Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Why science communication needs more storytelling | Righting America

by Emma Frances Bloomfield

Today’s post comes from our colleague Emma Frances Bloomfield, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies the intersection of science, religion, and politics from a rhetorical perspective. She received her PhD from USC Annenberg and wrote her dissertation on the similarities between science denial in the human origins and climate change controversies. She has written and presented on topics of the environment, digital rhetoric, narratives, political communication, and health. Her first book, Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment, is available through Routledge’s series on Advances in Climate Change Research. Her second book, Science v. Story: Narrative Strategies for Science Communicatorshas just been published by the University of California Press.

Book Cover for Emma Frances Bloomfield’s Science v Story: Narrative Strategies for Science Communicators (University of California Press, 2024)

In 2020, the Institute for Creation Research opened the Discovery Center for Science and Earth History in Dallas, Texas. Driving past the glossy glass exterior with a massive metal DNA structure, one may not initially realize that the museum is devoted to the “science” of creationism. The museum’s tagline, “Discover the incredible harmony that exists between science and the Bible as you encounter lifelike holograms, animatronic creatures, interactive displays, user-friendly touchscreens, and a multimedia Ice Age theater” promises cutting edge technology that challenges evolutionary science by proposing creationism as an alternative. While the Discovery Center may be the newest, it is by far the only creation museum. Answers in Genesis has its own Creation Museum and a museum-like tourist attraction called the Ark Encounter, both in Kentucky. The website “Visit Creation” lists nearly 40 creation museums across the world, with most in the United States, that create family-friendly experiences to perpetuate skepticism of evolutionary science.

It would be a mistake to downplay the importance of these museums and public attractions because they indicate a deep-seated and persistent skepticism of evolution that drives homeschooling and resistance to evolutionary teaching in public schools. Circulating information about human origins offers multiple stories about how humans came to be. The scientific story of human origins tells one of natural selection and aggregate change over millions of years that transformed single-celled organisms into you and me. The creationist story of human origins emphasizes the role of divinity, specifically from the Christian faith, in creating the diversity of life today. These competing stories perpetuate the lasting controversy over human origins, which affects public understanding of science not only related to evolution but also other scientific topics such as climate change and vaccination.

I analyze scientific controversies and their rival stories such as evolution in my book, Science v Story. Through the case studies of climate change, evolution, vaccination, and COVID-19, 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.

Many controversies regarding scientific information stem from communication failures between technical experts and members of the public. In the topic of climate change, for example, climate scientists must navigate telling stories of urgency but also hope while skeptics emphasize more immediate public concerns such as economics and political loyalties. 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 by 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.