Humanity through the lens of fiction

Why science storytelling should transcend the facts

Stephen McGann 18 June 2018

Messy: the human face of medicine

The real communicative power of science narrative lies in its wider sense of human authenticity

Editor's note: Recently we celebrated ten years of Fiction Lab, the world's first book group dedicated to lab lit novels. This essay is adapted from a speech given on the night by actor Stephen McGann, one of the panelists, and is the second in a small series from the same event (see the previous piece by using the navigation bar on the top right).

Most people would agree that representation of science in popular narratives is a good thing.

But what exactly do we mean when we say that a scientific representation in a narrative is a ‘good’ one, or a ‘bad’ one? How do we judge that? What specific criteria do we use? And who – if anyone – is best placed to do the judging?

You see, I’ve noticed that when practitioners of science or medicine approach me to give me their verdict on – say – the quality of the medical portrayal in “Call the Midwife”, the BBC TV drama I currently appear in, or the medical elements in my recent medical history memoir, they either compliment it on being “accurate”, or else complain about some perceived technical “inaccuracy”. Things like – “That’s never how we’d do that procedure” or “I thought you might get this fact wrong, but actually you were spot on!”

In short, they usually judge the success of these science narratives by the extent to which they’re considered accurate.

On the surface, that makes sense. Science is all about process, facts, precision. So any science narrative should be judged by how accurately it adheres to a real–world exemplar – yes?

But is that the only way a science narrative can be judged? Is it even the best way?

I don’t think it is.

Let me be clear. Scientific accuracy in a narrative is really important! Without it, all credibility gets lost and the reader shuts the book. But how a narrative depicts something scientific is only the start – the set on which the real drama takes place. I think the real communicative power of science narrative lies in its wider sense of human authenticity. Who a scientist is, and why their human actions and motivations matter. Only then can the reader achieve a full engagement with the scientific themes in the story.

For example, when I play Dr Turner in "Call the Midwife", I’m not portraying a character called “Procedural methods of GPs practising in London from 1957 – 1964.” I am playing a man called Patrick. A person, with a family, and a back story. Now he is a GP – but that job is just one feature of his character – not the sole defining property on which the portrayal depends. My job isn’t simply to represent an accurate example of a doctor through his actions but, through portrayal of an individual medic, to throw a light on the universal human aspects of all doctors’ lives and experiences. An authentic human, who communicates the wider value of scientific practice through authentic humanity.

Narrative fiction is an ingenious tool that our society uses in order to ‘think out loud’ about the things that really matter to us. Society’s whiteboard, if you like. The books we read, the TV dramas we watch, the stories we tell each other at the watercooler. These narratives can be chatty, messy, argumentative and sometimes plain wrong – but they can also be inspiring, imaginative, insightful – and right. Narratives deliver a vicarious insight into what scientific realities might actually feel like, and not simply look like – a fictional multiverse of scientific lives and futures that we can all live, embodied in other characters.

Some people within science remain suspicious about what happens to scientific knowledge once it gets out of the safety of the lab and into that messy narrative world. Many think that popular culture can only ever distort science’s message, rather than cherish or propagate it. I think this is why there might be a bias towards judging scientific narratives solely by accuracy rather than authenticity – it’s a means of protecting the purity of the scientific project from those grubby, distorting hands of wider society – a remnant of that old way of viewing the communication of science as a single clean knowledge signal that must avoid transmission error on its way to a grateful and remote receiving general public.

That’s just not really how our culture interacts with science.

Narratives in wider culture provide many informal communicative interface points, where a scientific idea or artefact meets, and engages with, the imagination and motivations of other citizens. Few of those interface points are curated by experts – instead they’re a product of the culture itself, as it ponders the meanings and consequences of scientific knowledge through its stories. These artefacts are the ultimate property of the society that science serves, not the creators of that knowledge.

Scientists are ordinary humans who do extraordinary things. That, to me, is the perfect narrative proposition. They are the very heart of our citizenry: of, and for, the people. Narratives which throw a light on this discipline and its practitioners should therefore never simply be an exercise in judging procedural accuracy, but should always aspire to represent the extent of science’s full human authenticity.