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Telling stories carefully: the ethics of science storytelling

Title: Ethical Considerations of Using Narrative to Communicate Science

Author(s) and Year: Michael F. Dahlstrom, Shirley S. Ho (2012)

Journal: Science Communication (closed access)

TL;DR: Storytelling is a powerful tool for science communication. Research suggests our brains prefer it to evidence-based arguments - which raises some ethical concerns about the ways we use narrative communication for science. Thinking about the ways and reasons we use narrative can help us choose techniques more wisely and responsibly. Why I chose this paper: I love using storytelling to communicate science. I write creative pieces both in scientific and non-scientific spaces, so I find research into the ways that narrative can impact society particularly compelling. This paper brought up a lot of interesting points in that space.

Human beings love stories. As a society and a species--a look at our largest forms of entertainment (books, movies, TV shows etc.) makes it clear that stories are a huge part of the way we interact with the world around us. Storytelling has become a vital tool for science communicators--some researchers even calling it “the soul of science communication”--which is why it’s important to make sure it is used in an ethical manner. This paper discusses three major questions around the use of narrative as a science communication tool:

  • What are the underlying reasons for using narrative?

  • How much accuracy should be maintained in our stories?

  • Should narrative be used for science communication at all?

The authors synthesize these questions based on existing science communication literature and aim to open the space of ethical considerations around narrative rather than giving conclusive answers.

What makes narrative so powerful?

Stories have the power to communicate complex topics quickly and effectively. Skillfully composed narratives can relate beliefs, values, and actions to their audiences in ways that evidence-based texts cannot. On top of this, research suggests that narrative text is recalled twice as well and read twice as fast as evidence-based text, and has been found to generate greater engagement, more persistent attitude and belief changes, and greater acceptance of new information in its audiences. It’s theorized that humans process narratives differently than other types of information - which is believed to stem from early humans adapting to better understand the thoughts and feelings of the people around them.

Storytelling, beyond being a powerful communication tool, is also biologically significant - and it’s important to take that into account when considering its ethics.

The Three Ethical Considerations

With storytelling’s unique capabilities recognized, the paper goes on to explore three questions around the use of narrative in science communication.

What is the underlying purpose for using narrative: comprehension or persuasion?

When choosing narrative as a science communication tool, it’s important to consider the intentions behind using it. Research into narrative persuasion has shown that storytelling can be used to subtly overcome resistance to a speaker’s messages, but applying it this way could alienate public audiences if done improperly.

In the past, the field of science communication worked using a framework called PUS (Public Understanding of Science). That framework was famous for holding that the main role of science communication was to overcome a deficit in scientific understanding in its audience. The paper suggests that a scientist operating under this framework might use storytelling to minimize conflict by trying to subtly persuade an audience to be less resistant to a given policy.

In contrast, the authors also highlight the more recent PEST framework (Public Engagement with Science and Technology), which posits that the public is an active participant in science content via two-way dialogue, a model which has become much more popular among science communication scholars. It holds that a communicator operating in the PEST model may use storytelling to start informed conversation by accentuating the scientific issues as well as the social value conflicts that raise contention around an issue.

While the paper doesn’t claim that using storytelling for the purposes of persuasion or comprehension is always good or always bad, it does ask science communicators to think wisely about what situations they are using narrative in--and for what reasons.

How much accuracy needs to be maintained in a science narrative?

The importance of accuracy in science communication is uncontroversial. However, the authors in this paper explain how the degree of accuracy within a narrative can vary.

The paper borrows the term ‘external realism’ from Drs. Buselle and Bilandzic, which describes how much a narrative reflects the real world. High external realism means a narrative reflects the real world well. On some level, a responsible science narrative needs to maintain high external realism - but a well-placed metaphor about the behavior of yeast, as the paper gives as an example, can offer high external realism (via effectively illustrating the chemical process) even if the metaphor’s personification of yeast is low on external realism. Responsible science communicators will acknowledge those trade-offs and ensure that their narratives don’t shift into the territory of misinformation.

Additionally, science narratives run the risk of inviting overgeneralization. The paper states that whenever examples are given in stories, audiences tend to believe those examples are typical cases. This becomes a question of accuracy whenever the examples in a narrative are low in representativeness, or generalizability. Science communicators need to carefully consider when specific examples should be used in narratives, as leaving them up to interpretation can lead to inaccuracy.

Should we use narrative at all?

Narrative storytelling accesses a different part of the brain than evidence-based communication, and the argument could be made that using that different pathway is intentionally manipulative. Science communicators need to ask whether narratives are always manipulative, and when, if ever, it is appropriate to manipulate people. Based on the way the questions are approached, the answers can vary--and the values of those answers can vary as well.

One thing that doesn’t vary is the fact that other communicators will use narrative. Robert Krulwich, an NPR (National Public Radio) science correspondent, once criticized scientists for not developing narratives to counter “the beautiful narratives” creationists used to share their ideas. Not using narrative entirely would leave a powerful communication tool solely in the hands of other communicators, which could put important messages at a disadvantage. Maintaining a balance between engaging in the world of ideas and considering its ethics is important to make the best possible decision.


In the end, the most important part of ethically dissecting narrative is opening the conversation. A science communicator working to persuade communities about the impacts of climate change might find it ethically justifiable to make their ideas as competitive as possible and shape their communication techniques accordingly. Alternatively, a science communicator informing a community about the potential impacts of an experiment in their area might decide that it’s most important to focus on building comprehension and nothing more. This paper doesn’t specifically endorse going one way or the other, but rather encourages science communicators to use these questions to better investigate the way they use stories.

Edited by Michael Golden

Cover image credit: Image by chenspec from Pixabay

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