We all love a good story but it’s not good science


I remember my amazement when, in a cafe in India, I met a Dutch backpacker who had decided that a certain guru in South India was God.

He hadn’t met the guru, he hadn’t even been to the ashram but he had come across a book about him and the stories contained within were enough to make him a believer.

I tried to tell him that books were made up of words. And words came from the head of the author who typed them up. The miracles contained within the story were more likely to be the product of the writer’s imagination than recorded fact.

No, he wasn’t having any of it. He trusted the story he’d been told and was now the guru’s latest new follower. He’d bought his train ticket and was heading south to the ashram in the morning.

Such was the power of a story.

Some of the most influential people in history have been storytellers. Even in the last century, people as diverse as Hitler and Gandhi changed the world by telling a story. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the people who changed the world are the ones who believed the stories.

For hundreds of thousands of years as our ancestors wandered around in small groups, hunting and gathering, we told stories to navigate our lives. Every culture alive has produced mythology, folklore and fables to help us understand who we are and the world we live in.

Some of the stories we told were concerned with the experience of being alive, our relationship to our kin and the land we lived in. Poetic, mystic truths.

Other stories attempted to explain the world itself: the passing of the seasons, natural disasters, where babies came from. These, too, were often poetic and beautiful but not usually that accurate.

Greek mythology, for instance, explained the arrival of autumn and winter with the story of Persephone, a goddess who went to live in the Underworld each year until the arrival of Spring.

The ancient Greek storytellers hadn’t really thought through the consequences of there being a Southern hemisphere where the seasons were reversed.

What’s the problem? People can still make up their own minds!

simple science

Nowadays we explain the objective world we live in with measurements and experiments, facts and theories. And it allows us to do things that would have seemed like magic to our ancestors. We fly through the skies, we can talk to the faces of distant friends, we can make pain go away with a pill.

Few of us know how any of it really works, however. The actual numbers and statistics are too dry and complex for most of us. We’re happy that a plane can take us on holiday but who really wants to understand the science of aeronautics?

We’re happy to enjoy the fruits of science but we’re much more at home with a good story. Thing is, a story can be powerful, moving and at the same time quite untrue.

For example, we’re more likely to believe a story if it resonates with something we already believe or feel. If I have the impression that doctors are arrogant and that Big Pharma is corrupt, then I’m more open to stories of miracle cures for cancer.

Yes, the doctor concerned might have been banned for practicing medicine but surely that was just because the Powers That Be didn’t want the truth to get out!

Now either the miracle cure works or it doesn’t. But to really find that out would mean understanding the mechanisms of how cancer evades the immune system. It would mean comparing statistical analyses of cancer treatments and recovery rates. It would mean diving into decades of medical research papers and…my eyes are glazing over just writing this paragraph.

This is why we remember the headline of a story but not the details. It’s why we jump into arguments on social media about actually reading the article linked.

It’s also why it’s so hard to fight misinformation. It’s much easier to remember a simple mistruth like carrots cure cancer! or vaccines cause autism! than to recall the detailed explanation that demonstrates why the reasoning is faulty.

But what about all those poor kids with autism!

Because our ancestors told each other tales by the fire at night rather than comparing graphs and statistics, we’re immensely susceptible to people’s stories.

If, for example, you would listen to the experiences of parents struggling to raise children with severe autism, you would need a heart of stone not to be moved. These are tragic stories and our hearts go out to them.

If we’re then told that, in each case, the autism of the children came on after receiving the recommended infant vaccinations, we might well be convinced there’s a link.

If you then read the science dismissing the allegation with facts and stats, explanations and arguments, it’s unlikely to make as much of an impact.

The power of storytelling can be seen in the HPV vaccine crisis in Ireland. Anti-vaccination campaigners had succeeded in persuading parents that the HPV vaccine to prevent cervical cancer was unnecessary and dangerous. First person storytelling and an effective social media campaign trumped all the medical advice and explanations. In 2017 the vaccination rate had dropped from 80% to 50%.

But then the Irish health authorities themselves turned to dialogue and storytelling to regain trust. They set up focus groups with parents across the country to ensure that their concerns were heard.

And women like Laura Brennan who developed a fatal case of cervical cancer spoke out at events across Ireland. She told audiences of teenagers and parents:

‘The vaccine saves lives. It could have saved mine.’

The HPV vaccination in Ireland in 2019 rose to 70%.

Still, I’ve heard some pretty crazy stories…are you saying they’re all lies?

Sometimes freaky things happen. Sometimes people lie. Sometimes there are just mistakes. It’s why scientists sometimes (rather smugly) say that ‘the plural of anecdote isn’t data!‘ A story might be interesting, even entertaining, but it’s not always a reliable bit of information.

Imagine, for instance, 10,000 people every year in one country are told they have 6 months to live by their doctor. But no diagnosis is perfectly accurate and doctors do get things wrong some times. They’re human, too.

So let’s suppose the diagnosis was right in 99.9% of the cases. That means 10 of those 10,000 people will go on to live long and healthy lives.

But they thought they were going to die.

Let’s now suppose that a few of them turned to alternative medicine in the hope it might save them when the doctors had lost hope. A year later we would have a handful of first person stories of how crystal healing, homeopathy or a macrobiotic diet had cured their disease.

It wouldn’t be true but it would make a great story.