One of the interesting differences among academic disciplines is the relative role of emotion versus rationality in the culture of the field.
The power of poetry lies in its compact generation of emotions — so too, the words and movements of a play, the text-based creation of a character in literature, the brushstrokes of a painting, and the movements of dance. But mathematics, philosophy, physics, and many of the empirically based fields have a structure that values a very rigid protocol of evidence. Indeed, the presentation of scientific findings in many fields is limited to strictly factual description. There aren’t too many adjectives and adverbs in scientific papers relative to writing in other fields.
On the other hand, it is not unusual for mathematicians to talk of the beauty of a proof or for physicists, of the elegance of a theoretical result. Further, scientists can be deeply passionate about their work, which is a source of inspiration to the students they mentor. Emotion is often part of doing science but rarely part of its product.
While different disciplines value differently the role of emotion and the role of rational thought and logic, it seems increasingly clear that many day-to-day decisions are complicated mixes of emotion and rationality. For example, several scientists have noted the weakness of arguing policy changes consistent with scientific findings without appealing to emotions connected to the policy change. More and more, narrative construction (and who captures the narrative first) seems to predominate the news cycles more powerfully than the facts connected to them.
It’s interesting in this regard to note the increasing attention of scientists to the power of storytelling. Stories often have their power because of the emotions they generate. This also makes them more memorable, as the cognitive psychologists have taught us. Hence, when stories that pack emotional punch can exemplify a scientific finding, the memory of the scientific finding can be enhanced. Memory of the findings is key to any chance that the findings might shape opinions about any issue relevant to the findings.
Of course, the weakness of stories is that they often don’t capture all the subtleties of complicated scientific findings. They are powerful partly because they are simple and accessible, so as scientists embrace this new communication genre, they grapple with critiques of oversimplification.
The stories that may be most powerful are those that relate directly to a person’s welfare, where the emotions generated within the listener are ones of fear, joy, or sadness via empathy. In communicating research findings, such stories are much more easily generated for biomedical research than for basic research. Biomedical research findings often translate directly into saved lives. Basic research often lacks such direct input into the human day-to-day. So emotion-filled narratives on basic research are more difficult to construct. In that regard, emotion-generating stories for basic research seem to have two lines: a) a story about the original discovery, retelling the hundreds of failed attempts at a finding, the resilience of the researcher in bouncing back from repeated failures, the suffering of a career stalled, and then the eventual glory of the findings (e.g., Thomas Edison creating a sustainable electric light), b) the joy of a labor-saving device (e.g., a smart phone), the thrill of a collective accomplishment (e.g., human space flight), or the solution of a long-lasting problem. The story starts at the end – the wonderful new state of the world – and traces that state back to the original basic research findings.
However, both of these ways to pack emotional memory cues into basic science require more of the listener – the first, the trials of the researcher, requires some understanding of how research works; the second, the source of a wonderful new state launched by basic research, requires the patience of the listener and understanding of the causal chain.
I applaud real attempts at researchers communicating their work to lay audiences through stories that evoke emotional reactions. We’re all relatively new at this, but public support of research requires their connecting their lives to the work of researchers. We can’t stop trying.