The work of public health is based on scientific evidence. We have real data on risks from gun violence to antibiotic resistance to addiction. However, even as the data accumulates, public trust in experts is on the decline. The research of Yale professor Dan Kahan suggests that our understanding of basic facts about politicized science issues depends on whether or not we trust the person conveying them. And in the decision to trust a source, objective expertise appears to matter less than the determination that this person shares our beliefs, assumptions and suspicions, that they are, in a sense, a member of our tribe. Scientific cherry-picking is not the exclusive domain of the rural, the non-college educated, or the religious. Kahan found that highly educated people with advanced reasoning skills were the most adept at filtering out evidence that contradicted their cultural predispositions.
I teach storytelling in public health at the University of Missouri. While many of my colleagues in journalism meet the fake news challenge by doubling down on objectivity, I urge my students to get more subjective with the stories they tell. As trust in experts declines, authenticity and personal connection matter more. And where does authenticity come from, anyway?
Human beings are primed to tell stories but also to listen for the person behind a story being told. Storytelling, whether it’s reporting the news or writing a memoir, involves the active selection and ordering of some information and the omission of other information. Principles of selection inform what questions we ask and which answers we might receive. This directing, ordering and selecting reflects a human consciousness at work, a person with beliefs, assumptions and suspicions.
Being in the presence of that consciousness is one of the great pleasures of reading literature. Years ago at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Frank Conroy used to tell his students that the reason we love stories is that we long to be accompanied. When readers are told that the perspective of the person telling the story doesn’t matter because the story consists of objective facts, they increasingly suspect they are being lied to. This suspicion is often disarmed when they believe they are being spoken to by a real human being. My friend’s sister, for example, discounts NPR news in its entirety but is addicted to This American Life.
So, when one of my students wanted to research how immigrant children become “language brokers” for their parents, such as a child who was pulled out of history class to go to the hospital and explain to her father that he’d had a heart attack, I asked her to explore both why we should care as a society but also, why she cared. Her finished piece included both statistics about immigration trends, and translation services, but also some honest reflection about her own point of view. An Argentinian who came to the U.S. for graduate school, she wondered how her childhood might have been different if she had immigrated with her family. In her research she found that language brokering could undermine parental authority; might that have happened to the parents she had been raised to respect?
If we are willing to entertain the idea that both sides of the equation—the journalists or academics presenting their findings and the public that increasingly doesn’t trust or believe them—belong to groups with often differing beliefs, assumptions and suspicions, then telling stories about science and people and events, in short the world we live in, becomes an exercise in cross-cultural communication.
The demands of that exercise can’t get much more high stakes then in the case of young American soldiers deployed to Afghanistan. In their research into cultural sense making, Louise Rasmussen, Winston Sieck and Joyce Oslund used a specific scenario—a Mullah who is working with Americans to distribute relief supplies and is discovered to have set aside a truck load of those supplies—to investigate how soldiers put facts together into a story and the implications for conflict.
They were able to categorize soldiers by the kind of questions they asked about the scenario. The least prepared were those who concluded quickly a crime had been committed and whose questions were aimed at determining its severity. They asked, for example, how much material the Mullah set aside. The second category accepted that their usual “perspective, viewpoint or framework,” did not apply in this situation. Their questions focused on meaning and interpretation, rather than facts. They asked, for example, how the Mullah made the decision to set material aside in the first place. Facts are stubborn things, it is true, but the meaning of any given set of facts is subject to interpretation. So while the data may have been generated in your lab, the task of science communication is to convey the significance of those data to the people outside of your lab—an audience that may and often does have an entirely different frame for interpreting the material you present.
In the search for truth, the investigation that an ethical memoirist undertakes—examining both verifiable facts as well as potentially distorted memories and assumptions based on perspective—may often yield better results than an examination of the record alone. By better I mean both truer and more credible. In addition to revealing a person behind the facts reported—and thus the possibility for connection—the focus on transparency and framing leads to questions of the self-reflective kind.
This is important because not being believed is not the only danger that exists for a storyteller who denies that her own values, perceptions and culture are powerful influences on the story being told. The story itself is at risk. In the midst of interpretation, the teller needs to ask herself: what might I be missing here, because of who I am and what I see, that more data is not likely to reveal? As society further segments itself into political and cultural groups, it is worth remembering that academics and journalists are not immune. As our politics becomes increasingly tribal, the acknowledgement that one is first and foremost a human being may be radical indeed.
Kahan, Dan M. What is the “science of science communication?” Journal of Science Communication, Vol. 14, No. 3, 2015
Rasmussen, L.J., Sieck, W.R., Osland, J. Using Cultural Models of Decision Making to Develop and Assess Cultural Sense making Competence. Chapter 8, Advances in Cross-Cultural Decision Making, edited by Dylan Schmorrow, Denise Nicholson, June 17, 2010 by CRC Press.