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    Francis Rowland said:

    I work as a designer (a user experience (UX) designer, to be exact) at a scientific institute in the UK, and my experience of working with a range of scientists supports the assertion that storytelling is a key tool for communicating information and sharing ideas. Furthermore, stories offer an effective, familiar way of bring others into the science: they can provide context and relevance in a way that dry facts may not.

    Within the UX design community, storytelling is widely recognised as a useful tool for practitioners to communicate information to our colleagues and clients. In particular, stories can bring our user research to life, making it both meaningful and actionable for others.

    The same is true for scientists. Back in 2011, I wrote a short blog post about my thinking on the topic. I was especially interested in how scientists with different domain expertise work together, and how they find common ground that will allow them to collaborate effectively. My observation was that stories were used directly between scientists, to facilitate their working together. In my work, I try to weave these stories into the design solutions I produce with my colleagues, using them to guide choices of emphasis, hierarchy and key features.

    Of course, as Alberto and Martin have written, storytelling, when used responsibly and with sound judgement, can be just as effective for setting scientific data in context, particularly in the area of visualisation.

    I’ve had the opportunity to speak about applying UX design principles to scientific data visualisation, and I have mentioned storytelling as part of that. I remember being approached after one of these talks by a biologist who was very excited by the idea of applying design principles to how she communicated her science. She was frustrated that people working in other domains of biology didn’t understand or appreciate the impact of some of her lab’s findings. But once she realised that she could use stories as a tool for communication, she saw new possibilities for bridging those gaps.

    Scientists are already using stories to aid communication and collaboration. Using storytelling to frame data also provides a very valuable way for us to share information about our scientific understanding.

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      Bijan Parsia said:

      “That article prompted a passionate response from Yarden Katz arguing that storytelling has no place in scientific articles.”

      I think this misrepresents Katz. Toward the end of his letter, he suggests that narrative presentation is well suited for e.g., “night science”/stories of discovery.

      Let us grant that it is possible to be careful in ensuring that the story fits the facts (and not the other way around) and to have multiple storylines. Two obvious questions emerge: 1) does encouraging narrative presentation (with suitable caveats) tend to produce the best kind of narrative presentations (or at least avoid the worst kinds) and 2) are narrative presentations of the best kind an efficient and effective communication mechanism for science.

      (I don’t know the answers to these questions! But here’s some speculation.)

      With respect to 1, while it might be possible to produce non-misleading, non-cherry picked narratives for a range of scientific work, it might be difficult for the majority of scientists to do so. This could be because it is a rather difficult skill or simply that being squeezed for time inclines people to produce less careful narratives.

      With respect to 2, even if we can reliably produce high quality (i.e., not cherry picking, with multiple strands where appropirate) it could be that narrative presentation is unwise. Our cognitive systems are highly tuned to narratives and find them compelling even when they depart from underlying evidential structure. So, the very features that make narratives effective might also make them harmful.

      Thus, “Or to first present their main conclusions in the form of an evidence-based visual story, a narrative or, at least, a compelling composition—not all information can be framed as a story, after all—and then let those readers interested in exploring the multiple nuances or angles of an investigation access the data gathered and analyzed for it.” might be problematic. Even this framing “compel, then let the interested delve” might in practice mostly end up as “compel”, because even the interested won’t delve deeper when the narrative is so pat.