16 July 2013

I'm a sucker for a good story.

And David put his hand in his bag, and thence took a stone...
Always have been.

One of my favorite stories is, obviously, the story of the 2004 Boston Red Sox. Specifically, the American League Championship Series, starting late in game 4.  The Yankees had just beaten the Red Sox in three straight games - none of them terribly close - and they were poised to win their decisive fourth game and move on to the World Series. The Yankees had the lead in the ninth inning, and brought on their closer, Mariano Rivera, possibly the greatest relief pitcher to ever play the game.  Mighty Goliath stood on the mound, but an overmatched Kevin Millar somehow managed to draw a walk.  Then speedy David Roberts replaced Millar as a pinch runner, and off Roberts went, stealing second as if he had just been shot from a sling. The story continues with an improbable run of four straight wins by the Red Sox, complete with examples of heroism and symbolism and colorful characters and the good guys winning and lessons on perseverance and tenacity and good humor and all that.

The best part of the story, of course - it actually happened.  It's all verifiable. If it weren't true, well, it wouldn't be much of a story.

Virginia Heffernan has a favorite story too, arguably even better than the 2004 Red Sox.  It's one of the greatest stories ever written. It's so good it's been around in one form or another for thousands of years. It's so good that we use characters and vignettes from it as our metaphors and everyone knows what we're talking about.  People cite the story when they're building hospitals or volunteering in homeless shelters or growing the food we all eat or searching for a cure for AIDS.  The story provides some answers for all the big questions like how we got here and why. And, apparently, Ms. Heffernan thinks that stories this amazing, stories like this that have stood the test of time, really have to be at least somewhat true - at least this story, anyway.  Even if you really can't prove that any of the specific details actually happened.  Plenty of very smart people basically think the same thing.

Heffernan is exceptionally smart - especially when it comes to knowing a good story.  You can't fake your way to a Harvard Ph.D. in anything. She has an accomplished career as a critic.  She writes good stories, too - both fact (the script of a documentary about Matthew Shepard) and fiction (The Underminer).  I think Heffernan is smart enough to understand that while a good story is typically better when it's true, not all great stories have to be.  Further, I think Heffernan understands the problems she creates for herself when we discount things that are verifiable because we like the better story.

George Zimmerman believed a compelling story too, one he heard for years.  He believed the story that says there are good guys and bad guys - and bad guys act a certain way and maybe even look a certain way. He bought totally into that narrative, and he thought of himself as one of the good guys. He believed the story that says people have to stand up for their communities against people who don't belong there.  I'd even bet that some of the characters or metaphors in Heffernan's favorite story show up from time to time in Zimmerman's story.

He believed that story so much that he had to be the "hero" and ignore instructions from the police to stay in his car.  He believed that story so much that a jury just determined that he legitimately feared for his life when he encountered a teenager armed only with an iced tea and some skittles, and shot him in the chest. Zimmerman's "heart was in the right place," according to a juror.  After all, this is the power of a good story too.

Heffernan isn't Zimmerman, I know.  But Zimmerman is a salient, tragic example of what can happen when we don't try to verify facts, when we simply buy into the compelling narrative, and we act on those beliefs. After all, that same story Heffernan and so many of us love so much has been cited to justify all sorts of unspeakable crimes as well.

When Heffernan "outed" herself as a creationist of sorts, she got the extra helping of snarky indignation and hyper-analysis from the science community you'd expect. Scientists and their advocates were, in my view, justifiably angry.  I understand the frustration but honestly I thought it wasn't constructive. Because the backlash to the backlash started up just as quickly, and here we go again.  It reminded me of the time the Miss USA pageant contestants were asked about teaching evolution in schools and then they got mocked. It wasn't until some friends and I got together to provide an actual, alternative answer from some pretty incredible women that anyone did anything constructive about it.   And even then, that pageant video has been viewed more than a million times and the snarky response more than 2 million times.  Our thoughtful response has been viewed only 45,000 times.

So since it's now in fashion to spout controversial beliefs that some people won't like, here's mine.

Science needs Virginia Heffernan.

Seriously, it does. Science needs better storytellers.  Sure, we have some people who tell great stories - folks like Maryn McKenna, Ed Yong, and Deborah Blum. We have plenty of people who can tell those smaller-scale stories like why a curveball curves or how a chameleon changes colors. But Heffernan understands the elements of a great narrative.  She understands the impact of a story on a society, on a culture. She knows how to push people's buttons. She has relationships with top-tier media people. She's smart. She's credible with people scientists don't always reach.  She can help us craft the stories we need to craft to inspire young people, improve the quality of life of people everywhere, and even save lives.

The stakes are as high as they've ever been.  Right now, parents aren't vaccinating their kids because they like the story that actress spins about autism. School-age girls are getting pregnant because our "comprehensive" sex education isn't all that comprehensive - thanks in no small part to the people who take Ms. Heffernan's favorite story really seriously.  People are investing in buildings right on the coastline even though we know the coastline will be further inland in a matter of years. And yes, we're failing our children by not giving them the education they need to succeed in high-skill, high-wage life science jobs.

I think science has all the necessary elements of an overwhelming, awe-inspiring narrative. It has characters millions of people don't know about but should.  It has history, conflict, heroes and villains, miracles, and everything else a great story needs.

Plus it's true. And we can prove it. We need someone as smart and talented as Virginia Heffernan to help us tell the story.

There, I said it.

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