Chris Chambers has a piece in the Guardian ("Are we finally getting serious about fixing science?") discussing a recent report about reproducibility from the UK Academy of Medical Sciences, based on a meeting held earlier this year in London. A main theme of the piece is that scientists need to focus more on going good science and less on "storytelling":
Some time in 1999, as a 22 year-old fresh into an Australian PhD programme, I had my first academic paper rejected. “The results are only moderately interesting”, chided an anonymous reviewer. “The methods are solid but the findings are not very important”, said another. “We can only publish the most novel studies”, declared the editor as he frogmarched me and my boring paper to the door.
I immediately asked my supervisor where I’d gone wrong. Experiment conducted carefully? Tick. No major flaws? Tick. Filled a gap in the specialist literature? Tick. Surely it should be published even if the results were a bit dull? His answer taught me a lesson that is (sadly) important for all life scientists. “You have to build a narrative out of your results”, he said. “You’ve got to give them a story”. It was a bombshell. “But the results are the results!” I shouted over my coffee. “Shouldn’t we just let the data tell their own story?” A patient smile. “That’s just not how science works, Chris.”
He was right, of course, but perhaps it’s the way science should work.
None of us in the reproducibility community would dispute that the overselling of results in service of high-profile publications is problematic, and I doubt that Chambers really believes that our papers should just be data dumps presented without context or explanation. But by likening the creation of a compelling narrative about one's results to "selling cheap cars", this piece goes too far. Great science is not just about generating reproducible results and "letting the data tell their own story"; it should also give us deeper insights into how the world works, and those insights are fundamentally built around and expressed through narratives, because humans are story-telling animals. We have all had the experience of sitting through a research talk that involved lots of data and no story, and it's a painful experience; this speaks to the importance of solid narrative in our communication of scientific ideas.
Narrative becomes even more important when we think about conveying our science to the public. Non-scientists are not in a position to "let the data speak to them" because most of them don't speak the language of data; instead, they speak the language of human narrative. It is only by abstracting away from the data to come up with narratives such as "memory is not like a videotape recorder" or "self-control relies on the prefrontal cortex" that we can bring science to the public in a way that can actually have impact on behavior and policy.
I think it would be useful to stop conflating scientific storytelling with "embellishing and cherry-picking". Great storytelling (be it spoken or written) is just as important to the scientific enterprise as great methods, and we shouldn't let our zeal for the latter eclipse the importance of the former.