Communicating fact, post-factually: Where’s the hook?

I walked into the Swan and Rushes, maybe ten years ago now. The low beamed ceilings, the low light pixilated through the translucent windows. Still only daytime, or as daytime as England gets in the winter, but the ancient drinking den was already clammy with stale-mouthed men returning from the football. The yeomanry home from a long ride.

Shoulders bouncing off shoulders, I forced my way to the bar and called for a Stella, but the barmaid couldn’t hear above the deep swell of country men, half-cut. So I got a Fosters and let her believe that was what I’d asked for.

“Low on funds, brother?” asked the character pickled in the crush next to me. He was a haggard replicant of Billy Sykes—a lad I had gone to school with years earlier, a lad I had spent hours of my childhood dossing around desolate bus stops, waiting for a ride into town.

I laughed, “Must be,” and slurped the watery head off of my cheap, piss-brewed beverage.

We talked about the game, we talked about travels, we talked about home, and we talked about time. We talked about a lot. I must have mentioned the local elections, because somehow I let it slip that I had become fond of the Green Party candidate. And in UKIP country, that was fighting talk.

“You don’t believe in that fucking global warming hoax, do you?” said Billy, the production-line worker and real-ale enthusiast. “I thought you were smarter than that.”

“Smarter than that?” I asked. “Is it smarter to believe in un-evidenced conspiracy than it is to believe in the IPCC, in the results of science and empirical evidence? If it is, then yeah, I’m as dumb as they come.”

“You sound like a scientist.”

“I am a scientist.”

He laughed and shook his head and took an impossibly long slurp of his beer.

And so I engaged in one of my first and last debates on climate change with an obstinate denier. He made all the stock, sophistic arguments about the world heating up and down over time. I replied with the stock argument of: “Yeah, but not this much, and not in tandem with atmospheric CO2 levels.” But it didn’t get me anywhere. We weren’t arguing over the intricacies of the numerical facts, we were arguing over the very existence of facts. I was armed with numbers. But they were meaningless to Billy, invulnerable to persuasion as he was. I was trying to hack down a powerful, emotive, conspiratorial narrative with nothing but stale reality and physics, beyond the direct experience of either he or myself.

What was I offering him in place of a good story?


Numbers versus narrative

I’ll confess something. None of the above ever happened. I don’t know a Billy, I don’t drink in the Swan and Rushes, and I have trouble remembering events from yesterday—let alone a decade ago. Sorry. But hey, was it all total bollocks? Does my lie, my story, my framework of bullshit prevent me from communicating a larger truth? Did I, at least, not illuminate the struggle in fighting bias, prejudice with nothing but empirical, objective facts?

This is the age of Trump.

Science and those on the side of science are driving themselves insane on social media and elsewhere on the Web, clinging on with everything they’ve got to the belief that facts are persuasive, facts are the greatest weapon in the transmitter’s arsenal and must be fired out into the ether for public consumption for maximum effect.

Let me spin another narrative: facts are boring, stories are fun—ask any school kid. Listen to This American Life, Episode 424, and hear how far facts get you when someone is determined to cling onto their own narrative. I am not suggesting that numerical, empirical fact has no place in communicating science. I am talking delivery mechanisms. Methods of persuasion. Plata o plomo.

As clearly demonstrated in the This American Life example, even in a pedagogical sense, raw evidence is not convincing enough to someone with the mere ability to believe something else. And time is of the essence here. We are still trying to persuade hegemonic generations that something is happening to them, that something needs doing about it, at the same time as trying to steer the next generation, in-spite of the prejudices they pick up at home or ever more selective media exposure.

Sigh.

Let me hit you with another “fact”. The public haven’t just got a problem with science, they’ve got a problem with us. It’s time to stop behaving like such scientists, and start communicating on a human level. Narrative—a temporal sequence of events—is the most basic form of human communication, and the rhetorical device most used throughout human history to transfer knowledge between individuals and groups.

So let’s start there.

There’s a reason that storytelling is our default. Transportation-imagery theory tells us that the more transported into, or engaged with, a cognitive realm of narrative, the more susceptible that person becomes to suggestion. Fact acceptance (true or false facts, it doesn’t matter) is contingent upon more than being slapped with data by a resentful evangelist for science, or even a category 5 hurricane (or three). In the words of Randy Olson: “Science needs a story”.

Stop buying into the false facts that rationalism will win the day over belief, because the quantifiable minutia of the Universe amplifies our grand rhetoric. Come down from the Ivory Tower. Lay people couldn’t give a damn if you can’t put a more attractive twist on a scientific issue that Glenn Beck does. Yeah. Let that last one sink in a moment. Communicating science needs to become an art form. Let the science be strict, and the delivery loose. Buy yourself a copy of “Creative Communication Research”, by Clare Wilkinson & Emma Weitkamp and think about conveying knowledge that makes both you, and science seem credible in the eyes of the masses.

Will you experiment with rhetoric and narrative? Will you remember anything of this? Or will you just remember Billy Sykes in Swan and Rushes, stuffed after the big match?

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