When I was a child there was a TV program that we watched each week called the Back and White Minstrel Show. Produced in the United Kingdom, the show featured white men in black-face acting out black stereotypes. The program ended when the BBC began receiving complaints about the show’s racist core stories.
It is fair to say that stories have a dark side: stories can propagate prejudice, they can lie, they can distort truth and they can silence alternative voices. Stories told often reflect the views of power. Just look at the last weeks news. Methamphetamine in houses in New Zealand. The last government had a dominant narrative around poor citizens, “They were drug addicted, lazy and not worthy of respect or justice”. Is there any surprise then that the National leadership could not hear scientists telling them that very low levels of P in houses were not dangerous? That story, evidence based as it was, did not sit with the narrative of those in power and was silenced.
Stories are dangerous. The question becomes: what is an ethical (science) story; how can we tell an ethical story, who chooses, who speaks and what will the powerful let us say?
This question of ethical science stories is one I have been pondering for months now. This is what I think. A story is ethical if supported by the evidence; for example, my daughters HPV vaccine left her healthy and resistant to the virus. That is my story, supported by clear lines of evidence. That story is ethical. In contrast, the stories of vaccine harm, without any lines of evidence beyond the post hoc ergo proctor hoc fallacy are not ethical; especially, when told second or third hand.
Of course, science is a social as well as a technical enterprise, but truth and evidence are real. I don’t accept post-truth arguments that seek to privilege myths over science. That kind of story takes us backwards. Repeating lies; harms, as we saw with the Black and White Minstrels. As a science communicator I will use evidence supported stories. That is it.
The quotes and links below are to sources that have helped me develop my ideas on this topic. My Liz Neely blog is first because the topic of ethical story telling was a question asked toward the end of the video. That started this question for me.
Ethical Considerations of Using Narrative to Communicate Science
Michael F. Dahlstrom, Shirley S. Ho