Back Off Science

Stories of the scientist

Posted in narrative by backoffscience on October 11, 2009

But maybe you’ll say, “Storytelling is just for fiction.” Sorry, but that’s not true. This is a shortcoming of today’s science education—the failure to make scientists realize they are storytellers, every bit as much as novelists. They just don’t like to admit it, or really even think about it. They tend to think stories mean Star Wars and Harry Potter. The truth is, stories are as equally important in nonfiction as fiction. They are the way we understand our world.

[link to Randy Olson writing in The Scientist]

There is a conundrum of the scientist. For, as Olson makes clear, scientists want to think they are just doing science, that they are simply investigating things in a rational and scientific way, and that there is nothing intermingled with it whatsoever, because anything creative, or un-scientific, would pollute what they do. the whole scientific investigation (which should of course be conducted in a scientific, rational way) is embedded in stories. What scientists are interested in, what fires up their investigation, the value of what they find out, the scope of their investigation, its purpose and success, are all related to the place of the scientists’ discoveries and clarifications in the story of our lives. As Olson says, the scientists’ questions and their results are framed in language, and language is fundamentally not comprehensible to scientific investigation (although I admit I’ve got a way to go before I convince anyone of that).

The point is, that the only time a scientist is a scientist in the sense of someone completely cut off from narrative, is when they are actually engaged in scientific investigation. Once their eye is off the microscope, they are no longer a scientist. Everything they say about what they have found out creates and modifies stories. It is utterly inescapable. [ Comment saying this].

What Olson also brings out is that stories are not only a matter of fiction, but of non-fiction as well. Once you start looking for stories you find them everywhere – from our immediate experience of values and meanings to the grand narratives that describe human history.

The mistake of believing you can operate outside of stories has huge consequences. It is one of the scientists primary sins.