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Science as Storytelling

Anne Dalke's picture

I was very excited during Greg Davis’s visit to our class on Thursday. And very glad that, together, we found ourselves articulating @ least two central tenents of "scientific literacy": a healthy skepticism ("taking evidence and weighing it appropriately"), along with the capacity (this was Greg's language) to "feel comfortable with ignorance," even "thrilled" when you find yourself "over your head in things that are hard and confusing."

Anyhow, somewhere along the way, I said that Jody and I were both science-phobic, she said she thought I wasn’t, I said it was a complicated story….and I didn’t want to take up our shared time by telling it. But (due to the wonders of Serendip) I can share it here, for anyone who might be interested in reading it.

I was a very curious child, but I was never EVER interested in any of my science classes. None of them gave any space to my curiosity about the nature of the world, my desire to explore how and why things worked the way they did. I was repeatedly asked to reproduce experiments that had been run (presumably successfully) by scientists in the past. They always failed; I never knew why, never knew how--was never helped--to figure out why. By high school, I had become a pronounced science-phobe: not only dis-interested in, but very much afraid of science, a realm where a certain sort of expertise reigned, and where I had no place.

This started to change in the late ‘90s, when I began hanging out with bi-college colleagues in the sciences (I first co-taught the core course in Gender Studies course w/ Kaye Edwards, a developmental biologist at Haverford, in 1997; my science education picked up steam as I co-taught a sequence of E-Sems, first with Liz McCormack in Physics, then with Peggy Hollyday and Paul Grobstein in Biology). With some labor, and a lot of curiosity and questioning, I found that Paul’s notion of "science as story" a very productive one for my own re-education into science matters. It invited me to participate in and contribute to that realm, to think about myself as a scientist, to think of what I knew experimentally and experientially as valid contributions to the evolving account about the nature of the world.

I didn't have to be "right": I just had to contribute what I knew to the common sand pile, knowing that whatever I said was correctible by others who knew other things, and that the process was an unending one. Working off this idea, Paul and I taught ½-a-dozen ESems together, all variants of something along the line of “Questions, Intuitions, Revisions: Storytelling as Inquiry.” And then, from 2004 until his death in 2011, we taught multiple iterations of a 200-level course, cross-listed in Biology and English, called “The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories,” intended to convey (among other things!) the idea that science IS story, in the sense that it is nothing more (and nothing less) than something one makes up to make sense of observations. And then tests/revises (inevitably) by making additional observations.

In the course of this process, I also came to believe that storytelling (well done) IS science. That is to say, if we acknowledge that every account is temporary (as we are temporary), that every account is unfinished (as we are unfinished), then all storytelling (like all living) is an endless predicting and testing and revising, as we ask ourselves repeatedly how useful our current accounts are for making sense of what we (and others) are observing and experiencing. I'm convinced that this process—we Quakers call it "continuing revelation"--can happen in religion as well as in science.

So one measure of a "good story" is that it has a “a long lifetime”; but a better story does something else: it generates further stories. I got this idea from Mike Tratner, a colleague in English: that the better stories are those with enough familiarity to be understandable, enough novelty to be surprising, and enough of both to provide a pattern for repeated variants.

The "stories" that science tells take a particular form:

  • not (just) the records of observations in the laboratory,
  • not the "conserving" stories of family history,
  • not the personal stories of autobiography,
  • not the archetypal stories of fairy tales,
  • but the skeptical, alternative-offering stories that are "scientific fictions," useful because
    • counterintuitive
    • counterfactual (i.e. invite the consideration of possible alternatives) and
    • “solid” enough to act on.

So—there’s plenty more where that came from; but this is (some of) the story I didn’t tell on Wednesday!