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Science and story telling, updated

Paul Grobstein's picture

Twenty or so years ago, when my kids were in elementary school, I visited a class to talk about my profession.  I said I was a scientist, and asked the class if they knew what a scientist was.  "Its somebody who knows things," one student said.  No, I said, its somebody who knows what we don't know and asks new questions based on that.

That memory was brought back by a rich panel discussion a couple of weeks ago with a group of theater people about "story telling."  The question put to the panel was "why do we tell stories?"  The panel and audience wrestled for an hour or so with that question in a variety of very interesting ways.  For me personally, the upshot was to remind me again of the extent to which people in general think scientists are people who "know things" that they themselves don't know, who have answers to questions.  Or, alternatively, of the extent to which people believe that scientists themselves think they know things and have answers.  While some people in the audience seemed open to the possibility that scientists could provide answers to the questions posed, others were clearly skeptical about the validity and significance of scientific perspectives and understandings in general.  

Do scientists know things, or not?  Should we listen to them, or not?  Let me take a crack at those questions, or at least at how I as a particular scientist would answer them, and use that to develop a bit more my thoughts about "why do we tell stories?"

Several years ago, I wrote a paper called "Science as story telling and story revising."  In it, I argued that all scientific understandings were "stories," rather than "truths," in several important senses ...

  1. Scientific understandings are ways to make sense of existing observations and experiences and, like all empirical understandings, are subject to revision based on future observations and experiences. 
  2. Any given scientific understanding is only one of an infinite number of ways to make sense of a particular set of observations and experiences; there are always other possible ways to do so. 
  3. Any particular scientific understanding necessarily reflects not only observations and experiences but a distinctive perspective from which those observations and experiences are given meaning.  There is no such thing as a purely "objective" scientific understanding; one needs always to think about scientific understandings not only in terms of the observations and experiences being made sense of but also in terms of the context in which sense is being made of them, in terms of the objectives and intent of the writer(s) of the story.

This particular perspective implies that science isn't an alternative to story telling but rather that science is itself a form of story telling, and should be heard and treated as such.  I like that way of thinking about what I do.  I don't know things or answer questions; I tell stories.  Should you listen to me? or any other scientist?  No, if you think what I will tell you is "truth," and certainly not because you think I think it is.  But you should be  all means listen to me if you think I have observations/experiences beyond those you have, and/or if you think my way of making sense of them might be useful to you in making sense of your own.  

There remains, though, the question of why I (or anyone else, playwrights included) tells stories in the first place.   A key to this question, I suspect, comes from the American Indian author Thomas Young who wrote "The truth about stories is that that's all we are" and who quotes the Nigerian storyteller Ben Okri "If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives" (Thomas Young, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, University of Minnesota Press, 2003).  We are all used to looking to science, and other forms of story telling, to tell us how things are.  But maybe they serve a still larger purpose: to help us conceive what hasn't been but might be. 

 The science writer Dennis Overbye wrote recently of his "yearning to wake up in a new world."  The physicist Brian Greene characterizes science as "a language of hope and inspiration, providing discoveries that fire the imagination"  and urges "a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art, and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living."   In my own language, science as story telling, indeed story telling in general (music, art, literature, and theater included), "supports the urge of all humans to participate in the continual making, testing, and revising of understandings and meanings that is the core of the human experience." 

Twenty years ago, I knew there had to be something more to science than knowing things and answering questions.  That something more, I've come to think, is doubting all existing understandings, whatever their origin, and using that skepticism to tell stories based on what has been ... as a tool to encourage continuing exploration of what might be.  I like that way of thinking about what I do even more.  We all deserve a new world now and then, one that we have ourselves played a role in bringing into existence.        


Wil Franklin's picture

spectrums with poles

I like your modification of Williamson's "reality" as per our conversations recently. Seems to tie several related issues together, namely science as story telling, counter-factuals, playfulness and problem solving. 

Two ideas stand out for me. First, I find the concept of spectrums with poles a useful cognitive tool in general and perhaps universally useful in a story telling universe without a need for reality.  For example, earlier this summer we were discussing alternatives to "less wrong" with the summer interns. I mentioned my tentative opposition to the idea because if there was no "right" there must not be a "wrong" either.  Thus, I tried to articulate an alternative... something to the effect of a N-dimensional "understanding space" that one moves around as one changes. The movement is neither "wrong" or "right" because no one knows what truth is.  Thus movement in this space can only be judged by a context/problem-defined dimension or perhaps spectrum with poles. 

Second, the "playful" vs "problem solving" spectrum is particular useful (bordering on cute and with more thought of the significance perhaps even elegant). As I thought about humans telling stories with no particular goals, say discussing sports stats or second cousins' cousins etc, I thought this "playful" talk does have uses.  Like play in the young of animals, it may not seem to serve an immediate purpose but in all likelihood will serve the players well some day.

Paul Grobstein's picture

more on science/inquiry as "problem solving"

Glad you like the notion of replacing "reality" with "story,"  with a distinction being made being "playful" and "problem solving" stories.  Agree that "playful," in the sense of lacking immediate goals, can be useful in long run (see Playground).   Have myself been mulling the "problem solving" story notion more. 

A couple of touchstone cases to think about ...

  1. Given all the recent news reports about Alzheimer's, should I be doing something to check for it, seek ways to avoid it in my own life?
  2. I'm at a particular location in Philadelphia.  What is the fastest route to my office in Bryn Mawr?

One way to deal with these is to assert, as indeed I think is so, that the news reports as well as my response to them and the "fastest route," are all "stories," and hence could be otherwise.  But that's not the sort of response most people want (me included) in the situations in which the questions are put.  What is actually being asked for is the "most useful" story in the particular context at hand, the best "problem solving" story (as opposed to, for example, the most "playful" one).

The question that comes to mind is whether it is or is not still useful, in those sorts of situations, to keep in mind that one is dealing with "stories."   Isn't there a "reality," a "fact of the matter," about the fastest route between two points?  about the risks of a health problem and how to deal with it?  If one has a problem to solve at some particular time, then one certainly wants to act as if there were a reality, one wants to act as if there is a "right" answer and do whatever one can to reach it.  Even here, though, it pays, it seems to me, to keep in mind that one is dealing in stories.  What other people say about health risks and how to deal with them, about the shortest distance between two points, reflects their own experiences and perspectives and hence may or may not be predictive or otherwise useful in one's own distinctive case.  Moreover, one's own experiences and perspectives themselves constitute a particular perspective which constrains the solutions one might think of.  

Yes, in the case of "problem-solving," where one needs to act over some limited time frame, it make sense of do so "as if there were a reality."  One can't wait around to conceive all possible stories.  But even then, it makes sense to keep in mind that one is dealing with stories, if for no other reason than to assure one has considered the widest range of possible actions within the time one has available.  




Paul Grobstein's picture

stories, imagination, "reality," and problem solving

Reclaiming the imagination, by the philosopher Timothy Williamson, is interesting to read in connection with Science and story telling updated.  Williamson argues cogently that "imagination" has "clear survival value" and plays an important role in science both in "discovery" but also in "justification."  Imagination, in the terms of Science and story telling updated, gives one the capability to "conceive what hasn't been but might be."  And, as per Williamson,

"imagination plays a role in justification too. Experiment and calculation cannot do all its work. When mathematical models are used to test a conjecture, choosing an appropriate model may itself involve imagining how things would go if the conjecture were true. Mathematicians typically justify their fundamental axioms, in particular those of set theory, by informal appeals to the imagination.

Sometimes the only honest response to a question is “I don’t know.” In recognizing that, one may rely just as much on imagination, because one needs it to determine that several competing hypotheses are equally compatible with one’s evidence."

So far so good.  But Williamson wants also to distinguish "fact" from "fiction" and to do so by an appeal to "reality."  It is, he says, "A reality-directed faculty of imagination" (my emphasis) that "has clear survival value," as opposed to  a "playful" use of imagination.  "The test is how close you can come to imagining the life of a slave as it really was, not how far you can deviate from reality."

Now there is a bit of a problem.  If, as per Science and story telling updated, everything is stories where is the "reality" that Williamson wants to use to make the distinction?  The distinction between two forms of imagination is probably not as sharp as Williamson makes it out to be: there is not only more imagination but also more playfulness in science than people sometimes think.  Nonetheless, the distinction itself seems to me a useful one.  Can one make it without appeal to a reality distinct from "stories"?

I think one can, in a way that doesn't detract from the more general directions of Williamson's argument and may even contribute to them.  Some stories are told in the interests of trying to anticipate what will happen "out there," what will occur in the world if one acts in particular ways.  This is, I think, what is meant by "reality-directed" imagination. Such stories are intended contribute to solving problems in dealing with the world.  Other stories are told simply for the pleasure they generate "in here," in the brain/mind, with no immediate intention of trying to deal with anything "out there."  Here too, the distinction is not in practice as sharp as the description; some amusing stories eventually prove to contribute to problem solving "out there."  But here too the distinction at least usefully identifies the poles of the same spectrum that Williamson was writing about.

So, how about we replace "a reality-directed faculty of imagination" with a  "problem-solving faculty of imagination"?  And make similar changes elsewhere in Williamson's essay?  I think his argument that imagination is an important element of science is unaffected by such a substitution, and one doesn't then need to appeal to a "reality" distinct from stories, something that even Karl Popper doubted could be used to assess things. Moreover, one might get in addition some explanation for how two kinds of imagination came into existence and why the distinction between them is sometimes a bit fuzzy. 

"Reality," on this line of thinking, isn't itself something "out there" but rather something in here; it is our current story of what's out there.  And "imagination" is our ability to conceive possible stories other than our current one, an ability which, as Williamson argues well, can be practically useful.  Perhaps, on average, the practical usefulness tends to correlate with how similar the alternative stories are to our current story.  Then we might come to regard those more similar as directed at "problem solving" and those less similar as "playful."  In practice, of course, they're all stories.  Some "problem solving ones" may turn out to be less useful and some "playful" ones more so.  If one is a scientist and so cares about the matter, the only way to find out for sure which ones actually are useful is to try them out "out there."