Beware the storytellers and praise the sensemakers
In story skepticism (2016) I suggested that while storytelling skills may be important, a critical network era skill will be the ability to deconstruct stories. When it comes to this pandemic, there is no shortage of stories. The emotional, shocking, or fantastic stories get all the attention. The hard scrabble of sensemaking does not.
For example, I came across Michael Mina, Epidemiologist, Immunologist & Physician at Harvard School of Public Health & Harvard Medical School, in an interview with the podcast ‘This Week in Virology’ — Test often, fast turnaround. Not only was I impressed at how well Dr. Mina described the situation in clear understandable terms, so were the three virologists who interviewed him. “I learned so much”, said one, “I was blown away … I feel some hope finally”, said another. I am not going to try to explain what was presented, as Dr. Mina does it so well. Take 45 minutes and learn something important about covid-19 testing. You don’t even have to have a degree in science — I don’t.
The need for sensemakers is so obvious during this health crisis. Clarity is essential in getting complex science across to the majority of people. It can be done in 45 minutes. I am not sure if it can be done in a 30 second sound bite. But sound bites are still what television news produces and social media amplifies.
The need for clarity becomes clear as we see experimental science being done in real time and broadcast to the world. Pre-publication research papers are made available before peer review has been done. This speed of dissemination will continue through the pandemic as it helps the researchers. But those of us on the sidelines have to step back.
We need people with a solid understanding of the sciences, as there are many disciplinary fields investigating aspects of the pandemic, and they may even be at cross purposes — listen to Dr. Mina’s interview for an example. But critically, we also need good communicators. Our complex world is beyond the comprehension of any individual. We can only make sense collectively, and we also have to ensure we take others with us on our sensemaking journey. Living in a dumb human network is not a viable option, even for the smartest of us.
“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.” —Carl Sagan (1995)
We need sensemakers more than storytellers because stories can hijack our minds. We are more open to receiving stories than we are to understanding facts and logical arguments.
“When we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to leave us defenseless.” —Jonathan Gottschall
First we have to make sense, and only then can we find unifying stories to help guide us. Small stories only distract us. Whose story wins will depend on how smart we are. Let’s make sense BEFORE we make up stories.