23 Feb 2023
 | 23 Feb 2023

Scientists as Story-tellers: the explanatory power of stories told about environmental crises

Jenni Barclay, Richie Robertson, and M. Teresa Armijos

Abstract. This paper examines how storytelling functions to share and to shape knowledge, particularly when scientific knowledge is uncertain as a consequence of rapid environmental change. Narratives or stories are the descriptive sequencing of events to make a point. In comparison with scientific deduction, the point (plot) of a story can be either implicit or explicit, and causal links between events in the story are interpretative, rendering narrative a looser inferential framework.

We explore how storytelling (the process) and stories (or narratives) involving scientists can make sense of environmental crises, where conditions change rapidly and natural, social, and scientific systems collide. We use the example of the Soufrière Hills volcanic eruption (Montserrat), and scientists’ experiences of the events during that time. We used 37 stories generated from seven semi-structured interviews and one focus group (5 scientists). We wanted to understand whether these stories generate or highlight knowledge and information that do not necessarily appear in more conventional scientific literatures relating to an environmental crisis, and how that knowledge explicitly or implicitly shapes future actions and views.

In this context storytelling and stories are used in several ways: (1) evidencing the value of robust long-term monitoring strategies during crises; (2) exploring the current limits of scientific rationality, and the role of instinct in a crisis and (3) the examination of the interactions and outcomes of wide-ranging drivers of population risk. More broadly these stories allowed for the emotional intensity of these experiences to be acknowledged and discussed; the actions and outcomes of the storytelling are important. Storytelling frameworks could help scientists and wider society improve how we prepare for and respond to environmental crises.

Jenni Barclay et al.

Status: final response (author comments only)

Comment types: AC – author | RC – referee | CC – community | EC – editor | CEC – chief editor | : Report abuse
  • RC1: 'Comment on egusphere-2023-71', Matti Hyvärinen, 05 May 2023
    • AC1: 'Reply on RC1', Jenni Barclay, 25 Aug 2023
  • RC2: 'Comment on egusphere-2023-71', Anonymous Referee #2, 05 Jul 2023
    • AC2: 'Reply on RC2', Jenni Barclay, 25 Aug 2023
    • AC3: 'Reply on RC2', Jenni Barclay, 25 Aug 2023

Jenni Barclay et al.


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Short summary
We explore the value of stories told between scientists to understand environmental crises, during a volcanic eruption. These help scientists make sense of how natural and social orders combine to generate risk, identifying cause and effect, exploring how risk is negotiated. Story-telling rationalizes the emotional intensity of these situations and have value not only when shared between scientists but for improving decision-making processes with uncertain information during crises.