The effect of narrative on scientific information – a response to a post by Steve McGann

Today my friend Steve McGann published a blog post, Core Beliefs, in which he highlighted the potential problems of how, in generating a compelling narrative for science documentaries, scientific information can be presented as fact when, in reality, there is much more debate around its credibility.

A confident, coherent narrative in communication can be far more compelling than an equivocal exposition of different opinions. As a species, we are seduced by stories of progress and heroic certainty. Yet there is a crucial tension between the power of science narrated as certainty, and the truth of science exposed as messy, disputed and debated.”

Whilst this is not unique to science (as one commenter noted), this is a very important post and something that all should be aware for reasons such as Steve summed up.

…how will the public trust crucial scientific consensus on global issues if disputed science, wilfully communicated to publics as core knowledge by scientists, is later shown to be built on shaky ground?

I think this is a great post, and there are many nuances to the argument. However, there is one point that I would like to raise as someone who has spent a large part of her working life working in factual television production.

I think that there can be a difficult tension between TV producers/directors (PDs) and those who work at the higher levels, and ultimately make content decisions. I have been fortunate enough to work on some wonderful programmes for a variety of production companies, producing content for a range of channels. Through my experience I know that there are many incredibly skilled PDs out there capable of balancing the difference between debated subjects and more substantial scientific ‘facts’ with a compelling narrative. However, this content can be compromised by those higher up, who force/demand content changes.

In a way, it comes back to Alice Bell’s articles and posts on scientific literacy. If there were better understanding of the scientific process, and how scientific knowledge is generated, throughout the general population then those who people would appreciate why the changes they ask for compromise the science they are presenting and, more generally, Science.

A small disclaimer here, I am not pointing to any person(s) or company here. I have been fortunate enough to not have found myself in this situation… but I am aware of what can and does happen in the industry. As I said before, this is a very important discussion to have and those who work in the factual production should be keenly aware of this and other discussions about the effect that generating narratives can have on scientific information.

One thought on “The effect of narrative on scientific information – a response to a post by Steve McGann

  1. Lizzie,

    Thanks so much for this. I’m really keen to hear voices like yours from inside the TV science production office, as my own media experience tells me that there are lots of internal pressures on programme content that it’s easy to underestimate.

    I’m curious about these pressures you mention from those ‘higher up’. I take it you mean executive producers and commissioners? Would you say that a greater understanding of scientific practice is required of these senior staff, rather than just the general public outside?

    I’m certainly familiar with these forces in TV drama production. Like in parts of journalism, those responsible at the top of an organisation can sometimes wish to coerce what is produced into a more narratively desirable form – even if this is contrary to the content or spirit of a particular text. In the case of science output, this could potentially be unethical or misleading. These executives can have their own, very pressing imperatives – but I suspect that these might sometimes lie dangerously far from the imperatives of those working in the field and within the scientific community. Finding and maintaining that balance between ‘facts’ and ‘debate’ would therefore need to be embraced as a specific priority at all managerial levels in scientific programming. Does this make sense?

    Steve x

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