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Out of order: We are our stories
January 2018
by Randall C Willis  |  Email the author
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As you discovered back in November, I have a variety of creative outlets in my life aside from writing for DDNews. And although most of those outlets involve writing, rarely do they intersect; until this past autumn, that is.
 
In late October, I attended the Austin Film Festival and its wonderful screenwriters’ conference. One session that caught my eye was entitled Science Fiction vs. Science Fact, which highlighted the fundamental need for actual science as the underpinning of good science fiction.
 
I like science fiction—and agree wholeheartedly with this premise—but what made this panel particularly interesting to me was that it included not only three screenwriters, but also two scientists from the National Academy of Science (NAS) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It was their input that had the greatest impact for me.
 
The panel, I discovered, was part of a broader NAS initiative to reach out to the artistic community and improve the way science was communicated to the lay public. Hollywood having the influence it does on society, in particular, the NAS saw an opportunity in connecting screenwriters and filmmakers directly with scientists, even instituting a hotline—the Science & Entertainment Exchange—to address writers’ questions (844-NEED-SCI).
 
What struck Eric Heisserer, screenwriter of the movie Arrival, however, was that beyond getting the story factually accurate, he found that when he checked his ideas or plot points with scientists, they were liable to come up with new perspectives that were vastly more interesting than anything he could have imagined.
 
Nature and the universe, he and his screenwriting panelist colleagues suggested, was quite literally stranger than fiction. None of this would ever have been known, however, without that simple conversation between writer and scientist, without scientists telling stories about their work and their fields of study.
 
Now that would simply have been a fascinating panel and informed my own screenwriting, had I not also attended Neuroscience 2017 in Washington, D.C., a couple of weeks later. There, I happened upon another panel discussion: Science of Storytelling and Storytelling in Science.
 
Thinking more of hospitals than Hollywood, this panel examined the concept of relating the humanity of science through storytelling, gently attempting to burst the myth of dispassionate inquiry and highlighting the passion behind the quest.
Science is so much more than sterile statistics and bar graphs, so much more than supposedly objective reasoning. And ultimately, to present it in those terms is to meet with indifference and antipathy, if only because no one understands why they should care, let alone why it matters.
 
As Liz Neeley, marine biologist and executive director of The Story Collider, explained, stories are evolutionary tools that help us understand what happened versus what we expected to happen. And because science typically challenges expectation, there is an inherent challenge in communicating it.
 
For science journalist Ed Yong, rather than focusing on the facts and figures, science communication should focus on the people who care about and/or are impacted by the meaning of those facts and figures. Perhaps it is no surprise, given the way I typically approach the DDNews Special Reports and particularly their openings, that I completely agree with this sentiment.
In the absence of a human context, science becomes an academic exercise in the most derogatory sense of that phrase. And I mean “a human,” a single or concrete group of humans, rather than a mathematical abstraction (e.g., a statistically defined population).
 
Scientists have a passion for their work and the communities in which they work. Clinicians have a passion for their work, their communities and their patients/study subjects. In many respects, there is too little reward in these pursuits not to love it.
I hear that passion in the many interviews I lead each year. These aren’t people simply trying to make their quarterly sales objectives or complete enough experiments to get that grant extension—although both are vital to their continued pursuits and should not be viewed as venal or necessary evils.
 
By and large, these are people who are driven by a passion for the work they do, the subjects they are trying to understand, the adrenaline of new discovery, the hope of what lies around the next corner.
 
And it is that—the humanity of the undertaking—that makes them and their pursuits relatable to the least educated, least experienced, least knowing of us.
 
Yes, these are specialists working in highly specialized fields of endeavor, fields filled with jargon and statistics and minutiae.
They are also humans, experiencing human emotions, suffering human expectations and frailties, and relating to other humans. And that is the thing that makes science relatable.
 
We are our stories.
 
Rather than shy away from that as a betrayal of science, let us embrace it as the one thing that makes science possible and worthy.
 
May we all have a happy, healthy and story-filled 2018.

Randall C Willis can be reached by email at willis@ddn-news.com

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