Thinking about Science: Fact versus Story Telling

Paul Grobstein
13 June 2007

A traditional perspectiveA loopy story telling perspective
  
Science as body of facts established by specialized fact-generating people and process

Science as successive approximations to Truth


Science as authority about "natural world"

Science as process of getting it less wrong, potentially usable by and contributed to by everyone

Science as ongoing story telling and story revision: repeated making of observations, interpreting and summarizing observations, making new observations, making new summaries ... individually and collectively

Science as skepticism, a style of inquiry that can be used for anything, one which everybody is equipped to to/can get better at/be further empowered by, and contribute to - a way of making sense of what is but even more of exploring what might yet be

The crack

  • Multiple stories for a given set of observations
    • 3,5,7, .... ?
    • 1+1=2 or 1+1=10?
  • Observations in turn depend on stories
  • Science is as much about creation as about discovery

If science is as much about creation as discovery then the "crack"is a feature, not a bug ... and differences among people are an asset to the process rather than a problem or an indication it isn't working

Trying It Out ...

Which of the following two stories do you prefer?
  1. The earth is flat
  2. The earth is round
Because of ... Relevant observations: Is one or the other story true? Have there been others? Will there be? Which of the following two stories do you prefer?
  1. The sun goes around the earth
  2. The earth goes around the sun
Because of ... Relevant observations: Is one or the other story true? Have there been others? Will there be others?
Scientific stories are frequently efforts to summarize the widest possible range of observations, always motivate new observations and hence new stories, should never be understood as "authoritative" or "believed in", do not compete with or invalidate other stories. Key issues about scientific stories
  • What observations do they summarize?
  • What new observations do they motivate?

Which of the following stories do you prefer?

  1. Existing life forms (including humans) are as they are because of a previous and ongoing process of evolution consisting of random change and natural selection (differential reproductive success).
  2. Existing life forms (including humans) are as they are because of repeated creative acts of a supernatural being with a plan and intent?
  3. Existing life forms (including humans) are as they are because of an initial creative act with a supernatural being with a plan and intent?
  4. Other?
Because of ... Relevant observations:

Loopy story telling science is a tool to help one become better at thinking for oneself

at using observations and stories (of one's own and other peope) to make stories that motivate new observations that motivate new stories, to create as well as to discover

Your thoughts? ... science as fact or story telling?

Post discussion thoughts

The "get it wrong" instead of "get it right" contrast has some problems

  • There are lots of ways to be "wrong", not all useful
  • Getting it "right" in a new way can be useful for creating new things
  • One can legitimately aspire to/enjoy being "right" in establishing that previous ways of making sense of things were "wrong"
The key here is that science as story suggests scientists should always be skeptical, not only of other peoples' stories but also their own, and should do so because that's the way to avoid becoming dogmatic/fundamentalist and so be capable of contributing to the next "less wrong" understanding. Its the latter that helps to distinguish between more and less useful "wrongs", helps to account for being "right" as a route to creating new things, and not only permits but encourages enjoyment of being locally "right" in suspecting that previous understandings were wrong.

Originally used for BMC summer research students (See "Right" and "Wrong" in Science (and Elsewhere) for student comments, continuing conversation), slightly modified and used for BMC science for college program (high school students) 26 June.

Played up "multiple stories" side more, noting observations change stories but (sun/earth) stories can co-exist, be chosen among for different reasons. Ditto re evolution. Cleaner distinction between "disproving" stories (not for any of evol possibilities) and choosing among them. See student thoughts.

Emphasized science as "loopy", went on to brain as loopy. Nice parallel emerged: brain as explorer, tester of models, multiple stories in science for same set of observations, ditto ambiguous figures. Story teller as way of acknowledging/making use of ambiguity.


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