“Doctor, But Is It True That?”: Narrative Empathy In Scientific Communication

The problem with fake news is that the news can be false and often, unfortunately, it is, but the emotions (and therefore empathy) that sustain it are always true.

So to counter what we now call “buffaloes”, but which in social sciences have been studied for decades as rumors or urban legends, it is not enough, as we know, to oppose the true news to the false one. It is necessary to enter the emotional world of those who listen to us. Easy to say, much less know it or want to do it.

I recall a discussion of a few years ago with a scientific society that claimed its right to publish shocking images of the disease in a clear and “scientific” way, without grasping that the impact of that vision pushed the unwary visitor directly into the arms of much more welcoming natural remedies.


Sometimes the communication of scientific associations preserves paternalistic or self-referential tones, or simply designed to oppose more than to accompany.

” Doctor but is it true that? “, The portal launched in these days by  FNOMCeO,  seems instead to follow a different path, which can mark an important change in the scientific communication of online health.

I didn’t surf the site in all its contents, but at least three aspects impressed me very positively.

The first is the graphics and editorial style, from the domain name to the home page: friendly, close, accessible. Everything takes the point of view of those who seek and not those who explain.

The second is ” who we are “. Together with presidents of doctors’ orders, scientific journalists, academics and scientific publishers, we also find a “debunker” and an association such as #iovaccino, which comes from a facebook page of a mother. This is an important first message: the web can be the place where, in compliance with information validated by the best efficacy tests available today, different actors meet, able to hybridize languages ​​and very expressive modalities, to adapt them to the different emotional registers.

The third is the style of responses, capable of narrative empathy with the reader. An example is a text ” Does chemotherapy do more harm than good ?”  By Roberta Villa, a doctor and journalist, who has been writing for more than twenty years on the Corriere Della Sera Health pages.

Let’s see it in analytical. The structure of the answer is divided into three areas.

  1. “Where does this idea?”. Here we value the experience that underlies the idea that chemotherapy does more harm than good. It is not refused or denied, it is accepted. “ They are drugs explicitly defined as” toxic “, for which it is necessary to adhere to a rigorous series of precautions: understandable that you worry about having them injected into your veins “.
  2. “What denies it”. Only after recognizing the legitimacy and value of the demand, we move on to offer the data that show, on the contrary, the effectiveness of the treatment path. But always keep a critical eye and centered not only on what is good for the disease, but also on the person: “ For other types of cancer the results are less dramatic, but they have contributed to increasing overall cancer survival. In all cases it is a question of weighing pros and cons, both in terms of duration and quality of life, with or without chemotherapy: for some situations, such as those described above, the advantages of medium and long-term chemotherapy are indisputable, in others, however, may be less certain ”.
  3. “Why do we believe?”  In the end, the answer takes on the emotional experience that sustains and feeds the question: “the idea of ​​injecting potentially toxic substances into the body that cause discomfort, in view of a possible future improvement, against a disease that sometimes does not yet cause problems but is only a “stain” in radiographic images, therefore goes against the our natural instinct for self-protection and survival. Also the abused metaphor of the “war against cancer”, which sees the organism as a battlefield destined to suffer the consequences of the clash between its “rebel” cells – which in the end are part of themselves – and the ” poison “introduced from outside to exterminate them, could have contributed to adding an unconscious hostility towards these cures “.

“Understanding the origin of these fears …”, this is what it takes to communicate and to get the best information. The text has a double meaning: 1) to recognize the value of fears, to overcome them; 2) to reassure us that fears are not just our inability to face disease or a cure, but can also arise from a shared collective imagination that feeds them. The metaphor of war remains widespread even in medical language. Elena Semino, a linguist at the University of Lancaster, has studied for years the different metaphors used in the oncological discourse, showing its pros and cons.

In an interesting self- ethnography of her breast cancer, Trisha Greenhalgh, a reference point of the EBM Renaissance in Oxford, tells how she first faced the cultural representation of chemotherapy and its ambivalence which leads to wondering why not can say good about chemotherapy.

Immunization with respect to fake news requires a great narrative empathy. We can be helped to have less fear not only with the right information but also with the right metaphors to tell them. ” Doctor but it is true that .. ” helps us along the way.