by Emma Frances Bloomfield, author of Science v Story: Narrative Strategies for Science Communicators.

In 1999, Climate Research Unit (CRU) director Phil Jones sent an email briefly summarizing his process for combining measurements from climate proxy points, including ice cores and tree rings, to estimate global warming temperatures. Little did he know that this email would be spun into the “Climategate” controversy.

Jones’ description of the complex process of data aggregation was cherry-picked from a series of more than 1000 emails that were hacked from CRU servers and released to the public in 2009. Jones’ email read, “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e., from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.” While the statement appears damning out of context, with the knowledge that data aggregation is a standard analysis practice and that the “decline” refers to concerns about the quality of certain data, the statement is more clumsy than manipulative. However, climate skeptical organizations like the Cornwall Alliance and the Lavoisier Group took advantage of these leaked emails, and selected phrases to show that not only were climate scientists engaging in nefarious manipulation of data, but also that climate science is unreliable and fabricated.

This “Climategate” controversy stirred up concerns about the proper interpretation of scientific data and the role of human influence in reaching scientific conclusions. Those familiar with the jargon, techniques, and background knowledge of climate science interpreted Jones’ statements as appropriate data aggregation methods to reach the most accurate conclusions about the state of global temperatures. Indeed, multiple independent groups cleared the CRU team of any wrongdoing. The scientific story of Climategate became one about statements taken out of context and overblown statements of foul play. However, the public story of Climategate became one of deceit, manipulation, and fudged data that put the CRU and climate science conclusions into question.

I analyze scientific controversies such as Climategate in my book, Science v Story: Narrative Strategies for Science Communicators. In viewing scientific communication as stories, I break down the binary of my book’s title to see how stories and science constitute and influence one another. It is often the stories that ring true to our understanding of reality that come out on top, and it would be a mistake to assume that the scientifically accurate ones will always be most accepted. In an age of misinformation and interlocking ecological and social crises, the narrative deck is often stacked against the slow, methodical work of science.

In an age of misinformation and interlocking ecological and social crises, the narrative deck is often stacked against the slow, methodical work of science.

Emma Frances Bloomfield

Climate change is not alone in being a scientific controversy influenced by competing stories. Many controversies regarding scientific information stem from communication failures between technical experts and members of the public. In the topic of human origins, evolution, creationism, and intelligent design offer competing stories about how we came to be. Stories rooted in conspiracy and distrust of medical elites drive skepticism of vaccination and COVID-19. The stories that science tells compete against these alternative stories for public adherence and political influence. I refer to these stories as “disingenuous rival stories,” because they detract from accurate, scientific knowledge in a way that stalls progress and action in a scientific controversy. As rhetorician Stephen O’Leary argued, stories that “give solace to some . . . will remain forever unsatisfying to others.” How, then, can we make science’s stories more appealing, resonant, and satisfying to broader audiences in the face of disingenuous rival stories?

Science v Story offers a mapping tool, called narrative webs, to help visualize the stories we tell and diagnose how we can improve them. Instead of placing communication in discrete categories of “science” or “story” or charting them on linear scales of more- or less-story like, I created a web design that maps stories onto six narrative features: character, action, sequence, scope, storyteller, and content. The web also contains three rings – the micro-ring, the meso-ring, and the macro-ring – that refer to the relative specificity of the narrative feature from the precise to the abstract.

Science’s stories tend to have macro-ring features, such as a characterless story about the Big Bang that marks the beginning of our universe as we know it over a massive temporal scope of billions of years in the past. Rival stories, however, tend to map their features on the micro-ring, which tends to feature concrete characters, trusted storytellers, comprehensible scopes, and relevant content. Through an analysis of the controversies of climate change, evolution, vaccination, and COVID-19, I explore how we can learn from rival stories to make science’s stories more personal and engaging without sacrificing scientific accuracy.

In addition to disingenuous rival stories, there are also productive ones that challenge scientific ones in ways that open them up to be more diverse, inclusive, and equitable. For example, a productive rival story to climate change is the inclusion of Indigenous climate science in global climate reports. Productive rival stories in medicine detail disproportionate distributions of the COVID-19 vaccine and histories of medical malpractice that have affected marginalized communities. Attending to these productive rival stories makes space for improving the practice of science and diversifying the stories science tells and its storytellers. It has perhaps never been more important to muster the tools of communication and storytelling to combat scientific skepticism, apathy, and misinformation. Together, I hope we can transform the conflict of science v story into the harmony of science and story.