Thursday, 28 March 2013

The power of stories

Sometimes it is useful to take a metaphor and push it harder than usual. Metaphors are important and pushing them can be interesting. 

For example, suppose we say that most of our so-called intelligence lies in our ability to weave stories. Which is all very well, but stories have to be woven around plots which may be real or imaginary and usually both.

Because stories are so central to our social interactions, we tend to leave our storytelling abilities in the background, hiding it in words such as narrative, explanation, rationale, theory or policy.

Of course we know all about our storytelling culture, but a feature of all stories is suspension of disbelief. Disbelief spoils the story.

So it is inevitable that storytelling is rather closer to what we do than we are able to admit. Narratives, explanations, rationales, theories and policies are stories, but we can’t say so without interfering with suspended disbelief – which of course may not be suspended in the first place but that’s another issue.

So if we openly admit to telling stories, then we spoil them as stories because the plot is changed by the disclosure. It would be like a health warning on films where the message only make-believe is flashed on the screen every five minutes throughout every film.


Science was always supposed to be a distinct genre where key plot devices must be repeatable experiments. Peer review is supposed to ensure the purity of the genre.

However, that was never going to happen. A problem with our storytelling culture is that stories need to be memorable if we are to absorb their messages. To be memorable they need some kind of hook into our memories, such as a drama.

Drama is also the stock in trade of journalists and politicians, but these storytellers are notoriously lax about plots based on reality. They need that drama.

As far as I can see, and it’s a diffuse issue, the more scientists involve themselves with journalists and politicians, the more likely they are to insinuate drama into their stories.

Hang on – should we mingle stories, plots and science in this way?

Why not? What else is peddled by all those science programmes on TV, popular science books and comics such as New Scientist?

The only real difference is the plot. All stories have a plot and really that’s the main difference between science, history, astrology, religion and politics.

It’s all stories, plots and genres.

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