biased about stories, as I create are in a story based medium, but I’m personally inclined to believe that that is the way most people’s brains want to organize information.

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