Friday, October 1, 2010

Stories Sell Science

In an article in New Scientist this week, epidemiologist Ian Roberts explains how published case reports of miraculous recoveries contributed to the increased off-label use of a blood-clotting drug to stop traumatic bleeding. Based on these case reports, the drug became adopted internationally in civilian trauma rooms and was used to treat battlefield injuries.

"A compelling medical story can burn itself onto a doctor's memory," wrote Roberts. "Stories weave a simple yarn of causation between events, imposing order and banishing uncertainty."

But when Novo Nordisk analyzed this off-label use of its hemophilia drug NovoSeven in a now-halted clinical trial, they found that the use of the drug did not affect the survival rate of the patients who received it. The drug's use might contribute to future life-threatening blood clotting problems in the patients as well, Roberts wrote. 

"The moral of this particular medical story is clear," wrote Roberts. "In the absence of evidence from randomised controlled trials we should remain sceptical about drug efficacy. Medical stories may be compelling, but they do not always give us the full picture."

Stories sell, though, and it's human nature to absorb information more easily through dramatic stories than through, say, an enormous Excel spreadsheet or a jargon-laden medical study.

International aid organizations have known this for quite a while. In their donor literature, instead of just listing depressing statistics about the effects of a famine, natural disaster, or civil war, for example, aid groups such as Mercy Corps also tell the stories of a few people who were affected by the event. They have found that they can get more donations by focusing on a few compelling stories of how they helped stricken individuals. Organization such as Berkeley's Center for Digital Storytelling are also being used to inform people about larger social problems through individual stories of people affected by these problems.

Health care providers (and their patients) are clearly swayed by the power of storytelling as well, as the Roberts article makes clear. But maybe it's time to turn this model around and use stories to promote good science. Scientists, steeped in the details of their research, are often accused of not explaining their ideas in a clear and compelling way. Then they wonder why the public doesn't "get" science, or underfunds scientific research.

Data can be compelling, fascinating, and instructive, but people listen to - and remember - stories. Scientists, and those who work with them to promote their work, need to think about and talk to people who might benefit from the work they do. These personal stories can help explain science to the public, and motivate scientists in their own research as well.

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