Science and Storytelling

Last week I attended a really fantastic panel at the American Museum of Natural History (@amnh) called “Beyond a Trend: Enhancing Science Communication Through Social Media” as a part of Social Media Week in New York City.  One of the panelists at the event talked about how all of the social media communication framework is in place, and now that the social layer has already been built, we should start to concentrate on the gaming layer.

The gaming aspect of social web interaction is exciting because it can be used to spark interest in particular real-life problems and encourage participation in learning about and solving those problems.

This made me think about the power of collective storytelling, especially in terms of education, communal problem solving, and engaging people in gaming.

Thanks to social media, we’re becoming a participatory culture, a place where we all have the opportunity to help build the framework, to be collaborators and teachers, to speak to one another, collect data, interact.  In this networked world we share, anyone is just a click and a hashtag away.  And gaming/collective problem-solving are the next step.  (Click here to check out my previous post about social gaming and to watch Jane McGonigal’s amazing TED Talk about how our culture’s obsession with gaming can make the world a better place.)

From the Social Media Week site:

As a communications tool, social media is an undeniably effective way to enhance your message. But within the science realm, top communicators – both academic and professional – strive to use social media for something greater: to engage the public in a conversation about science. Never before has it been so easy for researchers, public information officers, educators, students, and journalists to talk directly to the public about the benefits, limits, and implications of scientific knowledge. Social media not only makes these meaningful conversations possible, but it often also makes them fun and compelling. During this session, hear from scientists, communicators, and educators who use social media tools and the philosophy behind them to find creative, collaborative, and engaging learning opportunities.


  • Ruth Cohen, Director of the Center for Lifelong Learning at the American Museum of Natural History, will discuss a “tool kit” of mobile apps, websites, and more being developed at the Museum to help middle school students collect, share, and present data on urban biodiversity.
  • Ben Lillie, the co-organizer of The Story Collider, which tells science stories by combining verbal narratives with podcasts, Twitter, and an online magazine
  • Matt Danzico, a BBC journalist who conducted a 365-day blog experiment called “The Time Hack” looking at how we perceive time
  • Carl Zimmer, a science journalist whose latest book, Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed, is based on feedback he received on his Discover Magazine blog when he asked the question: are scientists hiding tattoos of their science?
  • Moderator: Jennifer Kingson, day assignment editor, Science Department, The New York Times

Click here for a really excellent recap of the event by the Of Schemes and Memes Blog on

People tweeted throughout the science and social media event (hashtags: #SMWscience & #Sonyc):

The panelists talked about how social media deepens and enhances — rather than broadens — our experience and understanding of science. It’s important to focus on the quality of engagement, and multi-sourcing is key.  Creating a dialogue via social media encourages scientists and the general public to interact with one another and the interaction is often mutually beneficial.  Carl Zimmer mentioned the Foldit (science gaming site) discovery and the fascinating problem of having to cite over 47,000 authors for the article in Nature.  The headline in Scientific American:

Zimmer also mentioned the Galaxy Zoo website, “where you can help astronomers explore the universe.” The site functions as an interactive and participatory learning tool:

 Zimmer also talked about the Citizen of Science  Firefly Project, where people can send in photos and  info about fireflies in their area and actually  contribute to scientists’ data.  It’s a great way to  reach a lot of people, amass information, collect  data, and get the general public  excited about saving  the fireflies because they’re actively engaged and    participating in a group  project. It’s described like  this  on the site:

Spotting fireflies is a special part of any warm summer night, because we so rarely see them. Are fireflies disappearing from our landscape? If so, why? What can we do about it?

This citizen science website helps researchers determine why fireflies seem to be declining, and it offers the general public an opportunity to learn how to collect scientific data in a manner that is both useful to firefly researchers and fun for the whole family.

Using your own backyard as a data collection site, chart the occurrence of fireflies from May to August. Each week, you can upload your observations to the website, joining the data from hundreds of other citizen scientists to track the status of fireflies in your area.

Becoming a citizen scientist is easy and fun, and your collective data is essential to helping scientists learn why firefly numbers are declining, as well as what can be done to reverse the trend. Whether you participate as an individual or family, it is a great way to foster a lifelong interest in science and a greater understanding of natural history. Follow the link above to find out more, and join today!

One of Zimmer’s fascinating projects is the Science Tattoo Emporium.  You can visit the site here and click here to read about the book, Science Ink on the Brain Pickings website .  A photo from the site:

Panelist Matt Danzico‘s Tumblr experiment, The Time Hack, is described on the site as “a web-based effort to challenge one person’s perception of time through new and unusual experiences.” Danzico outlines the interactive experiment like this:

Each day, I engage in a new experience to understand how my perception of time speeds and slows in relation to each event. Can I accurately gauge how long each new experience lasted? Do I remember the details of the new experiences more accurately than repetitive events during the day?

Through this website, I collect data by pitting recorded times and footage of each experience against time estimates and written accounts of what I believe took place during each event.

Ben Lillie‘s fascinating site, The Story Collider, combines personal storytelling and science, asking people to talk via podcast or in-person about different situations where science has affected their lives.  It’s described on the site like this:

From finding awe in Hubble images to visiting the doctor, science is everywhere in our lives. Whether we wear a white lab coat or haven’t seen a test tube since eighth grade, science affects and changes us. We all have a story about science, and at The Story Collider, we want to hear those stories.

Our brains tell stories no matter what.  We’re wired to create explanations and engage in social storytelling, so why not use our innate talents as instinctive storytelling humans to teach, learn, and solve problems?  We all love a good game, especially when there’s something at stake.  We become involved on a personal level, as a part of a larger interlocked narrative as we’re digitally logged in to a social network of like-minded people all over the world.

This is cognitive neuroscientist, Michael Gazzaniga explaining our “storytelling brain,” from Big Think:

From Big Think:

The arts and sciences have had an uneasy relationship over the past couple centuries, as science has attempted to disentangle itself from its roots in superstition and magic and build a firm foundation on more empirical grounds. So lovers of film and literature may react with suspicion to any attempt at neurocognitive analysis of their passions. This is misguided, says Gazzaniga – understanding our hardwired need for narrative coherence doesn’t diminish the aesthetic power of a great story – nor will it enable us anytime soon to program computers to write like William Blake. But it may help to explain what’s going on when we are mesmerized or stunned by a novel or the latest Matt Damon flick.

I love that we can combine our love of storytelling with real learning techniques in the cybersphere to uncover underlying explanations and unifying ideas.  There are a lot of very creative scientists out there using storytelling to explain science via online collaborative projects.  It’s worth looking into and getting involved!

Click here to read “The Secrets of Storytelling” in Scientific American.

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