The Six Blind Scientists
“What is this thing?” asked the King.
“An elephant, my lord,” said the Vizier.
“I must know more. Wise Men!
Although you six are blind, run hands along this creature and tell me what you’ve learned.”
“A snake! A wall! A rope!” each exclaimed in turn.
The moral, of course, is that subjective experience can take you only do far.
Let’s revisit this fable but add a modern twist. At the Pachyderm Institute, six scientists were blindfolded and led to an elephant. As predicted, each scientist described the beast in different ways; a snake, a wall, and, of course, a rope.
But a good scientist never leaves well enough alone. They began collecting data: length, height, width, circumference, and more. As information came in, each scientist was more convinced of their own conclusion. Arguments broke out, insults followed, and physical violence simmered. Professor Smith wrestled the trunk while Dr. Jones yanked the tail and Alfred the Elephant had had quite enough. In a fit of pachyderm panic, all the scientists were squashed, their argument never resolved. The moral, of course, is somedays it’s best to take off your blindfold.
For centuries, the Scientific Method has been focused on dividing the universe down into component parts: matter to molecules to atoms and so forth. But today the Scientific Method is evolving into an understanding of systems; how one thing affects another.
Let’s take the fable one step further. The scientists have removed their blindfolds and now see the elephant in all its glory. Thinking of the accolades to come as they inform the world of this marvel, they again fall to arguing over who has the most important conclusion.
“It’s heavy!” says one.
“No! says another arguing for the prehensile trunk.
As the voices get louder, Alfred becomes bored and wanders away in search of peanuts. Unable to produce an elephant to the public, the scientists are discredited and lose their Institute jobs. The moral of this story is that if you don’t pull together, you’ll be pulled apart.
The Scientific Method is by nature destructive. Scientists are trained that hypotheses are meant to be disproved and in an intellectual gladiatorial contest, only the true will survive. But the spectators in the stands only see the confusion of battle as one hero emerges and then is struck down. Battle alone has no meaning. However, add a story and you have an epic.
This is where non-fiction storytelling comes in (as explained in the Storytelling for Scientists program). The structure of storytelling conveys important facts as well as influences public perception and policy. This approach is effective because it adds context, meaning, and a reason to care to data. As a bonus, scientific teams come together as they create a shared narrative.
Let’s return to our fable. Sweeny, the newly hired Communication Director for the Pachyderm Institute, has a problem. The scientific staff, PHD’s all, were squabbling amongst themselves. Phase One research on Alfred the Elephant, had been completed and the results were, to say the least, inconsistent. Each scientist detailed their own personal findings in excruciating detail and each insisted that only their data was valid.
Sweeny knew that the key to telling a coherent story to the public was first getting the staff working towards a common goal.
Gathering them together with the promise of birthday cake and ice cream, he introduced Suzie, a vivacious five-year old who lit up every room she entered. Suzie didn’t let anything stop her happiness, not even that her right forearm was missing. Yes, she struggled with the ice cream, but a smile never left her. The cold scientific hearts melted just a bit.
Then the cold scientific minds got to work for a problem seen is a problem solved. Dr. Smith offered his insight on the mechanics of an elephant’s trunk while Dr. Jones contributed what he knew about skin stretchiness and after only a few weeks of working together, Suzie had a new arm that was flexible, lifelike, and could grip a spoon of ice cream very well, thank you.
The news media, alerted by Sweeny, soon picked up this remarkable story and “Suzie and the Scientists” became a tale oft told. Donations poured in and today the Pachyderm Institute has established six permanent Chairs and elephant research remains well funded. And Suzie often comes by to share cake and ice cream with Alfred the Elephant.
The moral, of course, is that the pen is mightier than the statistic.
Does your team need the Storytelling for Scientists program? Let’s chat.