Science and story telling, updated
Twenty or so years ago, when my kids were in elementary school, I visited a class to talk about my profession. I said I was a scientist, and asked the class if they knew what a scientist was. "Its somebody who knows things," one student said. No, I said, its somebody who knows what we don't know and asks new questions based on that.
That memory was brought back by a rich panel discussion a couple of weeks ago with a group of theater people about "story telling." The question put to the panel was "why do we tell stories?" The panel and audience wrestled for an hour or so with that question in a variety of very interesting ways. For me personally, the upshot was to remind me again of the extent to which people in general think scientists are people who "know things" that they themselves don't know, who have answers to questions. Or, alternatively, of the extent to which people believe that scientists themselves think they know things and have answers. While some people in the audience seemed open to the possibility that scientists could provide answers to the questions posed, others were clearly skeptical about the validity and significance of scientific perspectives and understandings in general.
Do scientists know things, or not? Should we listen to them, or not? Let me take a crack at those questions, or at least at how I as a particular scientist would answer them, and use that to develop a bit more my thoughts about "why do we tell stories?"
Several years ago, I wrote a paper called "Science as story telling and story revising." In it, I argued that all scientific understandings were "stories," rather than "truths," in several important senses ...
- Scientific understandings are ways to make sense of existing observations and experiences and, like all empirical understandings, are subject to revision based on future observations and experiences.
- Any given scientific understanding is only one of an infinite number of ways to make sense of a particular set of observations and experiences; there are always other possible ways to do so.
- Any particular scientific understanding necessarily reflects not only observations and experiences but a distinctive perspective from which those observations and experiences are given meaning. There is no such thing as a purely "objective" scientific understanding; one needs always to think about scientific understandings not only in terms of the observations and experiences being made sense of but also in terms of the context in which sense is being made of them, in terms of the objectives and intent of the writer(s) of the story.
This particular perspective implies that science isn't an alternative to story telling but rather that science is itself a form of story telling, and should be heard and treated as such. I like that way of thinking about what I do. I don't know things or answer questions; I tell stories. Should you listen to me? or any other scientist? No, if you think what I will tell you is "truth," and certainly not because you think I think it is. But you should be all means listen to me if you think I have observations/experiences beyond those you have, and/or if you think my way of making sense of them might be useful to you in making sense of your own.
There remains, though, the question of why I (or anyone else, playwrights included) tells stories in the first place. A key to this question, I suspect, comes from the American Indian author Thomas Young who wrote "The truth about stories is that that's all we are" and who quotes the Nigerian storyteller Ben Okri "If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives" (Thomas Young, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, University of Minnesota Press, 2003). We are all used to looking to science, and other forms of story telling, to tell us how things are. But maybe they serve a still larger purpose: to help us conceive what hasn't been but might be.
The science writer Dennis Overbye wrote recently of his "yearning to wake up in a new world." The physicist Brian Greene characterizes science as "a language of hope and inspiration, providing discoveries that fire the imagination" and urges "a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art, and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living." In my own language, science as story telling, indeed story telling in general (music, art, literature, and theater included), "supports the urge of all humans to participate in the continual making, testing, and revising of understandings and meanings that is the core of the human experience."
Twenty years ago, I knew there had to be something more to science than knowing things and answering questions. That something more, I've come to think, is doubting all existing understandings, whatever their origin, and using that skepticism to tell stories based on what has been ... as a tool to encourage continuing exploration of what might be. I like that way of thinking about what I do even more. We all deserve a new world now and then, one that we have ourselves played a role in bringing into existence.