Covers of books by Bloomfield and Seetaler on science communication

May 17, 2024, by Brigitte Nerlich

Digging Deep into Stories in Science Communication

This book review was first published in SciComm Book reviews for the Public Understanding of Science Blog. It is reposted here with permission. The official print version is also now available here.

I reviewed two books:

Bloomfield, E. F. (2024). Science v. Story: Narrative Strategies for Science Communicators. University of California Press.

Seethaler, S. L. (2024). Beyond the Sage on the Stage: Communicating Science and Contemporary Issues Effectively. University of Toronto Press.


These are two very different books that will appeal to different people in different ways. Reading any one of them will not make you instantly a better science communicator, but you will gain insights into many aspects of science communication you might not have previously thought about, over and above advice to not just using a megaphone.

When you put the phrase ‘science communication’ into Google Images you get a lot of pictures of how science communication should not be done. You see two heads or one head opposite several heads connected by speech bubbles or strings of wool or little flash cards; or you see a person standing up in a white coat shouting through a megaphone. Why are there no images of how science communication is done or should be done? Because it’s actually extremely complex and not easy to depict in one go.

This complexity is explored in very different ways in two recent books, by Emma Bloomfield and S. L. Seethaler, on ‘science communication’ (from lectures to answering kids’ questions over breakfast to public dialogues). Both books are extremely well written and accessible. They can be dipped into by people who want to know how to approach science communication overall or as a theoretical issue, but more importantly by those who want to go out there and do science communication in various situations and various modes. Both books have great ways of summarising the lessons learned or to be learned for each chapter and to try them out.

Intuitively, one might think that ‘telling a story’ and ‘doing a science’ are surely different things, as indicated by the v. in the title of Bloomfield’s book, Science v Story. (‘Doing a science on the red planet’ is the motto of the parody Twitter/X account of the Mars rover Curiosity). But are these really such different things? Telling a story involves inventing heroes and villains, quests and adventures, death and salvation, while doing a science involves looking or poking at things, testing hypotheses, using complicated instruments, measuring stuff, discussing matters with colleagues, writing papers.

But, as Sir Mark Walport said, “Science isn’t finished until it’s communicated”. And so, we get to science communication. A red thread runs through all of the activities I listed above and across the seemingly different ones of telling a story, doing a science and communicating science. They are all, in one way or another, infused by language, by communicative and rhetorical practices. This is what Bloomfield’s book is all about — science as a rhetorical practice; in particular science communication and mis-communication as rhetorical practices.

Bloomfield’s book begins with Donald Trump telling a story at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. This was a story about bleach and how Trump persuaded some people to drink it in order to rid themselves of Covid-19. This is not what we normally think of as a science story. This is what Bloomfield calls a disingenuous counter story or rival story. The book helps readers spot disingenuous stories, to distinguish between productive and unproductive rival stories, and to craft more honest and productive ones — a really important skill in the world we live in.

Emma Frances Bloomfield: Science v. Story: Narrative strategies for science communicators, University of California Press, 2024; 288pp

Bloomfield examines four major science/society controversies, namely climate change, evolution, vaccination, and Covid-19 and describes the sometimes overlapping (rival) stories told about them. She also introduces new and rather ingenious instruments for dissecting and assembling science stories of all types called ‘narrative webs’ and ‘narrative constellations’.

Imagine a spider’s web. Bloomfield calls the central ring a micro-ring or hub spiral. This is followed by a meso-ring and then a macro-ring. These rings represent stories that range from the specific to the general, the concrete to the abstract or the narrow to the broad. Then there are what she calls wedges, the segments of the web that run across the rings towards the middle like pieces of a cake. These focus on important features of a story, namely characters, action, sequence, scope, storyteller and content. Constellation practices weave together rings and features in various ways. This type of thinking about stories as constellations of features and focus is intended to overcome the story versus science binary.

Chapter 1 guides readers through the four case studies with a particular focus on rival stories. This is important, as rival stories, such as Climategate or creation museums, can tell us something about how stories manage to become persuasive and pervasive. The next three chapters deal with various types of narrative ‘wedges’: chapter 2 with character and action wedges; chapter 3 with sequence and scope wedges; chapter 4 with storyteller and content wedges. In each chapter Bloomfield uses a rich selection of examples to illustrate the use of wedges in storytelling (from ‘Don’t look up’ to ‘Show your Stripes’ and much more).

Chapter 5 invites readers to engage with what Bloomfield calls ‘constellation practices’ or rhetorical practices. This is an important chapter, as she homes in on strategies for science communicators who want to use any of the narrative features as hub wedges. These strategies are “(1) humanizing science by using scientists as characters, (2) empowering audiences by positioning them as active heroes, (3) shrinking expansive scopes by providing specific examples, (4) managing uncertainty by using concrete language and visuals, (5) locating strategic overlaps between science and rival stories, and (6) decentering science”.

Bloomfield also mentions two strategies for experimenting with meso- and macro-ring mapping across wedges, one of which is using metaphors. I was slightly surprised to find that she calls a metaphor an ‘artistic comparison’. This is true in many instances but, as George Lakoff and many others have shown, to use Seethaler’s words, “we are not always conscious of how metaphors sway us”. Metaphors can be created deliberately but most metaphors are used unconsciously.

Each of Bloomfield’s core chapters ends with a series of thought-provoking questions that science communicators can use to inform their practices. The concluding chapter provides a summary of how to deal with narrative webs but also highlights obstacles to good story telling. The chapter goes back to the title but replaces the versus with an and: Science and story. This is great, but I am not sure whether initially opposing the two in the title doesn’t reinforce a rival story about science and storytelling. Would it have been better to mention webs or wedges or constellations? Throughout the book, Bloomfield weaves a diversity of voices into her own narrative about science communication, especially indigenous ones. This is really inspiring.

Seethaler’s book tackles science communication quite differently but, in a way, seems to follow Bloomfield’s advice. Every chapter starts with a micro-story, based quite often on the exploits of the author’s dog which then gently leads into the topic of the chapter. There are also chapters that are anchored in popular stories related to ABBA or Star Trek or Games of Thrones. These beginnings make readers smile, draw them in and then learn. We see storytelling in action and, with it, good science communication.

S. L. Seethaler: Beyond the Sage on the Stage: Communicating science and contemporary issues effectively, University of Toronto Press, 2024; 322pp

Seethaler’s micro-stories are like the tip of an iceberg and hide multiple layers of practical and theoretical knowledge. Seethaler’s work is grounded in insights from Vygotsky, Piaget and Bruner, Damasio and Gigerenzer, Popper and Kuhn, Jasanoff and Wynne, Lakoff, Thibodaux and Flusberg, and many more. These names from the fields of education, psychology, neuroscience, cognitive linguistics, etc. are not thrust into readers’ faces but you can find them in the footnotes and I found that quite reassuring, as they echoed my own intellectual baggage.

The book is a bit of a treasure trove but the structure of the book helps the reader to find a way to understanding science communication inside out and from top to bottom. As Seethaler says, the “first half of his book (chapters 1–5) lays the groundwork to make communication efforts about any topic more conducive to learning. The second half (chapter 6–10) digs into how people reason about complex and controversial issues and identifies strategies for discussing trade-offs and uncertainty, negotiating heuristics avoiding backfires, and perceiving unspoken nuances”.

Each chapter starts with what one may call a short list of learning objectives offered in a triptych of Knowledge, Skills and Habit, such as “Knowledge: How should potential costs, benefits, and uncertainties be identified and discussed? Skills: Clarify complexity with humility, humanity, and room for multiple perspectives. Habits of mind: Cultivate awareness of value judgments made in assessments of tradeoffs.”

Chapter 1 starts with the essentials, thinking about the who, where and why of science communication, that is audiences, contexts and goals. Chapter 2 deals with the most important tools used by what Seethaler calls the ‘communication artisan’ in making communication work, namely words and images. It clears up a lot of confusion around the use of so-called jargon and alerts us to ‘hidden jargon’. It also gives advice on image design.

Chapter 3, my favourite, discusses metaphors, comparisons and analogies, that is to say how framing works when we use words and images. Here we get back to Bloomfield’s interest in science communication as a rhetorical practice. The whole of this chapter is worth reading, as it offers a very clear exposition of how metaphor works for and against you. Also look at the exercises at the end of the book (and not only for this chapter). For example: “If you were to write an editorial encouraging research on geoengineering technologies, what theme(s) or metaphors (if any) would you choose? Would you use different metaphors if you were to write a cautionary piece?” and much more!

After these three ‘how-to’ chapters we get to two chapters that make readers aware of what might go wrong, how misconceptions may emerge and how to design stories that take these into account and, going beyond them, make those involved in communication learn. Chapter 4 contains some real gems, such as describing the communicator as ‘scaffolder’ or storytelling as fishing (give them a nibble, then reel them in), or using a set of Matryoshka dolls — a nested set of stories. In one part I found especially important Seethaler tells us how to design one line that encapsulates our research — a line that is not just like an elevator pitch.

Recently, Daniel Kahneman died; he provided so many important insights into how we live by and through stories. Cass Sunstein, who co-authored books with him, reminisced on X/Twitter: “When we were writing articles together and got stuck, he would ask, ‘What’s our one-liner?’ A way of ensuring clarity on our basic thesis.” Building on Kahneman and others, Seethaler stresses that there are various types of one-liners, such as the ‘tantalise-one-liner’ or the ‘take-home-one-liner’. We also learn about what Seethaler calls the ‘essence synopsis’ which may help you connect with the audience (invites us to care about the topic), asks ‘What’s New? What’s You?’ (identifies the novel research project) and establishes a link to the field (situates the project in prior work). This is important not only for ‘science communication’ but also for grant writing, for example.

Chapter 5 goes behind the scenes of science and its products to reveal people and processes and especially heuristics. Chapter 6 is devoted to issues of uncertainty and contains a lovely section entitled “Respecting Klingons and the role of values in weighing tradeoffs”. It also alerts us to possible misalignment between technical and popular risk assessment and much more, including issues around humility and humanity.

Chapter 7 deals with a really important issue, namely how (not) to trigger audiences’ decision-making survival tactics — and it’s back to Star Trek in a section entitled “From Vogon slapstick to making the unintuitive intuitive”. Here we get advice on how to make information salient, how to avoid confusions that lead to statistical lies, and, most importantly issues of ethics and trust.

Chapter 8 homes in on the backfire effect (and how to prevent it), groupthink, polarisation, cultural cognition, de- and pre-bunking and many other really important issues one has to know how to deal with in the modern communication landscape.

Chapter 9 tackles issues that are often neglected and that the author calls the ‘dark matter of communication’. These are matters of stage fright and breathing, of speech patterns and non-verbal messages, and, very importantly, of ‘empathetic listening’. I found that really inspiring, having suffered from fear of speaking in public for a long time.

Chapter 10 brings all the tools and concepts collected throughout the book together in one toolbox and ends with a very useful list of checklists.

Bloomfield’s book introduces a fresh tool for thinking about and doing (better) science communication and engagement. I hope it will inspire storytelling that fosters resonance rather than resentment. It should be read in particular by anybody who is engaged in science communication around such issues as climate change or vaccination. Seethaler’s book provides a rich tapestry of suggestions and advice about how to engage in science communication body and soul and how to get the most out of it for everybody involved. Both books can help turn science communication amateurs into science communication connoisseurs or what Seethaler calls ‘artisans’.

These are two very different books that will appeal to different people in different ways. Reading any one of them will not make you instantly a better science communicator, but you will gain insights into many aspects of science communication you might not have previously thought about, over and above advice to not just using a megaphone.

Posted in science communication