Penn Medicine docs see the value of a good story

Science is defined by accuracy and objectivity. Researchers must carefully design experiments and submit their findings to exacting peer review. With their work receiving such grueling analysis, it would seem that scientists' findings would speak for themselves.

Not so, say two doctors in the Perelman School of Medicine.

In an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Zachary Meisel and Jason Karlawish argue that scientists should be telling narratives to explain their findings—stories with a beginning, middle and end—rather than simply relating data.

As physicians, Meisel and Karlawish regularly use narratives to connect with patients about their illnesses. But they believe the technique should also be used on a larger scale. When trying to make sense out of the complicated, nuanced science that surrounds complex issues such as cancer-screening recommendations, the doctors believe a story can help patients make the best choices.

“If individuals can link something about the science to a personal experience, it’s more likely to be ‘stickier’ for them,” says Meisel. “They’ll retain the information and put it into a context that allows them act on it. It helps them move from simply getting information to getting it and changing their behavior.”

Meisel and Karlawish say narratives that help people make good decisions are also a necessary weapon against stories that encourage bad decisions. For example, a celebrity-led campaign that claims vaccines cause autism has had a noticeable effect on childhood vaccination rates, leading to an uptick in measles outbreaks. Scientists have tried to counter this campaign by pointing to fatal flaws in anti-vaccine studies and reams of population data.

While these dispassionate, technical accounts are painstakingly accurate, Meisel and Karlawish say they do not carry the same impact as an emotional story of a parent who noticed autistic traits developing in their child shortly after having him or her vaccinated.    

Meisel and Karlawish contend that in addition to presenting the hard facts, telling stories about children once again sickened and injured by measles—a disease that was all but eradicated in the United States—could help turn the tide in these kinds of public debates.  

“When stories are used to undermine science, we have to fight fire with fire,” Meisel says.