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2004-2005 Brown Bag Discussion of "Science's Audiences"
January 28, 2005

Paul Grobstein (Biology)
Thinking About Science: Evolving Stories

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum


Drawing on a talk he gave about Science (and Science Education) in the 21st Century: Everybody "Getting It Less Wrong" Together, Paul began by interrogating the presumption that science needs to find a way to communicate "to" its audience, a phrase which implies a single direction. Science ought to be thinking of itself not as a symphony orchestra, with all other members of society attending its concerts as consumers, but rather as a playground where the audience is invited to participate and become involved in the activity, where the borders between performers and audience are blurred, as in some forms of modern theater, like performance art.

Why suggest such a breakdown? To eliminate some of the arcane language of the "traditional method" of doing science, but more profoundly to emphasize the understanding that science is not about establishing truth, but simply a process of collecting ever-expanding numbers of observations, and (skeptically) making summaries of them. What's interesting in the "evolving" scientific method is not the observation which confirms the current summary, but rather the observation that requires the scientist to look back and challenge the current story. There is always an infinite (that is, an uncountably large) number of possible stories that will adequately summarize any collection of observations (discrimination is possible; some stories are not allowable, but the available range is always multiple). The choice of a particular summary is the function of the individuality of the persons telling the story, and arises (among other things) from their cultural backgrounds, personal temperaments and individual creativity. These attributes constitute a real "crack" in the process, meaning that there is no inevitability in the way the summary gets made, but always a discontinuity and unpredictability about the shape it will take.

Such a story of how science is done might be one way of countering the perversive fear on this campus about "being wrong" (which had been discussed in the diversity conversation immediately preceeding this one: "Making Nice at a Woman's College"). In this newly evolving account, being wrong is a GOOD thing, because it functions as an incentive for a new summary. Because we cannot eliminate the possibility that the story will be influenced by the individuals telling it, a large variety of perspectives will actually give power to the story, enabling it to reflect the view from lots of places. Is this a way of getting beyond subjectivity, by emphasizing the places where various subjectivities overlap, the "view from everywhere"? Science is a social activity, most powerful when the largest number of perspectives are incorporated, and most liable to change for the same reason. A scientific story is most useful if it suggests what has not been seen before. This conception forms a marked contrast to the traditional view of science, in which personal investments are disallowed, and the "crack" is seen as a flaw in the process. In the new view, the crack is not avoided, but celebrated. In the new story, both stable reality and an asymptotic approach to truth are given up, without actually altering how science is done.

Participants had a number of questions about, and objections to, this account. Scientists have always been critical, skeptical, and humble about not knowing everything. Seventeenth-century science was developed with very practical means and objectives in mind; "expansion" was not its primary goal. The "most sophisticated science" uses the asymptotic approach, because it is more adaptive. Don't you need to understand what you are looking at, for your perspective to be relevant? Doesn't "celebrating the crack" mean allowing, even encouraging, conflicts of interest? Shouldn't personal agendas and interest be subsumed into larger wholes?

But you can't say in advance what is relevant. The more one knows about the current common understanding, the more likely one is to extend the story in that direction. Fresh approaches can contribute to the scientific process. Science is "not the discovery of what already exists; it is a creative act." A distinction between "science" and "research" gets science out of the ethically awkward position of claiming social resources in order to provide "cures" for cancer (etc). It is not the business of science to solve human problems, but rather to create things that surprise people. Although the general public wants answers in black or white, the distinctive role that science can play is helping all humanity become more comfortable with uncertainty.

There is nothing incompatible between local motivation and the expression of broad curiosity. Babies are scientists from birth; they go exploring for very practical reasons, and don't expect to uncover the truth. The "crack" in this story is essential: including as many different people as possible in the making of the story will make a difference, will lead to the construction of new summaries, when the range of observations don't add up.

There was also some discussion about the ways in which science's stories differ from those in the humanities. It was suggested that science looks for constraints on its accounts, whereas the humanities allow fewer boundaries. Or is it the reverse: that literary stories are more constrained, because they limit their "truth claims" to what is personal and individual, while science (in its search for consensus and consistency across a wide range of stories) tries to claim something more universal? It was also asked why the scientific story of evolution includes periods of diversification and elimination: why are some eras those of amplification, others of convergence?

The further discussion of such questions is invited to continue in the on-line forum. The semester's series will continue next Friday, February 4, @ 2:15, when Susan White of the Chemistry Department will address the question, "Why Teach Molecular Biology in Africa?"

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