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During the summer of 2005, the Serendip/SciSoc Group focused on the theory and practice of "Science as Story Telling and Story Revision". Among the issues that arose was a recognition that the original article would generate different specific concerns in different audiences, and so it would be useful to address these with several more targeted versions of the general argument. One such version, directed to audiences concerned about the relation between science and religious faith, is provided below. Kate Shiner was a junior biology major at Bryn Mawr College when she wrote this article. Comments are welcome in the on-line forum for discussion of Science as Story Telling.

Science: Be Not Afraid

Kate Shiner

To many, scientists can seem like a whole different breed of person. They come up with sweeping theories like evolution and the big bang and then seem to expect people in the rest of the world to throw away their own explanations about life. The divide between science and the rest of our culture is glaring and some would prefer to "solve it" by simply ignoring science or remaining wary and detached wherever they must encounter it. After all, who knows what gruesome and godless paths science may lead us down before we are even aware of it, right? But I would argue that those who take this fearful view are doing themselves as well as science a disservice. Paul Grobstein (2005a) presents a new vision of science as storytelling that may help to demystify science and render it more inclusive.

To show how this approach may be helpful in this respect I must first attempt to explain the model of science as storytelling. It may seem counterintuitive, but it is possible to see science as just a way of telling stories about ourselves and our world. What is unique about these types of stories is not that they are born of beakers and lab coats, but that they rely on a storytelling style called the scientific method. Using a new model of this method (Grobstein 2005b) one can envision it very simply. First scientist(s) observe things, form a summary of these observations, and then combine the summary with new observations. The implications of these new observations either fit the old summary or show its inadequacy and thus the need for a new story. The observations are often but need not be quantifiable, although they should be replicable and collectively observable so that other scientists can take them into account and a story can (hopefully) be achieved that works for a more than one person.

Some point out that innately personal and/or non-replicable observations that are by their nature unassailable seem outside the realm of science, and this may be one of the limits of this particular type of storytelling. Another "limit," although it may also be seen as a virtue, of science is that one can never know what new observations might be made and thus can never claim that a current scientific story is irrefutably true. This is a virtue in the sense that progress is made in science only because its stories are constantly open to revision.

Just as people are diverse, the relationships that different people have with the story of science are equally diverse. There are those who are comfortable approaching science looking for answers about such ultimate questions as where we come from and what humanity's place is in the universe. In theory science can be used to investigate these questions, but finding any permanent Truth in the model of science as described above seems unrealistic, because science is founded on the principle of constant change and revision. Thus for those who are looking for or have already found steady and grounding principles of belief in their lives, science can seem at best unsatisfying and at worst corrupting.

In fact one need not put his or her faith on the line when choosing to engage in science. "The beliefs of individuals are important but to misunderstand them as what one will hold onto until evidence turns not only foolish but dangerous." (Grobstein 2003) A faith laid on a foundation of the fear of being "proven wrong" is not faith at all; and it is worth considering that engaging in science and meeting the challenge of this fear may indeed strengthen one's faith. It is true that skepticism is an ideal of science, but it need not be in the sense of the third definition given in the American Heritage dictionary, which is "doubt or disbelief of religious tenets." Science is one kind of story, a story about productive inquiry and collective observation that is indeed dependent on a profound skepticism about its own conclusions. But one need not be a skeptic about every story in one's own life to become a scientist. Non-skeptics approaching science should be able to take from it what is useful to them to enrich their own understandings of the natural world. Furthermore, their observations and interpretations will undoubtedly benefit the story of science by widening its scope, and in doing so make it more representative of the whole of the human perspective.


Grobstein, P. (2003) "I Believe..." Its Significance and Limitations for Individuals, Science, and Politics. Retrieved [June 20, 2005] from

Grobstein, P. (2005a) Revisting science in culture: Science as story telling and story revising. Journal of Research Practice, 1(1), Article M1. Retrieved [June 20, 2005] from

Grobstein, P. (2005b) Thinking About Science: Evolving Stories. Retrieved [June 20, 2005] from

Continuing conversation
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Religion as Testing:
Another Sort of Story Revising

Anne Dalke


I've spent a lot of time during the past few years, thinking about the relationship between scientific inquiry and religious faith-- so of course I found myself particularly intrigued by the piece you just published on-line called Science: Be Not Afraid.

What interested me especially was your attempt to reassure to those who may be afraid to put their faith on the line when choosing to engage in science, by claiming both that

Do you know the essay @ the Writing Descartes site entited The Life of Faith is Not a Life Without Doubt? It's been important one for me because of the way it articulates the interaction between "faith" and "doubt." The argument made by the Rev. Dr. Eaves (whose Advent sermon this was) is that

God and the creeds of faith are not the certainties they are cracked up to be....Our faith is a fragile hope that God lives with us in the reality of our darkness, in our search for truth, in the bold guesses we try to live by. It's all only a theory. The question is whether it leads anywhere.

Rather than assuring people of faith that engagement in the pursuit of science will not be too de-stabilizing (as you say, one need not be a skeptic about every story in one's own life to become a scientist), I wonder if we might instead come to understand religion as a kind of testing that is not very different from the sort of story-telling and story-revising science you're advocating:

The exploratory seeking that Quakers call "continuing revelation," the process of constantly "testing" in a social context, against what others know, what one knows oneself, against new experience and new information...are activities that, ideally, can be practiced in both the religious and the intellectual realms. (From Science & Spirit)

Rather than assuring people of faith that science will not make the world seem too uncertain, understanding the religious search as one of unending doubt might also provide a way of dealing with what you call one of the limits of this particular type of storytelling: that innately personal and/or non-replicable observations...are by their nature unassailable. I have a hunch that it be possible to tease apart two levels of "assailability" here. In one sense, each of us has experiences -- of light, of darkness, of pleasure, of pain -- that are indeed unassailable: we can not be argued out of the internal experience that is an emotion ("Whatever you meant, I know what I feel!"). But all of our experiences can be gathered up, compared, rubbed against one another. Taken together, they may tell us something different, or give us a different way of understanding what we know we experienced. (Something like this happened during the universe bar one night last winter, when we were exploring together "the space of dreams": Some of us dreamt only of ourselves as ourselves. Some of us dreamt of ourselves as other people. And some few of us dreamt of ourselves not as people at all, but as animals or other items. Comparing our experiences gave us all a sense, expanded beyond what each of us knew experientially, of what dreaming is, and does, and means, the ways in which dreams are derived from the real world...but always in some delayed way, not by responding directly-while-dreaming to sensory stimuli.)

On the other hand, it may also be possible, using the comparative storytelling paradigm, to "assail"-- and thereby actually to alter--our experiences. Here's a recent, somewhat painful illustration. One of my daughters was expected to fly home this weekend, @ the end of a year spent in Senegal. She called me when I was already @ JFK waiting for her, to tell me that she had been bumped from her flight. When I thought of returning home (which was all decorated to welcome her back) without her, this thought arose instantly: "It's like going to the hospital to have a baby. The baby is stillborn. And you have to return home, to a prepared nursery, without her." I later told this story to a friend, who offered a friendly revision: "This feels like going to the hospital. It's been false labor, and now you have to go back home (which is all fixed up for her arrival) empty-handed. But you can return the next day, and bring home the baby." In offering me an alternative story, this friend actually offered me a means of altering my experience. What seemed unchangeable within was revisable; my experience was still one of disappointment, of course, but it changed from being a tragic tale to one of delayed gratification. (Of course, it also helped that my daughter did come home the following day, when it was nice to have a story palatable enough to share with her!)

I've been doing lots of reading lately about Buddhism, which emphasizes this idea of the revisability of that which lies both within and without. I'm immersed right now in a fine book by Mark Epstein called Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life--Insights from Buddhism and Psychotherapy. It explains the practice of watching our desires and longings arise--acknowledging that they are not "things," not fixed, but passing--and then letting them pass. It explains, too, the possibility of an awareness that others aren't "things" who can satisfy us, but similarly impermanent and--if clung to--similarly disappointing. Hold them lightly. Let them go.

It's a kind of testing: looking at the objects of the world, others, ourselves, watching their/our behavior, predicting further behavior--being always open to realizing when we cannot do so.

That's a kind of testing. You call it science. I would call it religion.

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