Nuclear Weapons | Discussion Paper
It’s More Than a Story
This paper is published as part of the Adventures in Nuclear Risk Reduction project.
We’d be lost without stories.
They help us make sense of the world. They help us understand who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we’re trying to go. They echo beyond their time, connect generations, and bridge between cultures. They remind us of lessons long forgotten and help us navigate challenges ahead. Stories can be a rallying cry or warn us of potential hazards. With stories, our successes and failures have meaning, humanity, familiarity, community, and trajectory. Without stories, our challenges seem like “just one damn thing after another.”
This “Nuclear Adventures” project began with the simple recognition that some of the most valuable things we’ve learned about nuclear policy came not through working papers or policy briefs but through stories. Despite their value, stories and storytelling are usually a byproduct of nuclear policy meetings. This project flips that and instead puts stories at its center. “Nuclear Adventures” aims to facilitate intergenerational knowledge transfer by publishing stories on first-person experiences with risk reduction and elevating them for discussion between practitioners and early or mid-career experts.
Stories are an essential way that communities build and share knowledge. We share stories over coffee, on the sidelines of events, in between meetings, or at the bar after a long day. We trade stories that are inspiring, funny, sad, instructive, frustrating, and frightening. Yet because they are highly social forms of knowledge and shared in informal settings, we forget how important they are.
In the latter half of the 20th century, policymakers—pressed by urgent international security challenges—developed and implemented pragmatic solutions that enabled adversaries to cooperatively address shared security concerns and reduce nuclear risks. Whole careers were built around novel solutions like hotlines, incidents-at-sea agreements, transparency and monitoring agreements, scientific cooperation, the consolidation and elimination of weapons-usable nuclear material, and so on. Those efforts demonstrate the ingenuity, impact, and effectiveness of cooperative security approaches. Their successes and shortcomings contain crucial lessons that have enduring value for today’s political and security environments.
In recent years, risk reduction measures have been less salient in policy discussions. Opportunities diminished. Programs atrophied or were dismantled. Treaties collapsed. The institutional and individual knowledge gained from that work faded as expert communities gradually shrank and dispersed. Rising experts saw career opportunities dim or divert. Funding collapsed. Talent pipelines ruptured. A global pandemic kept the community apart.
As communities fragment, they risk losing the tacit knowledge vested in their stories. There are fewer opportunities to tell, hear, and retell stories. The result may be a breakdown in the vital, informal processes for intergenerational knowledge transfer. This couldn’t happen at a worse time for nuclear policy communities. Current and upcoming cohorts of policymakers are likely to see more, faster paced, and increasingly complex policy challenges and nuclear crises. Policymakers will need as much wisdom and tacit knowledge as they can get in order to prevent the use of nuclear weapons.
Storytelling and Epistemic Communities
Stories and storytelling are vital to the function of organizations and professional communities. We shouldn’t be surprised that they are vital in the nuclear policy field.
With the retirement of the space shuttle program in 2011, NASA faced a long and uncertain period before a return to human spaceflight missions. The generation that designed, built, serviced, and flew the shuttle was likely to retire or leave. The years ahead would have fewer opportunities to train new personnel on the challenges of spaceflight and the implicit knowledge of what it takes for a bureaucracy to send people into space. Fortunately, NASA, as a scientific organization, has a deeply ingrained culture of knowledge capture and management. The agency records its oral histories and curates them as a part of its knowledge base, helping the organization better retain and build on its past work.
Medical communities rely on stories. By sharing stories, clinicians help young doctors make sense of their work and advance their training. Sharing noteworthy cases and horror stories is part of medical culture. Medical professionals find and develop social identity in their fields by, in part, talking through their work experiences. Storytelling is an important medium through which medical professionals prepare for complex clinical cases, negotiate their failures, and process the emotional burden.
These are not unique circumstances. All mission-driven, epistemic communities face cultural, technical, bureaucratic, and political challenges. These communities need stories to overcome these challenges. As one study concluded, “stories are crucial to the effective functioning of a community.” By combining information and context of a specific situation, stories are “peculiarly apt as units of community memory. …The combination permits one to generalize from the information to an abstract mental model of the machine, while the contextual information provides a guide for the application of that model to real situations.” That study is highly influential in the field of epistemology and narrative. The subject was a small group of photocopier technicians.
Nuclear policy communities have invaluable information vested in stories. It’s not just material for lecture halls and memoirs. Storytelling will always play an important role in how nuclear policy communities retain knowledge, perceive challenges, and develop or regenerate expertise.
Stories are an integral part of the human experience.
We are evolutionarily hardwired for stories. Storytelling is an ancient, fundamental way for humans to transmit and store knowledge within social groups. Through stories, early humans could share information essential to survival and building community. We’ve been doing this for hundreds of thousands of years. As humans developed language and learned to operate in complex, narrative-rich, social dynamics, our cognitive capacities grew. We thrived in those environments. Our brains evolved accordingly. Stories light up neural circuits beyond those for language processing, including circuits associated with social interaction. When a person listens to a story, their brain activity couples with the brain activity of the teller in ways essential for communication. This gives storytelling a privileged role in communication, social dynamics, and cognition.
Collectively, people make sense of the world around them through stories. A well-told story puts events into a sequence, animates them with a protagonist and motives, presents some unexpected challenge, and teaches something through the story’s resolution. People can then apply that knowledge in ways that help them anticipate and better control their environments. At the level of individual cognition, a story can give meaning to experience. When told to others, however, stories spread that information and meaning, develop shared knowledge within a community, and foster social cohesion within a group. In this way, the social act of storytelling helps groups recognize unfamiliar challenges and approach them with more understanding.
Being evolutionarily and socially biased toward stories also creates challenges. A story is subjective in its telling. It portrays a moment in time from the perspective of a narrator in the present. Our inner narrators constantly recraft stories, recall them differently, update them with new information, shape them for different audiences, imbue them with new motivations, and align them with complex and evolving identities. Even when aware of this, human brains are so eager for stories that it’s easy for stories to bypass filters for critical thinking. That makes stories powerful at transmitting and storing information. If not taken critically, stories can bias sensemaking and social cohesion in potentially harmful ways.
Inequity and Narrative
The power of stories is unevenly distributed. That problem is amplified in communities that are not diverse, equitable, or inclusive.
Who gets to tell or retell a story? Who gets to hear a story? Who is invited to spaces where important stories are being shared? Who is included in a story and how? Who decides when and how it is appropriate to tell a story? Which stories are we forgetting, omitting, or rejecting? Those choices send signals about the character of our communities, how inclusive they are, and the biases in our policy solutions.
Despite progress in gender equity through the ascendance of many brilliant women into senior positions, the nuclear policy field remains male dominated. Women have been working in this field at leadership levels for decades. Yet the nuclear policy community—rife with sexism, harassment, and gendered expectations—does not equitably value stories told by and about women. The policy space tends to be even less inclusive to colleagues in the LGBTQ+ community.
Epistemic racism in this field manifests, in part, as who is and is not seen as a credible voice. In nuclear policy, the storytellers, subjects of stories, and audiences for stories are predominantly white. The stories of people of color are often neglected, manipulated, misunderstood, sidelined, censored, or erased.
Stories from survivors of radiological contamination do not have the same privilege as stories from those who are culpable for contaminating lands through the production and testing of nuclear weapons. Survivors’ stories are treated as inconvenient or not relevant during discussions about security policy. In this way, policy communities look away from harms they’ve caused and often make security decisions detached from the well-being of people they claim to protect.
As organizations push to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in nuclear policy spaces, part of that work needs to elevate stories from diverse voices. It will take continuous, dedicated work to strengthen equity in the narrative environment around nuclear policy. The organizers of this project recognize this challenge and the urgent need to elevate those stories.
Changes in the narrative environment will lag behind efforts to diversify nuclear policy communities themselves. Early pathbreakers like Laura Rockwood, who was interviewed for this project, had extraordinary careers and time for their stories to reach conclusions. They dedicated so much of themselves to sharing stories with next-generation experts. There are many stories not yet ready to be told by the pathbreakers currently leading the field.
There’s something intuitive about storytelling. You can feel it when a room of experts quickly comes together around a great story, whether on the practicalities of Cooperative Threat Reduction in Belarus or the importance of food diplomacy in Geneva. The audience integrates stories with their understanding of approaches to today’s policy challenges. As organizers of this project, we’re constantly surprised at how meaningful the experience of storytelling can be. But it shouldn’t be surprising at all.
Stories are essential to who we are as humans, as individuals, and as communities of practice. Nuclear policy communities need to be less casual about storytelling and instead elevate it as a valuable, intentional approach to knowledge management and intergenerational knowledge transfer.
We need to make time for stories. We need to tell them, listen to them, question them, and apply lessons from them. The better we become at telling our stories, the better equipped we’ll be to handle the next nuclear crisis. So please, share your stories.
The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Stanley Center for Peace and Security or any other agency, institution, or partner.
Benjamin Loehrke is program officer for nuclear weapons at the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.
Nickolas Roth serves as a senior director on the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Nuclear Materials Security Program team.
Luisa Kenausis is associate program officer for nuclear weapons at the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.
Adventures in Nuclear Risk Reduction
Adventures in Nuclear Risk Reduction aims to facilitate intergenerational knowledge transfer by publishing stories on experiences with risk reduction and elevating them for discussion between practitioners and early or mid-career experts. Visit the project to learn more.
 Stories take many forms and serve many purposes. For a more technical definition, “a story describes a sequence of actions and experiences done or undergone by a certain number of people, whether real or imaginary. These people are presented either in situations that change or as reacting to such change. In turn, these changes reveal hidden aspects of the situation and the people involved, and engender a new predicament which calls for thought, action, or both. This response to the new situation leads the story toward its conclusion.” Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol. 1. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 150.
 Roger D. Launius, “‘We Can Lick Gravity, but Sometimes the Paperwork Is Overwhelming’: NASA, Oral History, and the Contemporary Past,” Oral History Review 30, no. 2 (2003): 111–28, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3675480.
 For example, see NASA JSC Space Shuttle Program Tacit Knowledge Capture Project, https://historycollection.jsc.nasa.gov/JSCHistoryPortal/history/oral_histories/ssp.htm.
 Rick Iedema, Christine Jorm, and Martin Lum, “Affect Is Central to Patient Safety: The Horror Stories of Young Anaesthetists,” Social Science & Medicine 69, no. 12 (2009): 1750-1756, Elsevier, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2009.09.043.
 Julian E. Orr, “Narratives at Work: Story Telling as Cooperative Diagnostic Activity,” in Proceedings of the 1986 ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work—CSCW ’86 (New York: ACM Press, 1986), 63, 69, https://dl.acm.org/doi/pdf/10.1145/637069.637077.
 Brian Boyd, “The Evolution of Stories: From Mimesis to Language, from Fact to Fiction,” WIREs Cognitive Science, May 24, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1002/wcs.1444.
 Dan P. McAdams, “‘First We Invented Stories, Then They Changed Us’: The Evolution of Narrative Identity,” Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture 3, no 1 (2019): 1-18 https://doi.org/10.26613/esic.3.1.110.
 Uri Hasson and Chris D. Frith, “Mirroring and Beyond: Coupled Dynamics as a Generalized Framework for Modelling Social Interactions,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 371, no. 1693 (May 5, 2016): 20150366, https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2015.0366.
 Lucas M. Bietti, Ottilie Tilston, and Adrian Bangerter, “Storytelling as Adaptive Collective Sensemaking,” Topics in Cognitive Science 11, no. 4 (June 28, 2018): 710-732, https://doi.org/10.1111/tops.12358.
 Charlotte Linde, “Social Issues in the Understanding of Narrative,” Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, fall symposium, ResearchGate, January 2010, 39-44, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/291306227_Social_issues_in_the_understanding_of_narrative.
 For more on gender inequity in the nuclear policy space, see Heather Hurlburt, Elizabeth Weingarten, Alexandra Stark, and Elena Souris, “The ‘Consensual Straitjacket’: Four Decades of Women in Nuclear Security,” New America, 2019, https://www.newamerica.org/political-reform/reports/the-consensual-straitjacket-four-decades-of-women-in-nuclear-security/.
 See the virtual discussion “LGBT+ Identity in the Nuclear Weapons Space” hosted by the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, December 19, 2022, https://vcdnp.org/lgbt-identity-in-nuclear-weapons-space/.
 Mareena Robinson Snowden, “One Size Does Not Fit All: Why Diversity and Inclusion Efforts Fail in the Nuclear Community, and What Can Be Done about It,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 6, 2021, https://thebulletin.org/2021/01/one-size-does-not-fit-all-why-diversity-and-inclusion-efforts-fail-in-the-nuclear-community-and-what-can-be-done-about-it/; Katlyn Turner, Lauren Borja, Denia Djokić, Madicken Munk, and Aditi Verma, “A Call for Antiracist Action and Accountability in the US Nuclear Community,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, August 24, 2020, https://thebulletin.org/2020/08/a-call-for-antiracist-action-and-accountability-in-the-us-nuclear-community/.
 See Sylvia Mishra and Wardah Amir, Racial Inequalities and Nuclear Policy, Stanley Center for Peace and Security, February 2022, https://stanleycenter.org/publications/racial-inequalities-nuclear-policy/.