Science as Story Telling in Action:
The Web, the Brain, and Society

Paul Grobstein
Director, Center for Science in Society, Bryn Mawr College
Co-founder, Serendip website

SENCER Summer Institute
8 August 2005

Thinking about Science (and Science Education)

Linear scienceSeriously loopy science
Science as body of facts established by specialized fact-generating people and process

Science as successive approximations to Truth

Science as authority about "natural world"

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

Science as ongoing making of observations, summarizing, making new observations, making new summaries

Science as skepticism usable by and empowering anyone at any time about any thing for any purpose

Science as Practical Tool, Continually Being Adapted
"The Crack" as Feature Rather than Bug (multiple possible summaries)

A Quick Introduction to the Brain (Its All We've Got, Bipartite, and Seriously Loopy)

The Linear BrainThe Loopy Brain with Semi-autonomy and Story Telling

Science as Continual Elaboration and Revision of Summaries of Observations
AND of the Stories Used to Summarize Them
Story Telling is Common to All Human Beings and is an Essential Component of Science

The Potential ...

"Science has the potential to be what we all collectively need as we evolve into a world wide community: a nexus point that encourages and supports the evolution of shared human stories of exploration and growth, an evolution in which all human beings are involved and take pride. For this to happen, we all need to work much harder to not only reduce the perception of science as a specialized and isolated activity of the few but to make it in fact the product and property of all human beings" .... Revisiting Science in Culture

Try It Out (and Learning to Get It Less Wrong):
The Web as a Case Study

Life is not really so difficult if you just follow the instructions
"Born in 1994 ... conceived as a interacting and developing system, not unlike a living organism ..."

"Serendip is ... a gathering place for people who suspect that life's instructions are always ambiguous and incomplete ... an expanding forum and continually developing set of resources to explore and support intellectual and social change in education, in social organization ... and in how one makes sense of life"

What has Serendip learned, about itself? about the world around it? Or, more accurately, what have I, as one of its parents, learned from watching it grow/evolve?

The Potential ("people can develop their ideas and perspectives in extensive interaction with other people")
and the Naive Ideal

Build it (a rich interactive playground) and they will come.
  • Non-profit
  • Asynchronous (stop by any time)
  • Community not as origin, possibly as consequence?

Some Do ... But Lots Don't (Yet?) ... Why?

  • From 3 -> 40+ (mostly local, mostly one time)
  • Many more students (required in courses)
  • Enthusiasm for participation in a "world-wide cultural and intellectual interchange"?
  • > 1 million unique visitors a year (~10,000 a day), >95% from outside Bryn Mawr, ~40% from outside US (not bad reach)
  • 4.3 pages per visit, 1.4 visits per visitor (lots not coming back)
  • 60% from Google/Yahoo/Ask Jeeves/etc
  • Not BAD, some partial exchanging (most visits relate to student papers) ... BUT much of it is info-collecting rather than interchange ...
Barriers to "interchange" ... on Serendip? on web? in general?
(Some lessons from recent Serendip exhibits and forums)
  • People need to be invited individually and specifically?
  • There needs to be a task more sharply defined than "exchange"?
  • People need to be assured they are being listened to, ie that others are changing as a result of what they say?
  • People need to be willing/able to be vulnerable, ie to be changed by what other people say?
  • People need to overcome a concern about "privacy"?
  • People need to overcome a concern about being an outsider? being either judged badly by insiders or feeling themselves like a disrupter?
  • People want to be seen as a distinctive individuals and responded to by particular distinctive other individuals
  • People want to feel some shared agreements about how one exchanges ideas, including understandings about language and style
  • People want to work with others who are like themselves
  • People worry about making "thoughts in progress" "public"

Many of these things occur automatically in existing communities and in face to face interactions occuring synchrononously (on the web or not). And we can try to find ways to do them more effectively on Serendip and on the web generally.

  • Target forums to groups, to subjects
  • Add audio tracks
  • Increase "leader" attention to forums, help people become better "leaders"
  • Add "synchronous" capability?
But there is something to be said for the additional distinctive kinds of interaction that the web makes possible ... and for evolving human interactions generally in new ways based on those experiences ...
  • Continue to encourage people to think of themselves as including aspects beyond their particular group identities and known interests
  • Continue to encourage people to become their own "leaders" and "readers"/"listeners"
  • Continue to encourage people to value "thoughts in progress", appreciate "process" as much as "outcome", to both value in process products and trust their own the usefulness to others of their own
  • Continue to encourage people to incorporate the kind of self-reflectiveness that is faciliated by intermittent as opposed to synchronous exchange, ie to make use of "disconnection" to allow new thoughts/questions to arise, thoughts/questions that might not in direct contact with others
  • Continue to encourage people to value the ongoing process of "thinking for oneself", the value both for oneself and for others

General lessons from the web about the prospects of "a nexus point that encourages and supports ..."

  • We tend to be afraid of
    1. being attacked
    2. being ignored
    3. being held accountable for thoughts of our own
    4. being changed by thoughts of other people
    5. being judged wrong (by ?)

  • We tend to take ourselves both too seriously and not seriously enough

  • "Life's instructions are always ambiguous and incomplete ... " because there is no one writing them but ourselves ... and no way to write them but by trying things out and seeing what happens ("getting it less wrong"). We need communities of people who think for themselves, are committed to and enjoy working on continually updating and revising instruction manuals together. The skills of asynchronomous communication are an essential part of creating such communities.

The Bottom Line (for now ...)

Science is about change, about getting it less wrong
The brain is about change, about getting it less wrong
Stories can/should be used to encourage change, getting it less wrong
People (scientists included) need to become more comfortable with change and the capability/role that individuals can/should play in it
Science not as "authority" but rather

Science is a tool to help one become better at thinking for oneself ... at using observations to make one's own stories that motivate new observations that motivate new stories that one shares with others in order to continually get less wrong onself and help others do so as well

Science education should help people become better at thinking for themselves at ongoing, shared, exploration and creation

Science As Story Telling In Action

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