In a recent article from the Science Daily, a report about a new study that was carried out by a research team at the University of Iowa, called for a more frequent use of storytelling in order to counter pseudoscience or unscientific claims being circulated, such as the anti-vaccine propaganda. The point being made is that the human brain is particularly sensitive to narratives, especially those involving personal cases, often making a public debate tilt in favor of arguments based on emotional stories:
« Stories are the default mode of human thought, » Dahlstrom said. « If you have a narrative, it fits the way you already structure the world. It’s more evocative, there’s character, there’s emotion and you can identify with someone in the story. Narratives, intrinsically, have much more connections to other aspects of your life. Whereas the abstract truths have to be applied and often that doesn’t happen. »
So, the easy conclusion that derives from this observation is that scientists, medical and health State institutions and all the other actors of the public debates around health issues should resort more to storytelling in order for their points to get more efficiently across the general audience. However, scientists are reluctant to embrace storytelling, says the author of the study, in great part because they fear that narratives can also perpetuate misinformation and inaccuracies.
If this is already a pretty good reason, I can see another one even more problematic, which doesn’t seem to be addressed at all in this study. It appears to me that an important issues isn’t raised and that is the question of what is important here. For the public to get the right information and act upon it or for the public to be able to distinguish between reliable sources of information and propagandists?
If the first option is prioritized, then, yes, storytelling should definitely be enrolled, as an efficient mean of communication. However, what this implies is that state authorities, doctors and scientists will have to find more convincing personal stories to offer the public than those presented by the anti-vaxx movement. Basically, it will come down to who has the best propaganda tools. From this viewpoint, the risk of confusions becomes quite clear: in the process, scientific facts get reduced to just one opinion among many others, that simply has to be more appealing than the messages from those who oppose vaccines. It might also lead to a sort of propaganda race in which both sides will constantly compete to find the most compelling narratives of the moment.
But those who will loose, in the end, are science and scientists. Because the underlying message that people might get is that cherry-picked individual cases can be conflated with scientific proofs and this, of course, flies straight in the face of the way science works. Scientific demonstrations are not based on anecdotes, but on statistical trends observed over and over again within whole populations (organisms, minerals, atoms, etc.) or at least representative samples of it. People might also be led to believe that pseudoscientific messages have as much moral, scientific and political value as those from the scientific field. The difference lies only in their rhetorical skills. This can happens because of the so-called equality bias which basically says that we tend to think that everyone deserves an equal say in a debate. And we often mix that with the idea that any opinion is equally worth and it is just up to each of us to decide for ourselves which one we choose to believe based on how convincingly we think it is conveyed.
A recent example perfectly illustrates how two sets of personal stories collide in the debate over whether vaccines should be mandatory for children before the enroll in public schools. Indeed, on April 8, a Californian Senate commission has just passed a bill that would make it much harder for parents to evade vaccinating their kids before they can go to schools. If the proponents of vaccines were able to win a battle in Senate, they are far from having won this war. And it is not sure they will, as there are a lot more opposing parents demonstrating in front of the State Congress building and reporting how much vaccines have harmed their children, than parents testifying about the benefits of vaccines.
And I’m pretty sure that is also an issues for many scientists or scientific actors who wish to partake in public debates about health or technological topics. They don’t just want people to get the right information once in a while. Indeed, that means you’ll have to start over again the whole propaganda machine on every single topics. Just imagine how much human and financial resources that would demand! Because vaccines aren’t just the only ones at stake here! The pseudoscience propaganda is also raging in other important area: medicines, climate change, biotechnologies (GMO), telecommunications, etc. It is much more rational to encourage them to learn how to develop a critical mind and an approach based on the scientific method.
So, scientists and their skeptic allies also want the general public to understand why it is the right information and how we know it is the right information. They actually wish for « lay » people to be able to distinguish between scientific facts and pseudo-scientific gibberish. And this is why so many of them stubbornly keep responding to propaganda with science and statistics in the form of so-called generalities and abstract truths. It might seem like a loosing war, because, yes, it is quite difficult to convince people to use such an unintuitive way of thinking as the scientific method. And it is certainly not by catering to their most blatant cognitive biases, through storytelling for example, that it will make it any easier for people to overcome them. On the contrary, it will only reinforce these mechanisms.
Does that mean that these two options are really completely mutually exclusive. I don’t think so. There are certainly ways to add some storytelling to the communication effort to counter pseudo-scientific propaganda. But one must be really careful not to encourage some of the cognitive biases that make us the most resistant to the scientific method. I guess, one could use individual stories as illustrations of the generalities and abstract truths, but not as a substitute for it. It is true that concrete examples that people can easily rely to will help them understand. It might even work better against those who have already been quite convinced by pseudo-scientific propaganda more effectively than a mere counter-storytelling. Indeed, as compelling as it can be, if a discourse runs straight counter someone’s deep conviction, that person will outright reject it as a way to avoid cognitive dissonance. However, if it is backed up by a compelling explanation of how the science behind it works, it will be more difficult to ignore, even if the person tries really hard to do so.
In brief, I don’t have any ready-to-use recipe to get around these cognitive biases issues. It’s been an issue for quite a long time already and I guess, considering the success of some real quackeries in the general public in European and North American societies, any lead is worth exploring to regain some field over pseudo-science movements. I suppose, as for all good communication, what is needed is a very finely balance mix of various ingredient that is quite difficult to obtain: a bit of emotion, an efficient appeal to reason, some refreshing humor, lots of empathy with the audience, even some complicity, etc. Some people are actually quite good at this, but they are rare and usually the target of staunch and hard attacks by those who see them rightfully as really dangerous for their ideological business (and often financial stakes).
I guess, this video does a pretty good job pocking fun at anti-vaxxers, but I’m not sure it will do much to convince them of the foolishness of their position: