Why are rugby players heroes and not scientists?

What is it about sport that gets people SO excited? And why aren’t they screaming and shouting about science? According to this article from The Punch it’s all about the story.

People love sport because of the narrative – a rugby team from a tiny country at the bottom of the world that have worked REALLY hard, been set back by failure but are back to face the world again! Will they win this time?

It’s a great story!

People understand the pain. They understand trying REALLY hard. They understand failure and eventual triumph. And if the All Blacks win it will bring tears to (some of) our eyes!  We’ll all get to share a little of the triumph.

Why doesn’t the public engage in the stories of science like that? Science has all the same story elements: hard work; odds stacked against you; failure; believing in yourself and triumphing against the odds.

Imagine an audience shedding tears at hearing about Jonas Edward Salk who developed a vaccine for polio, or Einstein who suffered rejection after rejection before finally finding a job in physics? Imagine their relief when the results come through after years of hard work and careful preparation! Imagine their cries of delight when an experiment finally works. Dancing through the streets of Wellington rejoicing… Yippeee!

That’s a good story!

The Storytelling Revolution!

My current obsession is storytelling.

It all began last Summer on ReGen Summer Jam – a conversation with storyteller Will Waterson then a workshop with the Inspiring Stories Trust. I was struck by the realisation that stories are what give us our sense of meaning and purpose – stories about who we are, where we come from, why we’re here and how our lives are unfolding.They're more than just accounts of reality. Stories are reality itself!

I started to explore my own story, which lead to my presentation at the Pecha Kucha Science Sessions on my journey in science and spirituality. The head of the Science Faculty at Victoria University, who must have been there on the night, asked me to organise a similar event at university. Thus was born Tell Us a Story – a story telling challenge and workshop series for postgrads in Vic's Science Faculty that is currently absorbing all my love and energy.

There’s a weariness in the world today that seems to come from too much information. There are so many problems to choose from – climate change, economic decline, war; so many news sites, new research and intelligent analyses of complicated issues. Sometimes all this information makes my head explode.

Sometimes I want to be wrapped up and carried away in a good story. I want my pieces to be stuck back together. I want to be seduced into an immersive world where there are no decisions to be made – where I can be whole again! 

Storytelling is as old as civilisation itself but recent discoveries in neuroscience prove that stories are fundamental to our very existence. This article in New Scientist describes how our brain interprets all our feelings, actions and experiences in the form of stories. The scientist in the article, Michael Gazzaniga, believes that this is what creates our sense of a unified self. 

So, without stories we might feel like fragments floating in a sea of nothingness…

A familiar feeling.

I read an article in the New York Times the other day about how the quality of judges’ decisions deteriorates throughout the day. They call it decision fatigue. I think our whole society might be paralysed by “decision fatigue”. I often am!

Storytelling may well be the answer! Only stories have the power to collect the billions of fragments of our experience and weave them into a unified whole. Only stories have the power to connect with our values, rouse our emotions and motivate us to action.

James Hansen, the well known climate scientist thought that if he could just get the data on climate change out there, people would be so shocked we’d do something about it. He was wrong. People don’t act on information alone. They act on how they feel about that information.

This idea matches up with neuroscience. In science we do lots of analysis and logical reasoning, which happens mostly in the left hemisphere of our brains (forgive my simplistic interpretation) and allows us to come up with srategies to problems. But logic doesn’t give us the emotional kick in the pants to act on those strategies. It’s emotions, like love, and jealousy and inspiration, that make us do stuff - and they happen mostly in the right hemisphere of our brains. This is where stories are created! Stories connect with our emotions and with our values. They provide the WHY, the motivation, for people to act.

So if we want research to inform the way the world works, we need to encase information in stories! Stories move people to action. That is the inspiration behind Tell Us a Story. I’m hoping it will plant the seeds for a new generation of science storytellers that will lead the country and the world in a movement of rational change... 

or at least be a lot of fun!