On Accuracy in Science Storytelling

You’ve probably heard of Peter Wohlleben’s book, The Hidden Life of Trees. It purports to reveal the science of trees and forests, and to show how they’re much like humans. It’s been a huge bestseller, with critics and readers alike raving about it being a “paradigm-smasher.”

What you probably haven’t heard, however, is that—in his push to make trees seem human-like (feeling affection toward one another, experiencing pain, having a sense of taste and even maternal instincts)—Wohlleben has cherry picked data and seriously stretched scientific facts.

The book was originally published in German, where it has been heavily criticized by forest scientists. As Dr. Christian Ammer, a forestry professor at Germany’s Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, writes:

“An uninformed reader gets the impression that all [these] amazing “findings” were confirmed by science…it is no wonder that most German forest scientists, including myself, are very unhappy with this book as it is definitely not what it pretends to be: popular science. In fact it is not.”

I tried to read it, but couldn’t make it past the first few chapters. Not only did the book not have an introductory section of any kind, but the excessive anthropomorphizing of trees and forests went against all of my scientific and science writing instincts.

I was interested to read a critical review of the book, written by my colleague, plant physiologist and science writer Erin Zimmerman. She cites several issues with the book, including:

  1. The mixing of opinions and anecdotes with scientific fact, without adequately distinguishing between the two.
  2. Wohlleben’s lack of knowledge of certain research fields, such as pedology (the study of soils). He states that “researchers are only peripherally interested in the thousands of species discovered [in soil] so far,” which ignores the many hundreds of research papers focused on soil.
  3. His fuzzy explanations, which don’t really educate the lay reader on what is known about tree physiology.

However, Zimmerman notes that, when Wohlleben gets into more traditional aspects of forest science, such as carbon dioxide levels, overwintering, and biodiversity, the writing is less anthropomorphized and more scientifically accurate.

Zimmerman’s conclusion?

Trees are remarkable without human traits, as [Wohlleben] shows when he moves to a more traditional approach for some parts of his book. With respect to the science presented, the lay reader would be well served by a disclaimer helping them to understand the book as one man’s observations on and beliefs about forests, rather than a strictly scientific read.” (emphasis mine)

But what do all of us (Ammer, Zimmerman, myself) have in common? We’re all scientists (or former scientists in my case). And as Brian Bethune at Maclean’s Magazine writes:

“German forester Peter Wohlleben’s account of anthropomorphized trees … infuriates scientists and utterly charms everyone else who reads it.” (emphasis mine)

So why are scientists so up in arms over Wohlleben’s book? Because some of the facts are incorrect or stretched into inconceivability.

Why does the public love this book? Because it’s written for them, and shows the forest in a human-like light.

I shared Zimmerman’s review on Twitter, and got this response from Jay Ingram.

Marcello di Cintio also responded via Twitter, providing an anecdote from an interview he did with Wohlleben:

These are critical questions. How accurate should science writing be? Is it more important to get people interested than it is to be accurate? Is it elitist to be concerned that people aren’t getting the actual facts, but a modified version of them? Should we just be happy that so many people have read and enjoyed the book and learned something about forests? Besides, as Zimmerman herself says above, once Wohlleben got partway through the book his science was much more grounded in reality.

Sometimes I think scientists’ (and my) negative reactions to certain types of science writing are not so much about factual integrity as they are about tone. Wohlleben turns science on its head by anthropomorphizing trees. No scientist would take that seriously. But Wohlleben’s audience isn’t scientists, is it? It’s the public.

Another example is David Wallace-Wells’ (DWW) article in New York Magazine about climate change, The Uninhabitable Earth. DWW’s article—also meant for public consumption—

“had climate scientists frothing at the mouth over the fact that it had factual errors (see last week’s post), was over-the-top, and unnecessarily negative.” (my quote from a previous post).

But DWW showed where all of his information came from, and whom he talked to to confirm the data. Again, the question appeared to be more one of tone. Scientists were upset that “people don’t respond to doom and gloom, that you have to be more positive.” But as I wrote at the time, “likely a lot of people [read it] who might not have if it weren’t deemed so controversial.” So in this case, I thought it was okay to write what he did because I believed the facts were correct, and he reached a lot of people. It was more a matter of how the story was being told.

Something similar is true of a recent article by Eric Holthaus at Grist, called Ice Apocalypse, about sea level rise and the collapse of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. Holthaus uses current research to suggest that sea level rise could be faster—and a lot higher—than we’d originally thought. Of course, scientists took issue with his article. As with the DWW article, there was the chorus of people saying no one listens to doomsday framing. But there was a rebuttal by Tamsin Edwards, a UK researcher, who basically said that the science was mostly correct but that Holthaus took it too far. One of her key criticisms? She called it “an emotive article.” She also said:

“I think his article is too pessimistic: that it overstates the possibility of disaster. Too soon, too certain.

And there’s the rub. Scientists are used to writing about cold, hard facts with no emotion. They have it drilled into their head that they can’t predict anything with certainty because of the very nature of science (and when studying ice sheet response to climate change, there are some serious uncertainties). They even criticize their own, like James Hansen’s huge climate change paper from 2016 (funnily enough, also about sea level rise), for going out on too far of a research limb.

Good science writers, however, use the facts as the backbone of an article, then decide what tone they’ll take and what emotions they’ll infuse it with (as seen in both the DWW and Holthaus articles). Once you add emotion, it puts the facts in a different light. And the narrative can no longer be controlled by scientists alone.

This tweet from Ingram really sums it up—the idea of “thinking beyond the data.”

Science writers are looking beyond the data to the story, to what it means for society and the environment (at least in the two examples I’ve provided here). Scientists rarely look beyond the data unless they’re trying to figure out the next stage of a research program. And yes, some scientists are gatekeepers, who don’t want non-scientists to write about their research in a way that they, as scientists, wouldn’t.

I want people to get excited about science—especially environmental science. But I want them to be excited about accurate science. Nature is amazing just as it is, and I don’t want to twist facts to make it seem even more amazing. As Zimmerman said: “trees are remarkable without human traits,” and as Richard Fortey wrote in his review of the book for Nature: Trees are splendid and interesting enough in their own right without being saddled with a panoply of emotions.”

The challenge for the science writer is to generate enthusiasm based on our knowledge about (in this case) trees, while using good storytelling to draw people in, and trying to avoid “changing” facts to make them more appealing to readers.

This is similar to an earlier Twitter discussion I had with Ingram. I suggested that facts are the most important aspect of science writing and science communication. He replied that you can’t have good scicomm without entertainment value.

I had to clarify that I don’t think it’s a case of either facts or good entertainment value. I think it’s a case of bringing them together in one excellent package.

It’s a question not just of credibility, but of skill. It’s easy to write a clickbait headline that’s scientifically inaccurate (see IFLS for an example of this). It’s harder to take the scientific facts and spin them into a compelling narrative that draws the reader in and quietly shows them something new. This is what science writers at the top of their game, such as Ben Goldfarb and Rebecca Boyle, do every day.

It’s important to remember that, when you’re doing science writing or science journalism, you’re representing a scientist’s work to the world. It’s your responsibility to them, whether it’s an individual scientist or an entire field of science, to get it right. But at the same time, you get to choose the tone you use and the storyline you follow, and that may make some scientists uncomfortable because they think that facts and story don’t mix.

You don’t want to write a boring recitation of facts. No, as Ingram says, storytelling requires “color, context, and entertainment value.” But not at the expense of getting the facts right.

Some argue that this is a romanticized view of science communication. That you can’t reach a critical mass of people with just hard facts. That insisting on sticking to facts ignores the social science that tells us how best to communicate with people and keep them engaged. But if you don’t have to abandon facts to write great stories.

Even fiction writers are careful about getting their facts straight, when it would be easy for them to just make things up. Kim Stanley Robinson, for example, read journal articles about climate change to make sure that some of the aspects of his latest book, New York 2140, were plausible. My colleague Kim Moynahan used to write a regular Friday blog post about ‘fiction facts,’ some of which have been her most popular posts.

Yes, I want to see people enjoying and discussing scientific topics they’ve learned about via popular media and books. But I also want what they’re talking about to be accurate. We do people a disservice if we think that they only want entertainment value, and if we assume that the real story isn’t entertaining enough.

Note: Cover photo is a Garry oak tree at the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve, photo taken by me.

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14 thoughts on “On Accuracy in Science Storytelling

  1. Hi Sharon, you have to remember human psychology… people don’t change the way they see the world because of new facts.. people have to change their perspective or framing of the world.. and thats a non-rational process. So if think about trees as being more like people opens their perspective to valuing trees and our ecosystems.. then its good. Science after all is just mathematical crystal ball gazing.. Our models based on our theories and observations should allow us to predict the future behaviour, whether its how to build an airplane or the impact of CO2 emissions on sea levels. Being able to predict an outcome doesn’t change the outcome unless people are willing to change their perspective and that happens when they care and empathise… so climate scientists need to learn from their total failure to change human behaviour be explaining the facts and learn to use those facts to make people care enough to change…

    • Actually my name is Sarah, not Sharon. And of course I am well aware of the arguments around people changing their perspective not because of data but because of their values. Trying to change people’s minds with facts is the deficit model, which we know doesn’t work. But, science storytelling *does* work. And it also requires facts. As for your comment about climate scientists – it’s really a moot point because initially most of them weren’t trained in science communication. They were just doing what scientists do, and who can fault them for that?

      • I’ m sorry Sarah.. major brain freeze there.. apologies!! I think your articles are interesting and thought provoking btw.. My parents were both scientists while I am an engineer (so use the results of science) .. and I think all of us need to be better trained in communication… especially to the general public

  2. Consistently argued and very readable. It would be good if the culture of the scientific community could shift towards allowing colour and emotion while staying faithful to the facts. There is this fear that emotion and colour decrease objectivity. A recent paper by Cech (I am a dinosaur and don’t know how to enter a link) argued that this push for “objectivity” leads engineering students to become “distant”. Her study showed hat their engagement with society decreased as they progressed through their university courses

    • But do we want scientists to write papers with emotion? Or are we used to them being more objective? Doesn’t that play a valuable role in our relationship with scientists – that we can (sort of) count on them not to overstate things? If they want to put on a science communicator hat that’s fine, as long as people,are aware the that’s what they’re doing.

  3. I am not a scientist, I work in Horticulture and have for over 30 years. My specialty is ‘woody plants’ although I have taken many courses and read many scientific papers on the study of ‘woody plants’ , mycorrhizal fungi and it’s relationship with plants, I do consider myself knowledgable, but I do know what my boundaries are and always have to consider that. Having said that, I was given this book ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ by a friend who thought I would really enjoy it. I couldn’t get past chapter two, this book really upset me. I had to stop reading it. It’s interesting the subject of emotions with science. As a youngster I remember Jane Goodall and how she was criticized by scientists for her work on Chimpanzee’s and it was constantly brought up she was not a ‘scientist’. Her work turned science on it’s ear and science is recognizing the emotion in animals. Now, some want to bring those emotions to other Kingdoms to the public engage them in science. In this time of ‘Fake News’ and how we get information from the ‘world wide web’, a book that is a best seller is deemed to be fact by many. With scientists, I believe that what is known to them is fact, what they caution could happen is known to change with all the unpredictable variables, so they have to exercise caution when doing so. For the most part, I do believe science does do that. People, as a whole, will hear what they want to hear, based on if they really like what they hear or read or really dislike what they hear or read. The divide, for now in mankind seems to be widening more than ever in so many areas, science is just one area that this is happening.I can’t thank you enough for writing this article. It is well written, offers up debate and creates more questions.

    • Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave a comment. Yes it does sometimes seem that people will only hear what they want to hear. But perhaps, if it’s framed the right way and appeals to their morals and beliefs, they might just change their minds about some scientific topics.

  4. As a young biologist I was impressed by popular articles by Professor Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich, 1968, The Population Bomb and Food from The Sea Myth, may have got the dates wrong but mankind ignored the warnings and these two topics are probably more urgent than climate change, but still ignored by public and politicians. We accept the myth about perpetual growth (with consumerism & waste) on a finite planet, but ignore the warnings from science. The format, science or story, doesn’t seem to matter.

    • It’s not just about science storytelling. Getting people to realize the myth of constant growth or the reality of climate change is hard because they’re long term problems (ie we may not believe we’ll see them in our lifetime). So we need tools other than storytelling. I don’t know what exactly those tools are, but it’s important to consider

  5. Hi Sarah. Thank you for including me in this story. I am not a scientist but I am a writer of what most people call “Creative Nonfiction” or “narrative journalism.” Simply put, this genre attempts to craft facts and ‘true’ experiences into literary art. The difference between this kind of writing and straight-up reporting is akin to the difference between scientific studies and the sort of book Wohlleben has written. In both comparisons, the latter cannot exist without the former, but the final work occupies a totally different genre intended for a completely different audience. Scholarship informs the art; the art does no pretend to be scholarship.

    This does not mean that Wohlleben’s book cannot be critiqued for its scientific veracity. It can and it should. A work of “creative nonfiction” must, above all else, be true. But such a book needs to be measured by a different yardstick. Does the book achieve its goals as a work of creative nonfiction? I believe it does. The book changed the way I view the natural world more than anything else I’ve ever read. And as his response to my question about anthropomorphizing suggests, seeing trees as human-like might make real humans pause before we destroy another forest. I will never look at a tree the same way again.

    Of course, as a work of art, Wohlleben’s book can also be critiqued for its artistic merits. In my opinion, Wohlleben is no great literary stylist – at least not when translated into English. But this is a whole other discussion.

    Those are my thoughts.

    M

    • HI Marcello – I also write CNF. I’m part of a group of about 8 of us who write what we call #scienceCNF. It”s more literary than straight up science writing, and brings to mind the works of Robin Wall Kimmerer and others. We thought about likening it to literary journalism, but since none of us are journalists it didn’t quite seem to fit.

      I agree that the standards by which CNF are judged are different than those of science writing. But this book was marketed as science writing, not CNF, and I still think the facts need to be correct (even if they’re filtered through a CNF lens).

      I also agree that, as a work of art, it’s not that well-written. It may be the translation, or just his writing itself. But I wouldn’t compare it to David George Haskell or other similar writers.

      • I think some science writing is CNF, hence our #scienceCNF group. But some types of sciwri aren’t. And of course there’s the whole other continuing debate about what CNF really is… 🙂

  6. Pingback: Recommended reads #118 | Small Pond Science

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