Science as Storytelling

(or, why more arts and humanities chicks should sleep with geeks like me) 
By Sean McGuire.

Beginning One:

In his book Generation X, Douglas Coupland makes a theme out of the importance of telling stories. Large swaths of the book are made up of his characters telling stories to one another. It's a wonderful book, and he does an excellent job of making what I think is a critical point: stories help us make sense of the world.

Beginning Two:

Last summer, I was in the offices of the Hungry Mind Review, a small independent quarterly book review for whom I had been doing some consulting work. The editor, Bart, mentioned that he had received an order for one of their T-shirts from a biology graduate student at some prestigious institute in California. He thought it was very amusing that there would be a biologist walking around wearing one of their Muriel Rukeyser shirts, on which is the quote "The universe is made of stories, not atoms." Apparently Bart thought this was a queer sentiment for a biologist to be expressing on his back. I allowed as how it made perfect sense to me, and said that, of all of the Review's lovely shirts, that one was easily my favorite. So he gave me one. Not quite coincidentally, I'm wearing it right now. (Well, not right now necessarily. At the time of writing. I have no idea what I'm wearing right now. Well, I mean... you know what I mean.)

Beginning Three:

I was in Pittsburgh, interviewing for a graduate position in the Department of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. I was sitting in the back seat of the car of my hosts, Randy and Yuko, and Yuko started to talk with Randy about her research. "At first, I was saying this," she said, and then described a particular theory, "but that actually doesn't work out. So here's the story I'm telling now." This particular turn of phrase was very striking to me. The next day, I heard several other people, both faculty and graduate students, refer to scientific theories and ideas as stories.

Okay, that should be enough beginnings for now. In case you skipped a couple of them, here's a quick summary: stories are compelling. The universe is made of stories, not atoms, according to Muriel Rukeyser. People I think are wicked cool talk about scientific theories in terms of stories. The point I'm trying to make here is that half, or more than half, of the "scientific enterprise" is storytelling.

Occasionally, a scientific disagreement will be over whether or not something actually occurs. This is why scientists try to replicate experiments, and why I had to suffer through two semesters of statistics and a semester of probability. More often, however, scientists end up disagreeing about what story to tell about a particular piece of data, or about a lot of pieces of data. And usually, when someone doubts that a particular result actually occurred, their doubt is motivated primarily by the fact that it doesn't fit with their favorite story.

Now, many of you might be saying "aren't you just using the word 'story' in place of the word 'theory' for no better reason than that it gives you something to write about, as well as an excuse to make pretentious references to authors you've never actually read?" And the answer to that question is yes, but only partially. I really am trying to make what I think is a very important point. Broadly speaking, stories serve one of three purposes: to entertain, to inform, or to explain. Since the primary purpose of a theory is explanation, theories can be considered stories in a very real sense. (Some scientific theories are also entertaining, occasionally even on purpose, but this isn't a prerequisite.)

Good stories are self-consistent, bad ones are not.  Good stories are compelling, and bad stories just "don't ring true".  Many stories, require a certain willing suspension of disbelief - but this is much easier to manage for a good story than a bad one.

Scientific theories are rarely inconsistent with themselves, but they are often inconsistent with the facts they are trying to explain. People respond to this in one of two ways: they get new, better stories, or they try to explain the facts away.  The latter course of action generally requires one to make up another story.  Sometimes this is as simple as "the people in that lab have their collective head up their collective ass," but usually it's more along the lines as "well of course that result looks problematic but really if you just consider the way my story interacts with the neo-perambulation constant of the proto-simian gravitational access parametric, you'll see why it all makes perfect sense.  And anyway, the people in that lab have their collective head up their collective ass."

Compelling stories are ones you just can't help but believe, at least while you're reading them.  For me, one very compelling story is "the universe is made of atoms."  It just seems to make so much sense. (Never mind that I've never seen an atom.)  Another personal favorite is, "the brain creates the mind."  Whenever I lay this story out in full, I can't help but believe it (except for one or two nagging little problems like qualitative experience.)  Uncompelling stories are just not believable, no matter how hard you try.  Of course, one person's perfect theory is another person's crock of raccoon feces.  Two of the smartest people I know can't agree about whether psychologists should be telling stories about rules and symbols, or about thousands of little processing units interacting with one another, and they're both convinced that the other person is in some deep sense utterly and completely wrong.  There are some very smart people in my field, whom I respect a lot, who create complicated and byzantine stories to explain things which I am convinced are explained much better using... well, using my story, of course.  But these people are convinced that they're right.  Then again, some people - even people I respect - liked the movie Independence Day.

Willing suspension of disbelief is a fundamental requirement of all fiction.  Even if the story is one about modern day life, you have to be willing to say "I will forget, for the moment, that the author is making all of this up" in order to fully appreciate the story.  In science, willing suspension of disbelief runs even deeper.  To understand a paper, you have to be able to believe, or at least in some mild way pretend to believe, all the assumptions that went into that paper.  That's either a lot of believing, or a lot of pretense.  To come up with a new theory, you usually have to say "well, let's pretend it's like this for the moment."  To even do science, one has to suspend one's disbelief of the scientific method, of experimentation, and of statistics.  (That this is often easy to do is merely a testament to how compelling those stories are.)

I'm convinced that, insofar as there is such a thing, the storytelling metaphor is the 'right way' to think about science.  There are two reasons for this, one scientific and one social.  The scientific reason is, one expects stories to be inaccurate, and one expects stories to reflect the biases of their tellers; since all scientific theories yet created are at least partially incorrect, and since all theories reflect, to some extent, the tastes of their proponents, it is useful to view scientific theories with the same skepticism.  The social reason is that the storytelling view paints science as more humanistic. Under the storytelling view, science is not the antagonistic process of dissecting and disassembling the universe; it is the process of finding the truest, most beautiful stories to describe the world.

Excerpted from Young Hozhed, Volume 1, Issue 1. Want to see more? 
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