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Let Me Tell You a Story...

For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals
Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination
We learned to talk
Stephen Hawking, as quoted in Pink Floyd's "Keep Talking"

As a communicator in the field of renewable energy, I can tell you that very few people's minds are changed by "facts." The overwhelming science-based evidence is quite clear on topics ranging from immunizations not causing autism to humans causing global warming. But try to convince someone who believes otherwise simply by quoting research statistics, and I'll bet you get nowhere.

Why is this? To vastly oversimplify many complex contributing factors, the simple answer is: Beliefs trump facts (knowledge). Or to put it another way, how do we know what we think we know? Our beliefs are not so much an accumulation of evidence-based science as they are the product of our nature and nurture, i.e., genes and upbringing.

How much of our beliefs are the product of our nature vs. our nurture? As the American Psychological Association reported in a 2004 article, "Research shows some attitudes are rooted in genetics, though environment is still key." And, while nurture probably still trumps nature, recent research on "a large sample of fraternal and identical twins" found "that, to a surprisingly large degree, our genes ... shape our political beliefs and orientation."

And, of course, our political beliefs and orientation shape what "facts" we choose to accept...

One of the most frightening things I have learned in my pursuit of knowledge and my attempts to rid myself of biases whenever possible is the existence of filter bubbles. If you are willing to take less than ten minutes to watch a short TED talk that could literally change your life, I urge you to watch Eli Pariser's "Beware online 'filter bubbles'." I liken it to taking the red pill in The Matrix.

Here is the summary of the talk on TED.com:

As web companies strive to tailor their services (including news and search results) to our personal tastes, there's a dangerous unintended consequence: We get trapped in a "filter bubble" and don't get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview. Eli Pariser argues powerfully that this will ultimately prove to be bad for us and bad for democracy.

But we do know that, however rarely, some people do change their minds and come to accept once-opposing points of view—despite their genetics and a lifetime of filter bubbles. Why is this? Again, to oversimplify, I believe we reach people of opposing viewpoints not by assaulting them with facts but by building communication bridges – that is, by telling them stories.

Stories are powerful things. Our brains are wired to respond to connected narratives, not isolated facts. Now, as a scientist, I champion the mantra that "the plural of anecdote is not data." And what are anecdotes, but often-personal stories? However, as noted above, data alone will not change people's minds. But evidence-based stories just might.

Let me tell you a story...

"Maybe stories are just data with a soul."

Kyle G. Crider (MPA, LEED AP ND) is a professional science and sustainability "story teller." In his spare time he is pursuing his Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary (Environmental Health) Engineering and traveling the highways and by-ways of home state with his wife Beverly in search of fact, fiction, and folklore for Strange Alabama.