What is “Science”?

Who and What Is It For? And Who Gets to Say?


A Story of Science as Story Telling and Story Revising








Paul Grobstein

Center for Science in Society

Bryn Mawr College

Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania 19010



610 526-5098












For the inaugural issue of the Journal of Research Practice

Draft 16  October 2004












To suggest that science and story  telling are importantly related is not to attack science but rather to call attention to a central element of science.  In so doing, I hope to encourage the same kind of critical examination of our understandings of science that science itself promotes in its examination of our understandings of other phenomena.  A critical perspective associated with the practice of science as story  telling is, I will argue, the source of the demonstrable power that science had had and will always have.  And it is exactly that critical perspective, turned on itself, that science needs in order to continue to evolve, in the most productive ways possible, the essential role it has to play in human culture.


Among both those who regard themselves as scientists and those who don’t, there is still a tendency to regard science and culture as different and parallel (if not competing) things between which one can (or must) choose.  In the story I will tell science is not conceived as an alternative (either neutral or competitive) to culture.  It is instead treated as a central element of human culture, one that existed long before the term “science” was coined and one that will remain long past our current era when “science” is seen by many as an odd or specialized or privileged activity that can be engaged in only by those receiving difficult and advanced training and duly anointed by a self-perpetuating professional community. 


 The needed “critical perspective turned on itself” for science thus is necessarily also a rethinking of the role of science in culture and hence of culture itself.  It cannot be achieved without a very substantial blurring of the borders between those who think of themselves as “scientists” and those who think of themselves as something else.  And the rethinking will, I believe, inevitably result in a desirable further blurring of those borders in such a way as to make science an even more important contribution to the human culture of which it is part.


The Need for a Story


More than 50 years ago, CP Snow, the British scientist and novelist, called attention to what he referred to as a “two cultures” divide:


I believe the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two groups. When I say the intellectual life, I mean to include also a large part of our practical life, because I should be the last person to suggest the two can at the deepest level be distinguished ... Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension - sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding ... This polarisation is sheer loss to us all. To us as people, and to our society. It is at the same time practical and intellectual and creative loss, and I repeat that it is false to imagine that those three considerations are clearly separable. 



While there have been extensive discussions about what exactly constitutes the “divide”, there is no question but that it relates to science, and to some more or less sharp distinction between people who are and people who are not interested in and engaged with science.  And there is no question but that that divide persists today.  In 2004, the New York Times celebrated the 25th anniversary of its weekly Science Times with a special issue having a lead article entitled “Does Science Matter?”.  The authors wrote 


“… there are new troubles in the peculiar form of paradise that science has created as well as new questions about whether it has the popular support to meet the future challenges … Science has also provoked a deeper unease by disturbing traditional beliefs”


The tension between those who have some degree of comfort with science and those who don’t may have been at one point primarily a disagreement among intellectuals but it is now, as Snow forecast, increasingly significant in “practical life”, at a whole variety of scales ranging from international conflict to national policy to local interactions between individuals in educational and other contexts.  To further cement the point, a few comments I’ve recently collected in an educational context:


My personal view of science for many years was, well, summed up with one word, "Yuck!"; in primary school it was indistinguishable from the morass of general information we learned from uninspiring textbooks and well-meaning, but insipid teachers. Middle school was worse: sterile classrooms in which science was lectured at us, and labs were limited to teacher demonstrations with very little student-centered learning. Then came the nighmarish annual science project ... Along with college pretty much came the exit of science from my life ... high school teacher


"Science came from a textbook with very little experimentation or discovery because all of the answers were written on paper, you just needed to read and understand them. ... There are teacher preparation programs that continue to steer clear of the subject unless you have declared science to be your area of certification. So we know where that leaves the K-8 educator. This in turn becomes apparent in some classroms where we continue to breed a group of young people who are phobic about science" ... middle school teacher


"Science has always been regarded as a very different approach to life. In fact I used to think that it was a way of life for some weird people. Actually people see scientists as nerds in the society" ... high school teacher


Science as “indistinguishable from the morass of general information we learned from uninspiring textbooks”?  As “all the answers were written on paper, you just needed to read and understand them”?  As “a way of life for some weird people”?  Are we (both those of us who are “scientists” and those of us who are not but are engaged with and have some understanding of it) fully aware of what many people think about “science”?  Of how many different stories about science there actually are?    Of how remote those stories may be from the ones we have? And of what the consequences of that are, for us, for them, and for others (particularly but not only  in the context of generating expectations in the next generations)?


Science education can, of course, be done in a way that presents a different story of science, but that’s a slow way to bring about change and it itself runs into broader cultural problems.  In a college introductory biology course, I suggested that that the Times article misrepresented the terms on which science ought to be evaluated and offered the following as a correction:


"The distinctive role that science has played in our culture... is to be the embodiment of permanent skepticism, of a persistant doubt about the validity of any given set of understandings reached by whatever means (including those of science itself). It is the insistence on doubting existing understandings, not the wish to eliminate human ills nor to find 'answers' that has always animated science and has always been source of its power and successes"


This elicited a prompt response from a particularly thoughtful student:


“This is a stirring appraisal of science and one that I would very much like to believe. But I'm beginning to have my doubts. In my conversations with others about the natural sciences and the social sciences, I have represented the views that you express in class - about the noble skepticism of science - as those of the scientific community at large. Now I sense my own naivete in having done so. The tale that Broad and Glanz weave is a misguided one, so you say, but my question is this: you and what army? Are all scientists as given to reflection about what it is they are trying to achieve? Would every scientist agree that it is Broad and Glanz who are misguided? I feel there is a strong dichotomy between the doers and the thinkers, and it is the thinking minority that allows science to remain, in large part, unaccountable for what it has brought about"



“You and what army?” and “minority that allows science to remain, in large part, unaccountable for what it has brought about” is actually the immediate stimulus for this essay.  There is a need, both within science and in culture in general for a more coherent and broadly agrreed upon story of science.  And it is a practical need, one that must be met not only in the classroom but in each of the many arenas where science is impacting on culture.  It requires not only deliberate thinking about science but also acting deliberately in ways that reflect those thoughts.  


Moreover,  I strongly believe that the evolution of  understandings about what science is and what it is useful for is much too important to be left solely in the hands of a self-annointed and closed community of “scientists”.  What is needed is indeed an “army”, one consisting of a much larger and hence much more diverse array of human beings who have in common a shared sense of science as a valuable component of human culture and a willingness to shoulder the burden of making it into what it has the capability to become.


Science has the potential to be what we all desperately need as we evolve into a world wide community: an important element of a common human story of growth and exploration, one in which all human beings are involved and take pride.  For this to happen, we (all of us) need to work, much harder and more deliberately than we have, 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.   I think the story of science as story telling and story revising can do this.  And that that story itself evolves from nothing more than the application to science itself of the same valuing of critical examination that has given science its power in other realms. 


In the following, I try to make this story of science as story telling and story revising as concrete as possible by focusing on particular aspects of the story of where I believe emphasis is needed, , and pointing to some implications for “practical life” that follow from these clarifications.  In so doing, I will suggest that there is a universal aspect of science, that it involves a story telling process that can and should be common to all humans, and a distinctive  aspect of science: a set of values that govern the story  telling/revising process, that the professional practitioners of science should adhere to, and, by so doing, exemplify as a choice for other human beings in the construction of their own stories. 


Science as story creation and story revising, driven by profound skepticism

(rather than as a distinctive and privileged route to Truth or well-being)


Nature is strictly governed by impersonal laws … Steven Weinberg


Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world …. Albert Einstein


The bottom line is to make the port, to make people, to make this country safe so that no one should have to look over their shoulder in doubt … Lt. Commander Gary Jones (U.S. Coast Guard)


To consumers, it often seems that contradictory studies about food and health appear in the media just about everyday, leaving many to wonder why researchers can’ t get it right the first time! …  Asian Food Information Center


IF “nature” were “strictly governed by impersonal laws” AND humans had the means to find them THEN one might imagine that with a combination of rigorous effort and sufficient time we would arrive at both “Truth” and the best condition for human beings that can be achieved in the context of those “impersonal laws”.  We could all be “safe” (or at least as safe as possible) and no one would “have to look over their shoulder in doubt”.  Its worth noticing though that Albert Einstein, writing even in the restricted context of “physical concepts” regarded “laws” as “free creations of the human mind … not … uniquely determined by the external world”.  In the context of thinking about “science”, and science in culture, there are very important implications of Einstein’s assertion, both conceptually and practically.


For  many people, both people who think of themselves as scientists and people who don’t, “science” is the cultural entity whose distinctive property is its claim to be able to uncover “impersonal laws”, and, ultimately, the “Truth”.  In fact, of course, such a claim does not at all distinguish science from many other cultural entities.  Many religions and political philosophies lay equal claim to providing special access to “Truth”, along quite different paths and with quite different proposed or anticipated outcomes.   Not unreasonably, the conflicting claims for the same turf generates antagonisms between those who are engaged with science and those who are not. 


The same holds for “science” as the cultural entity with a distinctive claim to being able to assure “safety” or “well-being”.  There are many other cultural entities (nations, tribes, service professions and organizations) that regard the provision of safety and the assurance of human well-being as their mission, and who pursue it in directions quite different from “science”.  Moreover, while “science” has had notable successes along those lines, it has also produced a number of problems.  Whether, on balance, “science” has enhanced or diminished human safety/well-being to date is by no means an easy question to answer.


If “science” is distinctive neither as a path to “Truth” nor as a path to safety and well-being, what is it exactly? Is there any distinctive role that science has played in human culture, and should continue to play?  Where is the “core” of “science?  These are not, of course, questions for which there exist (or should be expected to exist) definitive answers, but let me suggest a direction along which I think useful developments might occur, a direction consistent with Einstein’s view of science as “free creations of the human mind”.


Figure 1 contrasts two descriptions of “scientific “method”, one that was taught to me when I was an elementary school student decades ago (at least one that I remember having been taught), and a second that I currently use in my own teaching.  There are several important and relevant differences.  The “old” description uses words (“hypothesis”, “experiment”) that convey (to an elementary school student at least) a definite sense that “science” is a specialized activity, one that can’t possibly be engaged in until one has, at least, learned the meaning of the words (which, of course, themselves further inspire images of white coats, laboratories, and the like).  I’ll return to  this characteristic in the next sections, since it is a significant barrier to science as a universal story telling process.  Here I want to focus though on two other differences between the two descriptions that bear on both features which are more important in clarifying the story science itself.   The first is the use of the word “true” in the older description and its absence in the newer.  And the other is the linearity of the earlier description, in contrast to the circularity of the second.


The “scientific method”, which I take as very close to the “core” of science, is, the left side of Figure 1 notwithstanding, very much NOT about determining either “truth” OR “Truth”.  As indicated in the right side of the figure, an “hypothesis” is nothing more (and nothing less) than a useful way to summarize observations.  It is in a very real sense a “story”, a way to make sense of observations that provides a guide for future behavior shorter and more convenient than simply describing all previous observations.  Moreover, like all stories, it is based on the past: it suffices to summarize observations made TO DATE .  An experiment is nothing more (and nothing less) than the making of a new observation to see whether it matches the predictions made by the previously existing summary (or story).  From this perspective, no “hypothesis” can ever be proven “true”.  A new observation can show that a previous summary is no longer adequate (“falsify” the hypothesis); what it can never do is to show that a summary will be forever more adequate. 


In short, “true” in relation to scientific statements should be eliminated from the vocabulary.  Hypotheses may summarize fewer or greater numbers of observations (and can be discriminated in value partly on that score) but there is nothing in scientific method that would or can justify the assertion that a hypothesis is “true” in any respect other than being “an adequate summary of observations to date” (with, perhaps, the addition that the particular summary in question fits well with other summaries related to other sets of observations).  The idea of “true” plays a useful role in mathematics, and perhaps in some kinds of human interactions, but it doesn’t belong in science (except, perhaps, in some narrow technical contexts having much more constrained meanings than is present in human language generally).  Science generates stories from observations.


Is that all that science does?  What are the stories “for”, if not determining what is “true”?  Its at this point that the circularity represented in the right side of Figure 1 becomes relevant and important.  The “scientific” method is not a route to an end (a “conclusion”).  It is instead a recursive, never ending process of creating and the revising stories.


There  are two possible outcomes of a new observation: it is either the one predicted by the existing summary or it is not. If it is the one predicted by the existing summary, there remains (and always will remain) the possibility that a future observation will invalidate that summary and so the continuing task is to further test the summary by making additional observations.  This may, of course, get boring after a while, as in the case of the hypothesis the sun rises every day, but the point is that a new observation consistent with a hypothesis can in principle never end the process. It is one of continuing story testing.


In almost all ways, though,  it is the second possibility, the new observation that is not predicted by the hypothesis/summary/story, that is the more interesting and important one.  In this case, the summary itself requires alteration.  A revised story is needed, and that in turn means creating a new summary story that makes new predictions and hence requires new observations.  Here too, the unending recursive cycle continues.


Even more importantly, it is at this juncture, most particularly, that Einstein’s “not uniquely determined by the external world” is relevant.  There has always been more than one possible “summary” (or story) that will fit the observations (Grobstein, 2004).  And so there is always an arbitrary creative act in science, a choice (conscious or unconscious) to further pursue one or another way of several alternative ways “making sense of the world”.  It is through this crack particularly that science is perhaps most strongly affected by culture and by the individual temperment of its practitioners.  Many people (both “scientists” and others), regard that crack as a  weak point of science, the place where the “scientific” claim of “objectivity” fails.  One can also regard it (as I do) as one of the strengths of science, the space that allows for individual agency and, even more importantly perhaps, the space that makes it possible for individual efforts to usefully become collective ones.


The creative crack is also a place where the deepest distinctive values of science operate, as I’ll come to shortly.   What’s important for the moment is that, whether for reasons having to do with the organization of human brains or because of the nature of “reality” or both (Grobstein, 2004), scientific method (and hence, I would argue, science) does not and can not provide “final” answers to questions about anything.  Not about what IS, nor about what would be the best way to assure human well-being.  What it CAN do is to provide effective summaries of ever greater bodies of observations.  These may be very useful for making predictions and, in many cases, for suggesting ways that particular forms of human suffering might be alleviated.  But in order to use them effectively  it is critical to understand their limited basis and reliability .   They summarize what has been, and are useful only that far.  They say nothing with certainty  about what is or might yet be.


There have always been limitations to scientific stories, and certainly are now.  Will it always be so?  Periodically, people write about the “end of science” (Stent 1969;, Horgan, 1996), suggesting either that the process of science has converged to a final answer or that we have reached a point where the process itself is no longer adequate to contend with new observations.  It is conceivable that at some remote time in the future a set of summaries will emerge that seem are not invalidated by repeated new observations (Grobstein, 2004) but even this would not suffice to end the process, for the reasons given above.  What’s more important is that there is absolutely no reason to believe we are anywhere near such a time (and some reason to suspect we will never be (Grobstein, 2004)).  Physics, to take just one example, has recently found itself having to deal with the totally unexpected observation that the universe, rather than decelerating in its expansion, is accelerating, an observation that requires quite major changes in its summaries of observations prior to that one.   And the same holds in a whole variety of other realms of scientific inquiry.


Even more significantly, claims for the “end of science” invariably prove to be actually claims about the limits of science as it is currently understood to be done, ie claims about the limitations of the way scientists pose questions, make observations, and/or develop new summaries.  The tools used by scientists today, both technological and conceptual, have limits (cf Horgan, 1999), as such tools have always proved in the past to have limits.   It is not only inevitable but desirable that questions should be raised, by both scientists and others, about the adequacy of the tools used in science at any given time.  That this is done is further  testimony to the core of science: a profound questioning essential to improved understanding not only of other things but of the known processes of doing science (the tools of story creation and revision) themselves. 


If nothing else, I hope I have made it clear by this point  to those who do not currently regard themselves as “scientists” why “researchers can’t get it right”.  I hope I have equally made it clear to those who do regard themselves as “scientists” that it is terribly important, both  for themselves and the enterprise of science as a whole, to make it clearer to everyone that we neither claim nor aspire to getting it “right”.   We are telling stories that summarize observations, and both will inevitably change in the future.  Indeed, not only the observation and the stories of them but the very way we collect observations and construct story has changed and will change in the future. While we may (or may not) have ourselves thought deeply about what the limits of the stories we tell, we frequently present them (and allow others to represent them) in ways that are deeply inconsistent with what we are in fact about.  And in so doing, we not only generate unnecessary antagonisms to the scientific enterprise but isolate ourselves from the engagement of others who would be quite willing to support an ongoing effort to make better sense of things, and even to make useful contributions to it themselves.  This can and should be changed. 


Equally importantly, there is more to the story of science than the stories it tells at any given time and the limitations of those stories.   Story revision in science, the creative crack, is not simply about summarizing observations, it is about summarizing them in ways that motivate new observations and, over time, new stories.      The really distinctive thing that science does, its most important unique contribution to human culture, is to provide a motivation and method for continuing questioning and exploration.  Science is, fundamentally, not about security but about doubt, not about knowing but about asking, not about certainty but about skepticism.  Scientific stories are written not to be “believed” but to be revised.


Most generally, science should be playing for culture the central role of helping humans understand the value of skepticism.  It is NOT possible “to make people … safe” nor to eliminate “doubt”.  We, above all, know that the world was not made for people, and that we do not, cannot know enough to make people “safe”.  And we know (or should know) that it is precisely “doubt” that is the most effective tool for becoming as safe as one can be, and the essential stimulus for humans to discover and expand their capabilities.  It is a message that can be conveyed and will be heard if we put our minds to it:


“Moving on, the prof asked a question in class. It was after our conclusion that doctors and scientists don't really KNOW anything. That there are no 'truths' and that everything is sort of dependent on other factors. He followed this conclusion with a question: how does that make us feel? I didn't answer in class, but I'd like to here. I really think that I feel good about knowing that. If I believed everything I was told by a scientist or a group of doctors, and acted on whatever it was that they concluded, then my life really wouldn't be my own. I would be controlled by this outside authority" ... college intro bio student


“"We just discussed in class whether a conclusion can ever be true, definitive. Realizing that the answer is 'no' opens a whole new door to science which some students unfortunately will never be able to walk through. Science can be as analytically inviting as any novel or poem I will read in an English class because it involves opinions, guesses, and presumptions which can never really be confirmed” … college intro bio student


“Oh, if we became scientists with sentiment and excitement [in] fantasy as well as [in] "truth" what a  world, what a universe!" ... middle school teacher



Science as a process and tool used by  all  human beings

(rather than a body of knowledge elaborated by a few)


I was never someone who enjoyed science classes. I found most of them to be pure memorization, and I generally thought that science should be left to those for whom in was natural …. College intro bio student


in life, we make observations, test those observations, and then determine if those tests bring about results that support our observations. more often than not, these real life tests bring about unexpected results, but we learn from those results. the same is true for science … College intro bio student


I’ve suggested some ways to think about the first of the questions in the title of this essay – “What is science?” – and those suggestions lead on naturally to some ways of approaching the other two – “Who/what is it for? And who gets to say?”  The long and short of the answer that I will offer in this and the following section is that with regard to the stories science tells, everyone can and should play a part in their elaboration.


I don’t know whether it is true in all cultures, but certainly in the United States there are people who think of science, and their own involvement in it as “natural”, and others who don’t.  I believe this is, though, largely an artifact of how “science” is presented, in classrooms and otherwise, and that it is a concrete example of those things that we (all of us who are in one way or another engaged with science) need to make a deliberate effort to change if science is to fulfill its promise for human culture.


Science, in the terms characterized in the previous section, is not only not defined by laboratories or white coats, it is also not defined by knowing certain things (or having a skill at memorizing) nor by compulsive information gathering nor by the use of mathematical tools or logical rigor.  It is instead nothing more (and nothing less) than the dynamic combination of curiosity and skepticism that fuels virtually all productive inquiry, and is inherent in all humans from the time they are born.  Babies obviously do not arrive in the world as professional scientists, but they do very much arrive in the world as scientists in the universal sense of the previous section.  They “make observations, test those observations” and “learn” from “unexpected results”.   They create and revise stories.   In short, the underpinnings of science is a set of skills and inclinations that everyone comes equipped with and needs only to be encouraged to continue becoming better at using.


I can well imagine both “scientists” and others shaking their heads at this as too simple, as somehow missing the point (one or another point).  But sometimes the simple (and apparently obvious) is worth being reminded of as a foundation for other things.  This is, I think, one of those times.


It is very much not my intent to suggest that professional scientists don’t need professional skills, nor that anyone and everyone should regard themselves as a professional scientists (or even want to).  It is, however, very much my intent to challenge the notion that professional scientists are, by either birth or training, an entirely different form of humanity than others and the reciprocal notion that others are an entirely different form of humanity than professional scientists.  There is a deep core of commonality between professional scientists and others, a commonality not only of intention but also of method.  Recognizing and building on that core could go a long way towards healing the two cultures rift and enabling science to play a more effective role in culture.


Some specifics may help here.  As professional scientists many (though not all ) of us have some tendency to equate science with particular skills, among them quantitization and mathematics.  There is no doubt but that advances along many lines of scientific inquiry have been greatly enhanced using these tools, and that anyone aspiring to professional work in these areas needs to acquire them.  But it is equally important to bear in mind that quantitization and mathematics are really recent additions to the tool box of science and are themselves continuing to evolve.  Moreover,  neither was central to other important areas of exploration (Darwin’s work and Freud’s come to mind immediately), and both have inherent limitations of their own.  Finally, mathematical ability, irrespective of education, is not even remotely evenly distributed across the human population, and those lacking it have other quite successful ways to make observations and tell and revise stories about them.    To the extent that we equate “science” with mathematical sophistication, and so portray science or allow others to do so, we are disencouraging many otherwise able and engageable people from becoming involved with science.   One does not need mathematical sophistication to be engaged with science.  And science is depriving itself of valuable potential insights from those who are more comfortable exploring in other ways.


Let me illustrate another realm in which it is important to remember that participation in creating scientific stories science should not be presumed to depend on any litmus test other than the ability and inclination to be curious and skeptical.  In the United States, the issue of teaching evolution in the schools has been a major cause celebre and some quite disenfranchising things have been said by people on both sides of the divide.  Trying to talk about evolution as “true” or “fact” simply exacerbates the problem (for reasons discussed in the previous section).  In fact, of course, evolution is a “summary of observations” and should be talked about as such.  This can, and does, lead to exchanges about evolution more productive than arguing about what is “scientific”:


“presenting it as a story is, I think, very useful and diffuses the potential for damage in espousing evolution as the version "smart" people believe.” … middle school teacher              


“Story” = “summary”.  Presenting science in this framework makes it possible for everyone to connect it to their own curiosities, and to become a part of the larger process of making sense of things, using their own tools and observations and story telling styles.  We can markedly increase the likelihood that everyone will become engaged, to one degree or another, with science and its stories  if we avoid not only the claim to “truth” but also various litmus tests (mathematical ability, willingness to set aside a wish for an eternal being, particular varieties of “smartness” as opposed to others (Gardner)) that we frequently, if unconsciously, use to decide who can make meaningful contributions to scientific stories.   There is no risk in doing so; scientific stories evolve by processes that are self-correcting.  And there is, as I will argue in the next section, a great deal to be gained, not only in relieving unnecessary tensions between science and other aspects of culture but also in terms of science itself.  



Science as a fundamentally social activity, dependent on human diversity

(rather than the activity of individuals or a narrower community restricted by its own homogeneiety)


C.P. Snow urged a convergence between the “two cultures”, to be achieved in part by “non-scientists” becoming more familiar with “science”.  More recently, E.O. Wilson, in  Consilience, has encouraged a “unity of knowledge”, based on a “conviction … that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws”.  And John Brockman has written of a “third culture” in which “Scientists are communicating directly with the general public”, by passing other “intellectuals”.  The story I am offering here, of an engagement with science extending throughout humanity, has some similarities to all of these, but also an important difference from all of them.   Snow, Wilson, and Brockman can all by read (whether they intended to be or not) as telling stories of the colonization of humanity by “science”.  The story I am trying to tell is in this respect quite different, and more akin to the one told by Stephen J. Gould in The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox.  The products of science (the stories it has to tell at any given time) should of course be made more widely available and accessible to all humans, but not simply to “enlighten” “non-scientists”.  What is at least equally and probably more important is the central role that all of humanity has played and needs to continue to play, in the stories that science evolves, not only about other things but about itself as well.


It is at this point that Einstein’s “free creation of the human mind”, and the resulting crack “for individual agency” and “space that makes it possible for individual efforts to usefully become collective ones” becomes most significant. Stories, scientific and otherwise, are summaries of observations, and are only as good as the breadth of observations they summarize.  In addition, they ARE “free creations of the human mind”, which is to say that even for a particular set of observations there is more than one way to tell the story.  There are always multiple branch points from a given set of observations.  The particular path taken, the story, in turn, influences what new observations are made and what significance is and is not attached to them.  Since stories are “not uniquely determined by the external world”, there is everything to be gained and nothing to be lost by encouraging the widest possible array of stories.  By so doing, science maximizes the breadth of observations summarized in further stories.  The more people, the more stories, the more observations the better.


This may seem to some counter-intuitive, so let me try and make it concrete with some examples.  As a young research scientist, I was involved in a conflict between the proponents of two competing stories about how the nervous system develops.  Each group “tested” its story by collecting new observations that seemed relevant given its story.  And each group challenged the validity of observations made by the other that seemed to conflict with its story.  In the long run, of course, what emerged was that neither of the original stories was “true”.  More importantly, a new more comprehensive and ultimately more useful story was created by people willing to undertake to create one that accepted and made sense of both sets of observations.


The pattern I’m describing characterizes science at all levels of detail.  A second example with which I’m also personally familiar but at a larger scale relates to the appropriateness or inappropriateness of including observations on “internal experience” (consciousness) as opposed to externally observable characteristics in developing stories about the brain (and mind).  Here too there have been competing groups developing different stories based on observations suggested by those stories.  And what is emerging, here too, is a new and quite promising kind of story, one that accepts the usefulness of both sets of observations and aspires to make sense of all of them.  


Perhaps most immediately relevant in the present context is what could be read as a “litmus test” for participation in “consilience” as Wison conceived it: a “conviction … that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws”.  While a conviction of this sort is characteristic of many “scientists”, and has been of great use as a story telling/revising device in many areas of science, it is by no means characteristic of all “scientists” nor has it been demonstrably of value in all areas of science.  In biology, for example,  the key concept of evolution can be understood as an argument that what is occurring in the natural world is not at all reducible to a small number of natural laws but is instead a continuing and somewhat arbitrary exploration of an infinite and array of possibilities which it is in principle not possible to delimit in advance (not unlike science itself in the story I am telling here?).  And one of the major intellectual advances of the twentieth century was the demonstration that a presumption of an “orderly” world, “explained by a small number of natural laws” is not even a good one for mathematics. 


My point is not to assert that science needs to give up a story telling device that has been useful in the past and undoubtedly will play a role in the future.  But I do contend that a commitment to this particular story telling device should not be regarded as a “litmus test” for participation in science, any more than any of the other tests already mentioned.  Science has never been, and should never become, the advocate of a particular story about things it is exploring and should equally never be an advocate of a particular form of exploration.  Science well serves neither its own purposes nor its place in culture by denying the potential significance for itself of other stories or other story telling styles.  Conversely, the more stories and story telling styles, the richer the territory for science, the better the resulting stories,  and the more meaningful the role it can play in human culture.


In a classic paper, the philosopher of science Thomas Nagel wrote about the aspiration of “objectivity”, the effort to achieve the “view from nowhere”, an understanding stripped of the particularities of any individual human perspective (and, perhaps, stripped even of any particularities associated with being human).  This search for “objectivity” too is sometimes regarded as a “litmus test” for science, and here too the story telling style has been demonstrably productive.  But here too there are enough reasons to doubt its generality to refuse it absolute authority.  One reason is the ever improving human understanding that it is not actually achievable even by successive approximation.  Even in physics there is a need to face the inevitable role of the observer in many observations.  Equally importantly though the search for “the view from nowhere” inevitably yields impoverished stories, stories stripped of particularities relevant to humanness and barren of “meaning”. 


Science is much better off pursuing not the “view from nowhere” but the “view from everywhere”, the stories that, at any given time, make most sense of the widest array of observations all made, inevitably, from unique and different perspectives.  The last thing science needs is to divorce itself from the diversity of human culture.  The greater the diversity embraced the more meaningful the “view from everywhere” becomes, and the more effectively scientific stories can contribute to human culture.


The Distinctiveness of Science in Culture


In the preceding, I have argued that science can and should be an activity in which all human beings are engaged in one form or another.  It can and should be the ongoing creation, revision, and recreation of a story about humanity and its place in the universe, a story that draws from the observations of all humans and is both useful for and challengeable by all humans.


A legitimate question at this point, however, is whether in my enthusiasm for breadth I have created a story that equates science with human culture and hence strips science of the sort of distinctive characteristics that are essential for any institution to play a unique and valuable role as a component of a broader culture.   Am I myself arguing for science as colonizer?    I think not, but the issue of what the distinctive role of science is, if not the search for “Truth” or human well-being or reductive explanation or “objectivity”, deserves explicit attention.


I suggest that what makes science a distinctive and valuable component of culture is its commitment to continuing and open-ended exploration, to a continuing process not of what describing what is now or discovering what is invariant and eternal but rather of imagining what might be given what is and looking for that.   For science, there is ONLY the observations that have been made so far and the stories told to summarize those observations.  And there is ONLY the activity of telling and comparing stories created to summarize those observations and of making new observations to eliminate older stories and generate new ones. 


Science IS something to which everyone can contribute and from which everyone can draw things of use to themselves.  But it is NOT something to which everyone should have or would want to have a personal commitment.  And it is NOT something that should pretend to (or be asked to) bear the weight of all human aspirations.  Science cannot and will not satisfy human aspirations for “Truth” or well-being or stability.  It has contributed to the potential for a common story of humanity and its place in the universe, and can do that more effectively.  And it can, and does, contribute understandings that can be used to ameliorate particular aspects of human suffering, but only as a by-product of its activities.  Most importantly, those activities are ones that necessarily result in instability rather than stability.  As a distinctive component of human culture, science is fundamentally not about stability, it is about change, because it is fundamentally not about “knowing” but rather about doubting what is and wondering what might be.  And so it is also not about sanctity.  We do neither ourselves nor the culture any good by saying that some things are “outside science”.  There may always be things that have not yet been explored by science but there is in principle nothing that cannot be subjected to scientific exploration. 


Moreover, science is not about change in general, but about a particular KIND of change, the kind of change that results from making observations, cataloguing them is a way that makes them publicly available, creating individually and collectively stories about those observations, and then using the stories to motivate the collection of more observations that in turn alter the stories.


One is required in one’s stories to stay close to the observations .  In practice, this often makes science a slow and tedious process, one that can be frustrating to people interested in change for other reasons (and often even to the practitioners of science themselves).   But the benefits to the culture of this kind of change are quite significant.  The stories science has to tell are, because of the constraints, “assailable” in ways that many stories are not.  They are explicitly summaries of particular observations, and any one interested is free to check the observations and/or create a new story to account for them.  They are “public” stories about “public” observations and offered for “public” critique.  For this reason, the stories of science hence have a character of both commonality and challengability that is lacking in some other kinds of stories and demonstrably useful in many contexts.  This distinguishing characteristic of science as a component of a broader culture, like its commitment to change rather than stability, derives from the deeper commitment to “doubting what is and wondering what might be”.  The requirement that scientific stories be assailable has evolved as a mechanism to facilitate the process of being skeptical and hence increase the likelihood of meaningful discovery.


In short, science is NOT and should not be regarded as co-extensive with either culture or humanity.  There are a variety of cultural aspirations that science is not well-equipped to serve and, correspondingly, a number of cultural entities that can do better jobs in relation to those aspirations.  And the demands of being a practitioner of science are of a sort that are comfortable (or at least compatible) with the inclinations of some people and not of others.  That some but not all people will choose to function as practitioners of science in no way conflicts with the potential of science to engage all human beings in the elaboration of scientific stories; indeed those stories will be most rich precisely insofar as they draw on and contribute to the experiences and stories of those who are not practitioners and so observe and story tell out of other motivations and in other ways.


Beyond serving culture with scientific stories, there is a second distinctive contribution that science can make to human culture.  It can, and should, represent its most characteristic and deepest values as an available alternative for all human beings: listen to stories for what they are worth but don’t take them as “Truth”, recognize the dependence of stories on observations, make your own observations and assailable stories, share them with others,  and, above all, be willing to doubt and explore.  In so doing, science cannot and will not solve all of the problems of human culture but it can and will play a valuable role in its continuing evolution. 


Summary and Conclusions


Just as vigilance becomes the eternal price of liberty in our political slogans, so too must rigorous self-scrutiny represent the cost of fairness … in scientific research. And we scientists can best appreciate both the general principle itself, and the major snares of specific biases, by reading and respecting our colleagues …  [in other enterprises]

Stephen J. Gould , 2003



The moral of my story:


Science is a process of story creation, sharing, and revision, a process of benefit to all humans, a process in which all humans can and should participate, and a process whose successes, both in its own terms and in terms of its contributions to human culture, are a direct reflection of the diversity of human engagement with it.   What differentiates science from other aspects of human culture, and is its most important contribution to that culture, is  a deep commitment to exploration and, associated with that, to a profound skepticism  that can productively and should be more actively turned on science itself.  By doing so, science will improve its ability to create meaningful public and publicly assailable stories and its support for continuing skeptical exploration by all humans. 


In this article, I have tried to look at science with the kind of skepticism that exemplifies science as I have tried to characterize it.  In particular ways for which both scientists and non-scientists share responsibility, science falls short of living up to the important and distinctive role that I suggest science can and should play in human culture.  But these are, I believe, correctable shortcomings; the problem is not with the activity itself but with the stories that are told about it and the impact of those stories on both scientists and non-scientists alike.


I trust it is obvious to all readers of whatever backgrounds that what I have presented in this article is not the “truth” about science.  Instead what I have offered is a candidate story about science.  It is, I believe, a story as consistent with the observations as any other story, reflecting, as it does, my own practices as a scientist, those of many colleagues of mine, and those of many of my scientific ancestors.  Like all scientific stories, however, there can be other versions, highlighting observations different from the ones highlighted here.  And, as is the case for all scientific stories, the ultimate test of the value of this one is not in the past but in the future, not in whether it is “right” given the observations but in what new things happen, what new observations are made because of it.


My hope is that the story I have told will help others, both scientists and non-scientists, to develop ways to make better sense of science for themselves.  And that it will encourage the practitioners of science to pay more attention to the values and significance of the enterprise in which they are engaged, to be more attentive to and critical of their own behavior.  Should an appreciation of the “noble skepticism of science” become sufficiently wide-spread (among both scientists and non-scientists) to constitute an “army” so much the better.   Science is an enormously significant aspect of human culture, and it can be made more so.  Assailable story telling is a critical element of that process, as it is of science itself.  I offer my story here in that spirit.













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