Using stories to teach about science: Is it ethical?

By Kerri Wingert - September 2014


Dahlstrom, M. F., & Ho, S. S. (2012). Ethical considerations of using narrative to communicate science. Science Communication, 34(5), 592–617. doi:10.1177/1075547012454597.

Research Design 

This paper is a reflection on a body of work on the effects of narratives in science communication, including written, recorded, and spoken work. It offers a review of related literature and then outlines considerations in the ethics of using stories to communicate science. The article focuses on large-scale public communication but draws smaller-scale implications as well.

Dahlstrom and Ho ask communicators to think about the goals of their communications. Do you aim to reduce controversy about a science-related policy or to facilitate the controversy necessary to generate a policy? In other words, should science communication create disengaged compliance toward a preferred outcome or promote autonomy to facilitate personal choices?

The authors argue that, if personal autonomy is the goal of the writing, then the narrative should facilitate controversy, using complex characters to provide balanced information. However, if the goal of the communication is to create compliance, a more persuasive narrative may be necessary. For example, in a situation in which the public is in danger, communicators may need to disseminate narratives to inspire action, such getting a vaccine or having an HIV test.

Ultimately, the authors conclude that deciding to use narrative should be justified by philosophical beliefs. If you believe in the philosophy of “the greatest good for the greatest number of people,” then narrative is suitable when it causes more good than harm. But if you abide by Kant’s principle of respecting others’ autonomy and rationality, then narrative is appropriate when it does not impinge on others’ ability to make their own decisions.

Implications for Practice 

This article might encourage museum designers, educators, and science communicators to think about their reasons for using narrative. Dahlstrom and Ho offer the following framework: 

1. “What is the underlying purpose of using narrative: comprehension or persuasion?

2. “What are the appropriate levels of accuracy to maintain within the narrative?

3. “Should narrative be used at all?

For example, an exhibit designer tasked with creating a climate change exhibit might first ask whether or not the exhibit is intended to be persuasive. If so, the designer confronts the philosophical question of how to justify manipulating the audience into believing climate change is happening. The exhibit designer should then consider carefully which aspects of the science are best included and which might be done away with, considering the goals of the exhibit. Finally, the designer should consider whether the audience will respond to narrative in this particular exhibit.

Theoretical Basis  

This paper does not contain a study, strictly speaking. Rather, it synthesizes perspectives in the field of communication and ethics in order to arrive at a set of conclusions about the use of narrative to communicate science.

Related Briefs:

  • Chen, M. (2011). Comics and sequential art can be productive tools for science education: An ISE research brief discussing Tatalovic, "Science comics as tools for science education and communication: A brief, exploratory study."
  • Wingert, K. (2013). Wishful identification, gender, and scientists on television: An ISE research brief discussing Steinke et al., “Gender differences in adolescents’ wishful identification with scientist characters on television.”