Capturing Humanity In Complexity

Posted by Michael on March 8, 2013

By Melissae Fellet

The Saturday farmer’s market is part of my routine mostly for the people watching. Barefoot kids shimmy up lampposts. Others dance and twirl in front of the band. Parents chat while the kids play. I watch people looking for the little glances, actions or sayings that reveal glimpses of humanity, of feelings and values that we share in society. I feel alive and connected to my community at this market.

Perhaps that’s also what drew me to storytelling. My favorite stories allow me to experience a situation rather than just reading a recounting of the events. They have exquisite small details that capture everyday moments of humanity. Stories involve characters, often people, experiencing struggles and overcoming them (or not). And they also have some resolution 

To Think, To Write, To Publish challenges us writers and scholars to write a story involving science policy. This writer is learning that science policy is more than decisions made in Washington D.C. It involves big questions about how science fits into society, from implementing electronic health records in hospitals to workers who protect our country’s agriculture from imported pests.

Stories can help a reader experience the complexity inherent in many of these policy issues. For example, when Atul Gawande wanted to understand why healthcare costs were so high, he traveled a Texas town with the highest healthcare costs in the country. He talked to doctors, interviewed hospital executives and dug into statistics about procedures and diagnoses. His conclusion? Costs are low in systems where doctors put the needs of the patient ahead of the business of ordering tests to increase profits.

Gawande walks his readers through the complexities of healthcare through his journey to uncover that answer. He uses examples from particular hospitals in particular cities to make the abstract concepts of healthcare costs concrete.

Humanity is inherent in many abstract concepts in policy. Though finding the stories in science policy topics can be difficult, it’s not impossible. It’s also extremely important. When issues are controversial, stories are a way to share information without contributing to polarization of a debate through an opinion-packed editorial.

As I think about how I want to tell stories about science policy in the future, I want to find people whose life experience reveals the complexity of an issue, like Gawande did with doctors. That probably means I’ll need to get out in the world and just talk with people. I’ll try to start at the farmer’s market. 

In my next post, I’ll suggest some ways to tell those stories once we find them so that we maximize our ability to connect with readers.