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Facts can’t persuade vaccine skeptics. Why not use fiction instead?



Scientists have accomplished something amazing: in record time, they’ve created a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19.

And yet Politifact reported in early December that only 50%-70% of Americans would be willing to get vaccinated, and the percentage of vaccine skeptics is higher amongst racial minority groups who have already been hit harder by the disease.

Meanwhile, various geopolitical adversaries aim to further undermine public trust in vaccinations through malicious online influence campaigns. These campaigns do not care about the facts--a state of affairs referenced with no little despair by phrases like “truth decay” and “post-truth.”

So what’s the solution? The facts must be embedded into good stories, of course. But in order for stories to be a meaningful vessel for scientific insight, scientists must understand how fact and fiction can support each other, and they must collaborate with story-tellers. Here’s how.

Scientists generally respect science, and science is a process that’s slow, meticulous, messy, uncertain, and subject to peer review. That’s why scientists don’t always excel at communicating their insights in an attention economy which prioritizes attention-grabbing, confident, and emotionally charged narratives. The problem is that the typical scientist’s reluctance to pass premature judgment or to overstate the evidence creates an information void that’s easily filled by less scrupulous communicators.

To overcome this reluctance, and to help scientists understand how to best distill their privileged scientific understanding into a story that’s digestible for a non-technical audience, let’s start with a crash course in some of the latest ideas on story-telling from the worlds of national security and information theory.

What’s the difference between a “narrative” and a “story”? While the words narrative and story are often used interchangeably, Ajit Maan, narrative strategist and author of Narrative Warfare, argues for a distinction between the terms. She cites the Hero’s Journey as a “narrative,” and contrasts the broad literary archetype with a “story,” which would be a particular instance of the archetype—for example, Star Wars: A New Hope.

With Maan’s observations as a guide, here I propose the following information-based definitions, which will later lend themselves to technical implementation: a story is a selection of information deemed relevant to a meaningful representation of some given subject. A narrative is a mechanism by which such information is selected. Before discussing some of the nuances of these definitions, it’s worth briefly discussing why they matter in the context of scientific communication.

The stark reality is that facts don’t always matter to people. It’s not because people are bad: it’s because we’re story-tellers. Experiments in psychology as well as studies from related disciplines like behavioral economics strongly suggest that human cognition has two modes for decision-making, and one of those modes is governed by heuristics that are essentially narratives. These narrative heuristics influence how humans assess risk and how they interpret evidence. The problem lies in the fact that narrative selects for meaning rather than truth or accuracy, which means that people are capable of elaborate, deeply meaningful narrative heuristics that are, alas, counterfactual.

Without implying that concerns about untrue narratives are unfounded, it’s worth noting that “narrative” has long occupied a liminal space between truth and falsehood, between the conscious and the unconscious, and between reality and unreality. That is to say, we’ve always been story-tellers. In fact, we’ve invented whole categories of communication, like “fiction,” to help us sate our story-telling obsession.

Although stories aren’t always “true,” that doesn’t mean they operate in total isolation from the measurable, empiric world. In the words of philosopher Stacie Friend: "Readers of fiction are adept at understanding what is “fictionally true” even though this goes well beyond what the text makes explicit.” Actually, research by psychologists suggests that readers have a nuanced and intuitive understanding of exactly which elements of the real world should be imported as they interpret a fictional world, and that this understanding is based “both on how different a story world is from the real world and on what they know to be causally central to the real world,” according to Deena Skolnick Weisberg and Joshua Goodstein.

Rather than despairing about our post-truth reality—including its high population of vaccine skeptics—we might ask ourselves instead: if narrative is valuable in its own right, and if it has long co-existed with scientific fact, how can scientists take advantage of the human brain’s penchant for story-telling to communicate scientific facts?

The answer lies in the definitions provided earlier: a story is a selection of information deemed relevant to a meaningful representation of some given subject. A narrative is a mechanism by which such information is selected.

To communicate real scientific insight through fiction, scientists must first be responsible for determining the bedrock facts to be communicated. These facts form the basis of the narrative, the mechanism by which all other information included in the story will be selected. For instance, in the case of communication about the pandemic, any meaningful story must revolve around the fact COVID vaccines are generally safe and effective.

When scientists take responsibility for choosing the narrative selection mechanism, they play to one of their great strengths: careful, evidenced-based thinking. But by treating the facts as a mechanism for information selection, rather than as the end products of communication efforts, story-tellers are still free to invent diverse, emotionally compelling characters, dramas, and doubts that can penetrate audience belief structures.

So far, I’ve presented reasons for scientists to collaborate with story-tellers. But what exactly does a real life collaboration between scientists and story-tellers look like?

Academics at Arizona State University, in combination with members of the U.S. military, have already set a precedent for a similar collaboration in the realm of national security. They’ve created a series of targeted, fact-based speculative graphic novellas as way to help soldiers prepare for future national security threats. The novellas' illustrated, fictional story-line is interspersed with non-fictional mini-essays.

Using this same approach, fiction in support of the pandemic response could be the centralized, collaborative project of a single cross-disciplinary group that embeds scientists and academics with writers and visual artists. Alternatively, a national arts contest or vaccine ambassadorship program can provide a skeleton of factual, vaccine-supportive mini-essays interspersed with "blank pages" to creative members of local communities (including the many creative school-children who are currently sending their parents to early graves). Rather than suppressing vaccine skepticism, let local story-tellers decide how to best fictionally represent their communities' doubts, fears, and questions. These human experiences don't conflict with science: they converse with it.

Who will take these actions?

  • Centralized team of scientists and communicators to determine the scientific narrative.
  • Writers, artists, and creatives, either as part of the centralized communications team or dispersed in local communities.
  • If the effort involves the local community, teams of scientifically literate, community-oriented judges to vet submissions.

What are the projected costs?

  • Cost of physical booklets of factual, vaccine-supportive mini-essays interspersed with "blank pages," or cost of cybersecurity to ensure submission integrity if these booklets are distributed digitally.
  • Opportunity costs for participants.
  • Pay or other recognition for professional consultants and creatives (if efforts are centralized) or local judges and contest winners (if efforts are decentralized).


About the author(s)

Computer scientist, fiction writer, educator. Current student at Khoury College of Computer Science, Northeastern University.

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