4 min read

I'm Suspicious of Stories

One of the first rules of science communication is that you need "to tell a story". Stories are memorable. Stories are exciting. Everybody loves stories. No one wants to hear you drone on about methods and statistics and uncertainties.

But I often do not like stories – at least not stories purporting to tell me about scientific findings or historical facts. They make me feel like someone is hiding something from me.

As I was trying to figure out my problems with telling stories, my son came home with a book on Mary Anning – a fossil hunter from the early 1800s whose finds were instrumental in overturning long-held assumptions about the age of the earth – Stone girl, bone girl.

Nearly every page I read distorted Mary Anning's life in some way. The book ended with her famous ichthyosaurous find, which elevated her status among the anatomists and proto-paleontologists in Britain at the time. How did she find it? Well, it came down to her dog, who wouldn't leave some rocks alone. According to the book, after calling the dog back many times, Mary finally acquiesces – and low-and-behold, a giant skeleton!

She did have a dog who tragically died in a rock slide. But I haven't seen any evidence that the dog found the ichthyosaurus. I suppose it's possible (but doubtful) that this "dog found it" detail was mentioned in her diary. What's undeniable is that it was Mary's skill – in finding and cleaning fossils – that was the main reason for her success. Not a lucky dog.

It's also implied that the spirit of her father, who introduced Mary to fossil hunting, inhabited her dog after her father's death. So, in a way, it was her father's find. A nice little broadside against a woman whose skills and contributions were routinely downplayed and neglected – usually in favor of the men who bought her fossils – during her life.

The most galling distortion, though, is that after selling her ichthyosaurus skeleton she had enough money for her and her mom to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. Complete hogwash. Her and her family constantly struggled to make ends meet. The ichthyosaurus find helped her a little bit, but her income from selling fossils was always low and inconsistent.

Ending the story with the ichthyosaurus find is another interesting choice, as if that was her only contribution. This is the "...and they lived happily ever after" moment.

Stone girl, bone girl is an egregious example. But part of the reason that it's egregious (to me) is that I know something about Mary Anning. If I didn't, I wouldn't necessarily question the aspects of the story I identified above as being potentially untrue (okay, the spirit of her father reincarnated in her dog would be a bit of a stretch). And this is part of the devilish problem – compelling stories are popular, making writers want to fit odd-shaped realities into boxes that meet audience expectations.

I'm not arguing against the merits of simplification or selective omission. Any re-telling involves directing attention and being sensitive to what the audience knows, expects, and can understand. Should a children's book emphasize Mary's poverty and death? Maybe not. But the choices the author made in this case made Mary Anning's story flat. A story that might address the hardships of living through the early 1800s or the conflict that her findings had with predominant religious beliefs – or any number of other aspects of her life and discoveries that are different from life as we know it – becomes just a fairy tale, employing the same tropes and the same beats that we would find in many other stories.

Popular stories rely on a basic story format: there is a protagonist, there is rising conflict, there is some sort of resolution. It's the neatness of the story that irks me. In other words, the problem isn't with stories themselves – every re-telling is a story – it's how often the pursuit of story-making distorts the process of accurate science communication. The story cart comes before the research horse. Or the entertainment cart comes before the education horse.

Elements added to a story to make it the kind of story that people want to hear also tend to play an outsized role in our memory. James Lind discovered a cure for scurvy with the first clinical trial. Did he? John Snow removed the handle on the Broad Street Pump, triumphantly ending the 1854 cholera outbreak. Did he?

The primary work of science communicators should not be to present a fully wrapped gift to the public. Rather, it's to give the public something to chew on – to complicate the world a little. Often it's the things that don't fit that are interesting – the deviations from what's expected. More than anything, the primary work of science communicators should be to not make random stuff up because it sounds good.


Here is the book I criticize:

Anholt, L. (1999). Stone girl, bone girl: The story of Mary Anning. Scholastic Inc..

And here is where I got most of my knowledge of Mary Anning:

Emling, S. (2009). The fossil hunter: dinosaurs, evolution, and the woman whose discoveries changed the world. St. Martin's Press.

My comment on John Snow removing the Broad Street Pump comes from:

Morens, D. M. (2013). Commentary: Cholera conundrums and proto-epidemiologic puzzles. The confusing epidemic world of John Lea and John Snow. International Journal of Epidemiology, 42(1), 43–52. https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyt016

The last page of the article notes that the epidemic was already waning, the city removed it (mostly symbolically, it seems), and put it back on shortly thereafter.