Update on the storytelling and sci comm panel at Science in Public conference

I’m chairing a panel on storytelling in science communication at the Science in Public conference in July, as I posted a few months ago. We’ve now picked the panellists, so I thought I should give you a quick update. Here’s all the key details.

Panel members

Session structure

  • Intros, each panellist tells a story (5 mins) and then briefly outlines their project and what they think live storytelling brings (2 mins). (35 mins)
  • Q+A – audience questions to panellists. (25 mins)
  • Audience storysharing session – audience in small groups exchange personal stories. (30 mins)

Conference info

  • Science in Public conference
  • Dates: 22nd-23rd July
  • Location: Nottingham University
  • Hashtag: #SiP13
  • Registration now open at a cost of £55 early bird rate until 15th June for the 2-day conference, with a one day rate available. There will also be a conference dinner on campus on the Monday evening.

I’m HEAVILY pregnant (seriously, I look like I’ve got a beachball shoved up my jumper) with the baby due on 1st July, and I’m still going to make it to the conference. So really, you’ve got no excuse, have you?;-)

A panel on storytelling in science communication

The Science in Public conference takes place at Nottingham Uni, 22-23rd July.

I’ve really enjoyed the conference in previous years – it’s a good mix (for me) of stuff about practical examples of public engagement with science, and abstract theorising about same. It’s very diverse in what it covers – last year I remember sessions about science coverage on the BBC, sex in exhibitions at the British Museum, dialogues on stem cells, and loads more.

I’ve always had stimulating conversations, and come away with loads of new thoughts in my head, which is pretty much what I ask of a conference.

They’ve just announced their panels for this year, and issued a Call for Papers.

They are asking people to apply to one of the panels. But there are also open panels, in case you wanted to talk about something that doesn’t fit any existing ones, so go have a look:-).

I’m chairing a panel, on storytelling and public engagement with science. More details below.

If you’re interested in being on this panel, get in touch. Or if you know someone else you think would be relevant, please let them know about it.

To be perfectly honest, I thought the way it worked was I’d put in my panel suggestion, and then if it was picked, it would be my job to find speakers for it. But it turns out you can all apply. I’ve never organised a panel at a conference before, so I’ve no idea if that’s normal, but it’s great that it’s open. I just hope people will apply…

Apparently I get to choose what papers to accept for this panel (ooooh, the power!), so I’m putting a bit more info here about what I’d envisaged. That’s not to say you can’t change my mind! I’m happy to have an informal chat (phone/email/twitter/whatever you prefer) if you’re interested.

My one requirement is that you have to tell a story.

Here’s the abstract I submitted about the panel:-

Title: Are you sitting comfortably? The untapped potential of oral storytelling in public engagement with science.

Format: Three or four panellists from projects involving storytelling and public engagement with science. Each panellist will sing for their supper by telling a story – a proper story – and only then briefly outlining their project and what they think storytelling brings. The audience then break into small groups and tell each other stories, which they’ll then feed back to the whole group, an opportunity to experience and reflect on storytelling and storysharing.

“A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens – second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence.”

Storytelling is arguably the oldest artform. Originally it was oral, live, and inexorably social. It functioned as entertainment, as a cultural collective memory, and as a tool to transmit knowledge, values and social norms. Nowadays we have a plethora of other media jostling for our attention, but we still all listen to stories and tell stories every day.

In recent years there’s been a resurgence of live storytelling, with storytelling festivals, clubs and a National Storytelling Week. But this isn’t something that’s been explicitly explored much in science communication or public engagement. (There is a lot of discussion of the importance of telling stories – in the sense of using narrative – but that’s a more general point.)

This panel explores and illustrates what stories can bring, by bringing together people to talk about different projects which used live storytelling.

To expand on that a little more:-

I’m a bit obsessed with storytelling – live storytelling – as regular readers may have noticed from my Tales from the River project. So the panel is not about using narrative in writing about science, or TV, or whatever. Those are useful things to discuss, and narrative in general is great, but I wanted to focus in a bit more, and talk about live storytelling.

The first time I ever went to see a live storyteller – it was at the Guid Craic Club in Edinburgh – I spent the first five minutes wishing I hadn’t come. I’d dragged my friend along against her will. It was in the upstairs room of a pub, with tatty wallpaper and sticky carpets. Some old guy stood up to ask everyone to be quiet, and I thought, “Oh no, this is going to be excruciatingly dull, and there’s too few people here for us to leave surreptitiously.”

Then the old guy started speaking. And within minutes, the room and the wallpaper and the sticky carpets were miles away, and I was crossing a highland loch in a boat…

That is what an amazing storyteller can do. And it’s truly an artform. The earliest stories were this – told, in person, in words, with voice and body and heart – it’s the root of where story comes from. It’s the bedrock, the wellspring, the fount of all story. It annoys me beyond measure that The Story conference (which is great and fascinating in many ways) bills itself as ‘about stories and story-telling’ but completely ignores the whole storytelling scene. But I digress…

A great storyteller can fire the imagination, creating worlds in your mind’s eye. But you don’t have to be a truly amazing storyteller, like the best ones I’ve seen, to get some value out of live storytelling. (Which is lucky, cos I’m nothing like that good.) But telling stories in person has an immediacy, a humanity, an intimacy. Parents and grandparents tell stories to children. Teenagers tell ghost stories, drinking cider round a camp fire. Miserable dates or lost luggage are reclaimed as anecdotes to amuse our friends.

So, enough waffling, here are some of the things I think are special about storytelling. If there are projects you’d like to talk about that illustrate any of these angles (or others I haven’t mentioned) then get in touch. Your project will most likely have been public engagement with science in some way, but it doesn’t have to be, if you think it might shed some light or give people some ideas.

Democratising

Everyone has a story. If you ask people to talk about their first memory of X, or their favourite story about Y, then everyone is on the same level. Which makes it easier then for scientists and members of the public to talk, people to people.

Humanising

Stories usually involve human things we can relate to – we’ve all been embarrassed or frightened or grumpy. Sharing stories helps us see people from other groups – like scientists – as like us.

Personal

When you tell a story, especially about something that’s happened to you, you’re often speaking from the real you (if you get what I mean). It stops people talking in bullet points and lectures and facts – I don’t just mean scientists, but audience blowhards too:-).

Engaging

Stories are more involving, easier to listen to, more memorable, than lists of facts.

Emotional

Telling a story about a day out from your childhood is something different to recounting facts like where the old cinema used to be. There’s a reason that reminiscence sessions are popular with old people, and those who work with them. There’s a reason oral history captures something that other sources don’t.

Similarly, with things like narrative-based medicine, there’s something different in recounting the story of why you’ve come to the doctors that is qualitatively different from recounting a list of symptoms. And potentially richer in information.

Childhood associations

Most of us have memories of being told stories as children, and the associations we have with that are often positive, reassuring, calming. I’ve seen talks on the use of storytelling in psychiatric hospitals, describing how some patients who responded to little else were calmed by stories, start listening and want to hear the end.

Sense-making

Telling our own stories allows us to make sense of things that have happened to us. Sometimes we use that to play around with how we feel about them or what sense to make of them.

And finally…

I could go on, but I think these are starting to overlap. You get the idea, I think. As I said, do get in touch if you want to discuss this. Otherwise, just send something in. It says on the conference site that you should send abstracts of 250-300 words, but I don’t mind if you send something shorter or longer. Or even if you send me a drawing or a YouTube clip of you telling me a story, or whatever random thing you like instead. Obviously it will be best if I can tell what you’re planning to talk about, but…

Constructive internet dialogue, is it possible?

Years ago I read an article in New Scientist about road rage. A psychologist said part of the problem was people in cars are depersonalised. You don’t think of the other driver as a person, you think of them as a car. You can’t see their face, read their body language, hear their voice.

By contrast, if you bump into someone as you are walking down the street, there are all sorts of signals – from apologetic body language, to saying, “Sorry!” – that help to defuse the situation.

In a car, there’s none of that. The other driver doesn’t look like a real, breathing person, they look like an object in your way. Just you, and your irritation, feel real to you.

I’ve often thought something similar happens on the internet.

Once upon a time we thought the internet was a big shining hope. Wow, look at that, people from all over the world can talk to each other! Talking is good, so more talking is better, right? Let a new era of peace, love and human understanding reign!

OK, so maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. But in the ’90s there was an optimism about what the internet could do for democracy and for humankind. That it could be a space for conversations that couldn’t or wouldn’t happen easily in real life. That people talking and sharing would naturally come to understand each other better.

But what do we actually see when we look around the internet? We see blowhards shouting at each other on newspaper comment threads and nobody listening, nobody learning anything, nobody understanding each other better. We see flame wars, trolling, polarisation.

Not to say there’s no constructive dialogue on the internet, but it often seems like the exception. Far more often a difference of opinion seems to spiral off into anger, insults and viciousness.

I think a big part of that is, a bit like with road rage, it’s much easier to be rude and unreasonable on the internet than it would be in real life. Words on a screen become a place to vent your frustrations. The other people you’re talking to don’t seem that real. With the added factor that it’s technically public – encouraging some to show off and posture for the imagined invisible audience.

I do see some constructive conversations. I see a lot more situations where constructive online conversations could be useful but aren’t happening – from people of different backgrounds falling out on twitter, to contested areas of science like GM. If we could work out what makes constructive conversations happen in one place, and not another, wouldn’t that be handy?

Maybe sometimes people just want to fall out and let off steam, and we shouldn’t worry too much twitter spats. But it would be useful to know – for democracy, for consultations, for civil society – how we can have public conversations online, about issues that matter, in constructive ways.

I’ve been asking people this question for a while now, and no-one seems to have any answers. We know some stuff about creating constructive dialogue in real life (and it’s still a lot harder than it looks), but I don’t know of any real research on online dialogue. And I speak as someone who’s spent ten years involved in running online dialogue events.

I’ve got some thoughts, and I think our events were usually pretty constructive, partly because of the way we set them up, which we developed by trial and error over the years. To be honest though, those events nearly all involved school students talking to either scientists, or local councillors. Which is a fairly specific situation. Not everything I’ve learned can be applied elsewhere.

For example, I can tell you that live chats tend to be more polite when the teacher is in the classroom. But, sadly, I can’t send a teacher round to look over the shoulder of every bitter misogynist about to take potshots at Mary Beard.

However, here are a few thoughts I’ve had:-

  • I think an ongoing relationship makes a huge difference. 

I’ve seen constructive conversations emerge online, even from fraught or snarky beginnings, when people have an ongoing relationship. Even if it’s just as twitter pals. Where people place some value on a continuing relationship, they are more likely to make an effort to acknowledge valid points, compromise and accommodate. 

Whereas, of course, a drive-by commenter is like the car driver you’ll never see again. It’s easy to flick them metaphorical Vs and shout ‘WANKER!’ after their departing back.

It’s not practical to expect an ongoing relationship from all newspaper commenters or dialogue participants. But are there ways we can use this effect? Give people status within a community for constructive behaviour, a bit like stack overflow?

  • I think photo avatars make a difference.

They remind us we’re talking to real human beings. Are there other little nudges we could use to humanise people?

  • I think effective and proactive moderators or facilitators make a difference.

But that’s resource intensive. Communities can self-moderate, or have volunteer moderators, but I’m not sure I’d hold up reddit as a great example of a constructive online space…

  • I think ground rules make a difference. 

Other people must have more thoughts on this. I imagine there’s a great deal of tacit knowledge out there – in people like me, in online community managers, moderators and all sorts of forum administrators. I suspect there’s also many bits and pieces of relevant research in all sorts of disciplines – in psychology, in sociology, in IT, in politics – but no-one’s pulled all this stuff together.

So I’ve got some questions:-

  1. Does anyone know of any research on this? Do we know of ways that we can set up online spaces that make constructive conversations more likely? Is anyone actually studying it? Is anyone asking all the people I mentioned above what they know? And then is anyone putting this all together to try to design effective online dialogue spaces and testing them out?
  2. Even if there isn’t any research, what are your thoughts on this? What do you think makes some online conversations or spaces more constructive than others?
  3. If there isn’t any research (that we know of), does anyone want to fund me to do a PhD investigating this question? Because it seems like it would be a damn useful thing to find out.

River of stories

If you’re interested in random interesting projects, this is me belatedly announcing we’ve now got a website for Tales from the River.

The project has been on a back-burner recently, as I’ve been doing a lot of work on I’m a Scientist’s GM Food event. That’s a bit of a departure for I’m a Scientist so it’s involved a lot of hard work, and a lot of learning.

(I’m really excited, and fascinated, by the GM Food event, by the way. I think it’s got the potential to see some really interesting, joined-up conversations. It’s the first I’m a Scientist event that’s open to all – not just school students – so go and have a browse, or ask a question. It’s intended to be a place for constructive, multi-perspective discussion, something we thought the topic of GM could do with…)

But enough of the I’m a Scientist hard-sell (I’m a real laugh at parties…), Tales from the River is still going ahead. We’ll be doing it in September. Walking all 187 miles of the River Trent, over three weeks, and doing storytelling sessions, followed by discussions and story-sharing, at every stop along the way.

If you are a person, or organisation, based along the route, who’s interested in us doing a session for you, or who can offer us a meal or lodging, then get in touch.

Some facts on getting girls into science

There’s a lot I’d like to say about women and science, but most must wait for another day. After the brouhaha today over that terrible Science, it’s a girl thing video I thought it would be useful to do a quick post with some actual research and facts about women and science.

The first thing to say is that in most areas of science the problem isn’t really getting girls to study it in the first place, but the a leaky pipe after that.

Loads of girls (in the UK*, which is where I’ve looked at the stats for) do science GCSEs, slightly fewer do A Levels, fewer again do a science degree.

Of those who do a science degree, fewer women than men do PhDs. Of those who do PhDs, fewer do post-docs… and so on up the seniority ladder.

It’s not the same in all subjects – biology and medicine-related subjects get plenty of women (at least in the early stages). Physics, computer science and engineering less so.

Here’s a UKRC report on this with all the stats

There is research on the subject issue – why do few girls study physics (despite stereotypes it’s not because they are less able at it) and what can you do that makes them more likely to study physics?

For example this research, found that girls whose science teachers had talked about the under-representation of women in physics, were more likely to go on to study physics.

This extensive research project for the Department of Education has all sorts of useful information and tips. Including the finding that showing how physics could be socially relevant, and to do with people, engaged girls more.

One piece of research suggests that trying to recruit girls by showing very glamorous and feminine role models (as in the video) is counter-productive. Although that research may not be that robust.

So, is that video going to do anything about the leaky pipe problem? Do you think it will encourage a woman who’s a senior researcher to go for that professorship?

Will it encourage someone just completing their PhD to apply for post-docs? Make a university department more likely to recruit a woman for a senior post? Improve university childcare provision or flexible working practices?

It seems intuitively unlikely, doesn’t it?

Some people on twitter were saying the offended people weren’t the target audience. That it was aimed at 11/12 year old girls. Well, leaving aside the problems of promoting short skirts and makeup to pre-pubescent girls, in that case it doesn’t need to get them interested in biology and chemistry, but should concentrate on physics.

I’m thinking Charlie’s Angels dancing round test tubes and lipstick isn’t going to do much to persuade girls in secondary school of the social relevance of physics. It looks a lot to me like the people who commissioned this video have completely ignored all the existing evidence on what the real problem is and what strategies might be used to fix it.

Wouldn’t it be nice if things like this were done with a bit of sensitivity, and with reference to the facts?

Declaration of interest – I developed and still act as a consultant for I’m a Scientist, Get me out of Here! This is a schools science programme where kids interact with real scientists. In my view it does a lot of the things recommended by the DfE report – showing cutting edge science, making it relevant and showing it’s to do with people, bringing students into contact with a range of interesting and realistic role models, etc. I bet the cost of making that shiny video would double I’m a Scientist’s budget for the year…

*Excluding Scotland, who have a different education system.

Tales from the River

Misty, early-morning photo of Trent-side dwelling at Attenborough

The Trent is a river with stories. It’s seen Celts, Romans and Saxons settle along its banks. When the Vikings invaded, they came in boats along the Trent. Itpowered the mills, and drained the factories, of the industrial revolution.

It’s the river that flows through the town I grew up in.

Rivers are mythic actors in a landscape. They bring things. They take things away. They float boats, and drown children. They can divide two settlements a mile apart, and they can connect two settlements counties away.

It’s just water, flowing along (different water all the time) and yet the river has been there for thousands – maybe millions – of years. Rivers remind me of stories.

I love storytelling as an art form. You create whole worlds using nothing but words and the sound of your voice. It’s the oldest human form of entertainment*. Our ancestors were probably doing it round campfires, in the Lower Pleistocene.

So here’s my crazy idea. I was once interviewing a man from the Environment Agency about leisure facilities along rivers. He told me there are footpaths all the way along the Trent. He said, ‘So now you can walk all the way along the river, from the source to the sea.’

I’ve absolutely no idea what he said in the rest of the conversation. Those words were glowing in my mind.

“…walk all the way along the river, from the source to the sea…”

My mind added the words, ‘telling stories’ at the end. And me looking mythic on a hilltop, with a wizard’s staff and some flowing robes.

The more I’ve thought about it since, the more bones I’ve put on the idea. It would be called Tales from the River. And we all know, a project with a great name can’t lose. It would be about bringing stories to people, bringing people together and bringing a bit of magic to life.

Each stop would bring people together to talk about their river. I’d tell some stories (with a river theme). Then the audience would become just people, they’d tell their own stories. About the river, or other rivers, or about the area. They’d discuss, draw parallels, perhaps learn from each other. They’d experience being heard. We could record stories, and collect a folk history of the Trent.

Scientists studying the river could talk to people who’d lived alongside it their whole lives. Conservation planners could talk to pre-Roman archeaologists. Estate agents talk to art historians. Agriculturists to pub landlords. Who knows what interesting things get started when people from different groups start talking? The key thing is to get people together, fire their imaginations and give them something to do together.

The idea was first just a crazy adventure I wanted to have. Doing something useful and possibly a bit magical at the same time would a bonus. It would be such a fantastic experience, and such an honour to do, that I’m not bothered about getting paid to do it.

But there would be accommodation each night, and food. I’m wondering though if it could be a money-free project? Inns, B+Bs, hotels, or just ordinary people, offer us food and board for the night. In exchange, we do a story session in a place of their choosing.

When I say us, I’ve decided the ideal team would be my long-suffering boyfriend and endearingly quarrelsome parents. Ross is a sound engineer and would do live sound design for storytelling performances. Dad’s a singer-songwriter, Mum’s a person who gets stuff done and both of them are ex-teachers. This gives us a lot of flexibility in what we can do, and would also be hilarious.

I think bed and board in exchange for a performance is nice and traditional, and also simple. I can see it working for a lot of people. A folky type of pub may want to have a storytelling night in their bar. A hotel might want to donate their performance to the local primary school. An ordinary person might want some unusual birthday party entertainment.

I reckon we can be pretty flexible, as long as people have realistic expectations of how polished it’s going to be (not very). There’s got to be at least a few people out there who go, ‘That sounds like a crazy idea, let’s sign up.’

So what do you think? Is it a crazy idea? Good crazy or bad crazy? Have you got ideas of what we could do, people I should contact, stories I should consider? Get in touch and let’s see what happens.

*please don’t write in and argue, sex or music fans, I concede you have a point.

Photo credit: veggiesosage

On the value of being second choice…

I’d like to make an IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: I am considering, after eight years, switching to a different brand of tobacco. Let me tell you how this shocking state of affairs came about…

A couple of weeks ago I was at a friend’s house with a group of people and someone was going to the shop. One guy asked for a packet of Drum Light, which is also the tobacco I smoke.

We all had another drink, and after a bit the kind shopper returned with a packet of Cutters Choice for the guy. He explained that the shop was out of Drum Light, he hoped the substitution was OK. The guy said something interesting in response. He said, ‘Don’t worry, that’s my second favourite brand anyway.’

For some reason this stuck in my head. I remember thinking, ‘I’ve never thought to have an official “second favourite brand” of tobacco before’.

As it happened, a few days later I was in a shop, buying tobacco and in a hurry to get somewhere. I asked for a packet of Drum Light, but they were out.  Now usually I’d leave the shop without buying anything. But I was in a hurry and the ‘second favourite brand’ echoed in my head.  Without thinking I ordered a packet of Cutters Choice instead.

It turned out this Cutters Choice was alright. It was a bit less dry than my usual brand, and tasted OK. By random chance, the next time I tried to buy tobacco they were out of Drum Light again. This time I didn’t hesitate, ‘Cutters Choice then please’.

By the time I finished THAT packet, I’d been smoking Cutters Choice for four days. When I bought my next pack of Drum Light, it seemed a bit dry. I started wondering if actually Cutters Choice was nicer. When I finished that packet I bought another Cutters Choice to test it out some more.

I have been smoking Drum Light for about eight years. I worked out I’ve bought and smoked about 1,500 packets of it in that time (yeah, yeah, I know). But now, all of a sudden,  I am most of the way to switching to a different brand. All triggered by the ‘my second fave tobacco’ aside.

It was *easy* for me to put Cutters Choice in my ‘second fave tobacco’ category, as I’d not thought of having one before. The category was empty, nothing needed to be displaced. Whereas if someone had gone head-on and told me I shouldn’t smoke Drum Light any more, but switch to Cutters Choice because it’s moister, they’d have met resistance. ‘I already have a favourite brand and that’s what I smoke.’

Just being exposed to the IDEA of a second favourite brand was all it took really. After that it was easy to adopt one, try it and find that I liked it. My main brand has been gently edged out. It didn’t seem like a big deal.

If part of your job involves getting people to try something new, I guess you can see where I’m going with this. We’ll often get nowhere trying to persuade people they want to abandon what they are doing already. You’re going head on with their existing thinking. It may be much more effective to go sideways and suggest your product as a second choice.

For my part, I know, of course, that there are people of peerless taste and discernment who already consider I’m a Scientist to be the best science engagement programme in the world. And I’d like those people to carry on as they are.

But there are other people who start from the position that face-to-face events are preferable, or that I’m a Scientist is too much fun for students to be learning much. To those people I say, why not consider I’m a Scientist as your second favourite engagement activity? Let it be your back up if the shop is out of science shows. What harm can it do? You might find you like it.