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New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

The Storytelling of Science

“Who says that fictions only and false hair // Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?” — Jordan I, George Herbert

To Shape the Dark, SF antho about women scientists (cover: Eleni Tsami)


A little while ago, my friend Anil Menon commented on a Shashi Tharoor essay that discussed science versus religion. Among other interesting remarks, Anil made a statement that gave me significant pause: “Tharoor makes the mistake of posing religion as the great enemy of science. It isn’t. The great enemy of Science is Story. // When science marches in, stories march out. When fiction marches in, facts march out. When the enlightenment marches in, the enchantment marches out.”

I suspect that much of Anil’s argument hinges on the definition — is there a definitive one? — of story. The term story, of course, is derived from history. That, in its turn, is the latinized version of the hellenic istoría, which means both story and history (the hellenic word for fictional history, i. e. story, is mythistórema, which makes the fictional component explicit). Many definitions of story emphasize the fictional part. However, there’s one major definition that gives a wider, and in my view more accurate, interpretation: “A narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader.”

Science, especially primary research, is a fascinating hybrid. At its best, it combines lucid dreaming (what I call “shaping the dark”), informed intuition honed by knowledge of previous iterations, the ability to recognize patterns, the strength to let go of a beloved notion if results disprove it, and the discipline to concurrently keep track of details and the big picture. One of science’s core kernels is how hypotheses are tested. [Parenthetical clarification: in scientific terminology, which in this instance differs from its lay equivalent, a theory is not hypothetical; hence, to give one example still pertinent in US politics and education, “the theory of evolution” is not up for validity debates, except in its finer points.]

But back to hypotheses — and vocations. People become scientists because they want to tell stories, preferably exciting, original ones; and once trained in their discipline they weave stories without cease — stories that attempt to explain how the universe and its inhabitants are made (they also explain why, unless someone insists on intelligent design or intent). Before the stories go into the testing crucible, they’re called hypotheses. Observations or measurements are done in the framework of a story at its hypothesis stage. If a story jibes with reality, it gets renamed to theory. To put it succinctly, science cannot be practiced without stories, without the call and response between story and world. The stories dictate what experiments/observations get done; the stories, to some extent, dictate what conclusions are drawn (and thereby can bias the venture, as all powerful stories do).

There are two differences between the stories of science and the stories of religion or folklore. One is that science stories constantly change as new facts come in (they share this plasticity with the protean retellings of folk tales, though not with religion stories which tend to petrify as dogma at some point during their development). The other is that science stories do try to hew to the truth(s) of the world, as much as bounded senses and instruments can achieve such a feat.

There are other important aspects of science related to story. One is aesthetics – making the story eloquent, incorporating once disparate elements into a coherent, compelling whole. The grand unified theory of forces, the periodic table, the genetic code, the expanding universe. These are all potent stories, even more so for being true. A related aspect is pride of craft – designing elegant experiments to shape and test these stories.

So far I’ve addressed science versus story. Now we come to enlightenment versus enchantment. Scientists are often accused of “making things dull” or “draining them of mystery” by explaining them. But, to my mind, such explanations trail immense, awesome beauty in their wakes. What is more evocative: stars as metal studs on a glass dome, or fiery engines that create elements which have made all lifeforms possible? Swallows hibernating under lake ice, or flying enormous distances guided by brain maps? Wherever scientists look, they always find beauty: the directing dances of honeybees; the vivid colors of transition element compounds, including the iron that turns our blood crimson; the intricate ideograms of equations and their descriptions of shapes found in galaxies, seashells, flower centers.

Scientific understanding does not strip away the mystery and grandeur of the universe; the intricate patterns only become lovelier as more and more of them appear and come into focus. In the end these glimpses of the whole, not fame or riches, are the real reason why the scientists never go into the suspended animation cocoons but stay at the starship observation posts of humanity’s starship, watching the great galaxy wheels slowly turn, the stars ignite and darken.

The hellenic word for “awe” is dhéos; its linguistic kinship to theos/deus/Zeus is obvious. Science fully retains one aspect of awe: the sense of wonder, of ever-changing stories with ever more stories to come, many far stranger than even the wildest fiction can invent. What science strips from awe is fear. Science tells us that the sun will rise tomorrow (for the next few billion years – after which it will evolve into a red giant and, Cronus-like, engulf the inner planets). We don’t need to rip war captives’ hearts out to ensure sunrise, nor do we need to burn humans and animals in wicker cages to ensure the return of spring. Science is like the sea:

“There is the sea, and who will drain it dry?
Precious as silver, inexhaustible, ever new,
It blooms the more we reap it. Our lives are based
On wealth untold; fortune has seen to that.”

— Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon

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6 Responses to “The Storytelling of Science”

  1. Anil Menon says:

    Thanks for taking the trouble to present your position, Athena. As always, I loved the clarity and elegance of your writing. I agree with you that it depends very much on how we define a story. For me, defining it as something that is a “…narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct…” is way too broad. By this definition, I cannot see how any narrative cannot but be a story. Does anyone construct a narrative to bore the reader? Is a table of random numbers not instructive for someone engaged with, say, a statistical question. My own approach to defining story— which Dr. G.S.R. Krishnan, an Indian sociologist, recently dismissed as neither original nor particularly illuminating— is that it is a narrative which replaces causes with reasons. Science on the other hand is a narrative that replaces reasons with causes. How (and whether) causes differ from reasons is a tricky philoosphical problem, but I side with Wittgenstein, who signified the distinction, that there is a difference between reasons and causes. The literature on the subject is quite vast, and there is of course an opposing view; in particular, Donald Davidson’s counter-claim that there is no difference or at least not much of a difference between reasons and causes. I could go on rambling about this, but for now, I will end here. Until we have our definitions sorted out, there is little point to debating their implications.

  2. Athena says:

    Anil, we may differ on the definition of story, which shortcircuits that part of the conversation. However, we almost certainly agree on the definition of enchantment — and science has enchantment to spare. I’ll also add that when we say to someone “Tell us your story!” we certainly don’t expect to hear fiction (at most, we may be prepared to hear embellished truth).

  3. […] Athena Andreadis, who knows whereof she speaks. The sociologically-minded will note the clear echoes from e.g. Haraway and Latour and other STS headz in this description of (techno)science as a narrative endeavour. However, the importance of the “sensawunda” aspect doesn’t always make it through, and I’m interested in working with the notion of the technoscientific imaginary to see if there’s a way to bring that forward. […]

  4. A.M. Tuomala says:

    This essay is gorgeous, and it rings very true. In my own work as support staff for biomedical research, I see people investigating incredibly narrow differences in outcome: whether one antiretroviral regimen is slightly less toxic (or more resource-effective) than another. And yet every narrow victory of one regimen over another, every slight increase in quality of life or period of undetectability, has profound human triumphs embedded in it. One infant who lived, who might otherwise have died. One woman who can now afford ARVs, who otherwise couldn’t. Science is an art of story-making and story-testing, but the testing is itself a story. And a million, billion stories ripple out even from Kuhnian “normal science.”

  5. Athena says:

    Paul, how lovely to hear from you — it’s been a while!

  6. Athena says:

    I cannot agree more about the extra layer of the testing stories. To give but one example, the real-life stories of vaccines are many-fold more dramatic than their insipid movie incarnations.