In a recent article for the Guardian, Adam Corner of Climate Outreach argues that it is stories, rather than science, that will eventually win over the climate-sceptics.
It’s a well thought out and interesting piece, and it raises important questions about the relationship between communications and science. Is it really one or the other though? Must we pit science against storylines, measurement versus myth, truth versus tales?
In short, the two shouldn’t necessarily be contradictory, but are sadly often seen to be. Mr. Corner’s piece looks at a positive example where the power of storytelling can be more potent in driving change than dry facts, but there are negative examples too.
Take, for example, the terrible fallout of the MMR-jab/Autism debate. The science was flawed from the start but the narrative was powerful, and the story took on a momentum all of its own. Ultimately, for many parents, the strength of the story outweighed the science, and incidences of measles and mumps soared in the UK, causing illness and fatalities and meaning that many children to this day will be at risk from diseases they needn’t be. As such, though Andrew Wakefield was struck from the medical register and barred from practising medicine, the damage was and still is being done.
However, Mr.Corner’s example is an altogether more positive one. Importantly, the stories he encourages are in support of the changes that the scientific consensus endorses. Responding to and attempting to avert climate change is very much the scientific recommendation. However, in terms of a motivating factor, storytelling seems to occupy a space opposite the test-tubes and lab coats.
It makes sense. In the ideal world (depending on your view), we’d all be rational human beings, swayed only by logic and evidence. But as field after field has found – economics, psychology, sociology – we rarely are. PR is in the relatively unique position of taking as its starting point the knowledge that human beings are slightly more complicated beasts than that.
So is PR to be defined in opposition to science? The answer is emphatically no. To place each in opposition to the the other is a category error – science is a method of discovering knowledge, PR is a method of communication.
It’s an important point to remember – that PR isn’t the shady attempt to conceal truth that some would claim it is. PR is essentially a tool – and like all tools it can be used for good or ill effect and is itself neutral. Pieces like Mr. Corner’s remind us of the power of effective communication in delivering change – however true something might be, it’s an impotent truth if it goes unheard.