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The Story of Science (updated lecture notes)

Paul Grobstein's picture


What is Science?

The Potentials and Limitations of Empirical Inquiry

Science as Story Telling and Story Revision
(article, web resources, on-line forum)


Linear science Seriously loopy science

Science as rooted and tested by empirical observations rather than authority

Science is about the natural world

Science as body of facts established by specialized fact-generating people and process

Science is about objectivity

Science puts aside values/aesthetics

Science is about Truth, the provable, the universal

Science as successive approximations to Truth


Science is about discovery of what is

Science provides authority, certainty

Science as rooted in and tested by empirical observations rather than authority

Science is about the inanimate, the animate, and the human

Science as ongoing process of getting it less wrong locally, potentially usable by and contributed to by everyone

Science is rooted in subjectivity, aspires to shared subjectivity

Science uses values/aesthetics and contributes to them

Science is about doubt, skepticism, the possible, the shared

Science cannot establish Truth or proximity to is, as ongoing making of observations, intepreting/summarizing, making new observations, making new summaries

Science is about creation of what might be

Science denies all authority, including its own, is about the generative capabilities inherent in uncertainty


The crack
  • Multiple stories for a given set of observations
    • 3,5,7, .... ?
    • 1+1=2 or 1+1=10?
  • Is where culture, individual creativity as well as reflective thought (formalization, deduction, induction, synthesis, abduction) play an important role
  • Observations in turn depend on stories so story choice influences future science
  • Science is as much about creation as about discovery

Your thoughts?  Add in on-line forum below ...


jpfeiffer's picture

Dr. Grobstein's Lecture

On Friday afternoon I had the opportunity, along with the other students who are at Bryn Mawr this summer fulfilling various fellowships in the sciences, to attend a lecture given by Dr. Grobstein. For starters, I would estimate that maybe half, if even, of all of the students who are here for the summer actually attended the lecture. Granted, it was a Friday evening so perhaps some were discouraged by the time and day, but nonetheless attendance was not too impressive which I found rather unfortunate.

The entire lecture was essentially to encourage students to think about science in a way that they probably never have before. The link to the lecture outline /exchange/node/7654 highlights the main points that were shown on Friday. Overall the lecture was very inviting with Dr. Grobstein presenting jokes and offering personal anecdotes from when he was in college and his own work in several laboratories. Students were asked to introduce themselves as well with their first name and the department in which they were working this summer as well as what their definition of science was. Although the lecture hall was not exactly set up like a round discussion table, discussion between students was definitely facilitated by Dr. Grostein. However, despite the welcoming atmosphere that was created, many students were not able to reciprocate this attitude. I found this quite shocking as almost all students had agreed that they way they learned science up to this point and the common scientific method taught throughout school was very misleading. However, even though they agreed that the scientific method and certain ways of teaching science should be revamped, they were not very receptive to actually accept and practice this idea.

The statement that caused the largest uproar in the lecture was when Paul disproved the notion the science is about truth, the provable, and the universal with the idea that science is about doubt, skepticism, the possible, and the shared. Now, of course to students who are spending eight plus hours in a lab per day trying to ‘perfect’ a certain experiment for their respective faculty mentors there is an overwhelming amount of pressure to find such a truth. These students have a unique passion for science or mathematics and practically allow their lives to revolve around this yet within a matter of five minutes they were introduced with a thought that was the complete opposite of what they had ever believed.

Now, even though much of what was presented in the lecture may have come as startling, possibly even offensive, it was meant to rather come across as enlightening, allowing students to eradicate misconceptions of science they possessed before and attempt to think about science in a new light which was shown by Dr. Grobstein. Because of this I would say that although it is one thing to be non-receptive to an idea in the beginning because it is foreign and completely different than already existing ideas it is another to act rudely to a fellow mentor who is speaking to you. I feel as though some of the comments that I heard after the lecture were rather offensive to Dr. Grobstein, his aim in the Bryn Mawr Science Department, his work as a science professional, and the interns (previous and current) that work in his office. I was rather disheartened by the fact that after the lecture many students in the typical biology and chemistry labs questioned time and time again what exactly the point of our research was and whether or not we too received a stipend for our work. It seemed like many of the students at the lecture thought lesser of what we were doing because we do not work in a traditional lab sporting a lab coat or goggles.

Hopefully these students just need some time to accept the views of science that were presented on Friday. Maybe in the future such a lecture should be longer or not given at the end of the week. Regardless these ideas of science should continue to be presented with the hope that soon more typical ‘scientists’ will view what they practice in a slightly different light.


Jessica Watkins's picture

"Loopy" Science met with Opposition from...Scientists?

I knew the mini-lecture given by Professor Grobstein this past Friday to a group of student researchers at Bryn Mawr College was going to be interesting, but I didn't expect it to be so controversial.  Paul invited the students present (not many, only about 15) to participate in an open-ended dialogue about traditional, linear science vs. "loopy" science, a field with anything but definite answers and the acceptance that absolute "truth" is not attainable and therefore non-existent.  Many of the students agreed with him when he said the traditional scientific method is too restricted to allow full discovery because it relies on conclusions that, once reached, are accepted and not questioned further.  They also agreed when he discussed ways in which science can become more "open" by treating it as an ongoing process based on the observations of all, not just the "hard facts" that are "proven" by a few.  

However, the agreement stopped there.  Quickly the students in the audience became defensive when told that the research they are conducting--"hard" research dealing with chemistry, biology, physics, etc.--will not culminate in "truth."  Their projects, the hours of hard work that they have poured into their collection and analysis of data, will not end in an answer that can be considered "the last word."  One student, a chemistry researcher, argued that the process by which she mixes prescribed chemicals in the same proportions every day, always getting the same results, is truth because of its consistency.  When she was told that "truth" as she described it can never actually be attained because it would require infinite proof of consistency.  The sun rises every day, and we take this to be "true."  But just because the sun has risen every day without fail does not mean that the possibility of it not rising tomorrow is not there.  And if it were to not rise tomorrow, well our preconceived notions about the rising sun as "truth" would be shattered; if those chemicals that the student mixes were to one day yield a completely different result, her notion of chemical "truth" would be majorly challenged.  And so, because infinite consistency cannot possibly be measured, we can never know absolute "truth."  While results that are repeatable are useful, they should not be considered final.

It was almost as if the student researchers could not see past their current work and into the the future of scientific inquiry that we've been exloring so far this summer.  As Paul said in an earlier meeting, this new view of science as something open and co-constructed is met with opposition because "people don't want to be deprived of certainty and authority."  We are scared of what we do not understand, of what is new and unusual. 

What was even more interesting was the interaction that took place in a neighboring conference room after the lecture, where my two colleagues and I gathered with the other student researchers to talk about the lecture over pizza.  It was clear that not many of the other students took what Paul had to say seriously, even though they had agreed with his "new" definition of the scientific method as something more flexible than that of traditional science.  Their incredulity quickly filtered down to me, Jenna and Kate.

"So, what exactly are you doing again?"

We explained once more our research efforts, including our work with Serendip and how we were making connections between the brain, science and education.

"...But are you doing anything?"

And so, it seems, thought is not considered a true scientific endeavor by those heavily steeped in the world of chemicals and glassware.  Why, I don't know.  Thought is the basis for all scientific action.  What scientific discovery would have been possible without the bright idea of one, or the collaborative efforts of many?  Even scientists must "think before they act."  The disrespect and closed-mindedness of the student researchers was sad not only because of its personal implications but because it demonstrated a lack of acceptance of the "new" scientific method they had supported minutes prior.  The process of thought is parallel to that of scientific work--both involve exploration through experimentation and a revision of prior ideas.  Just because one takes place in the brain and the other takes place in a lab does not mean the former should be discounted or considered any less important to the progress of humanity.

kgould's picture

The reactions to the lecture

The reactions to the lecture were, at best, reluctant and, at worst, disrespectful-- not only to the lecturer and the other students listening, but also to the individual.

Eyes were rolled, jaws were set in grim lines, and scoffing echoed from the back of the room. While students did agree that, yes, the scientific method was too restrictive--not allowing for future progress--they shied away from the idea that science could not give TRUTH. I understand their reluctance because I was there once too, wondering what it would mean if something could not be a fact. It was scary, the kind of panicky fear that grips at your stomach while your mind races. If a layman hears that science has no facts, then they will disregard all of the work that has been done and all of the work that will be done--MY work.

But, while you don't have to swallow and agree with everything you hear, but you can at least engage in the present topic as a participational democracy, with everyone listening intently.

It seemed to me that most of the students were concerned with giving up "authority," on recognizing that science cannot establish Truth. I think the reason for this reluctance and defensiveness is due to a miscommunication about what this "loopy" approach to science is supposed to do.

Repeatability and certainty are useful and a central part to doing science, to building on past observations-- but that does not make them a Truth or a fact. It was as some of the students established: today, the sun rises and sets. Today, the ducklings hide underwater when the shadow of a hawk passes over them. Today, the chemical reaction in the lab yields the desired product. But tomorrow none of those things may happen. We can predict, with an amount of certainty, that they will happen again-- but we cannot know that they will happen.

The worst thing a scientist can do, especially a budding scientist, is to close off the mind to new possibilities. It is the duty, nay, the responsibility of the scientist to question themselves and their beliefs every step of the way. Hanging onto preconceived notions and refusing to try on a new style or mode of thinking is what hampers thought, what slows or stops progress. How can any of us expect to make that big leap, find a new story or narrative, without pushing past what "everyone else thinks?"

To say that "philosophy doesn't apply to science" is as short-sighted as saying that "thinking doesn't apply to science." Science is built off a foundation of philosophical principles, the pushing forward of knowledge, the theory of knowledge (epistemology), and the questioning of what we know, what we can know, and what we have the possibility of knowing in the future. To sidestep the bigger, harder questions (harder because we cannot answer them with a ruler or a scale), is to sidestep the true purpose and pursuit of science: to inquire.