Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

Writing Descartes:
I Am, and I Can Think, Therefore ...

Story Evolution

An exchange arising out of Grobstein's Writing Descartes ...

More on the Two Cultures
"Science IS Story"
An Exchange Involving a Social Scientist, A Humanist, and a Scientist

From Sandy
August 11, 2004

Hi Paul and Anne,

Below is high praise for you folks from a UCLA colleague of mine who stumbled onto the Science in Society website while responding to my new article.

I happened across the website of the Bryn Mawr discussion of The Two Cultures question via your Center for Science in Society, and followed up on all the links there. I cited it, of course, and was particularly impressed with the tone and seriousness, not to mention the concern for pedagogy, that it took as a matter of course.

The new article is

"Beyond Paradigm: Resisting the Assimilation of Phronetic Social Science." Politics and Society 32, 3 (2004): 417-433.


From Anne
August 17, 2004

So, Sandy...I read your "Beyond Paradigm", enjoyed and learned from it. Thanks.

Want a few reactions/thoughts?
(Rhetorical question. Here goes....)

I'm all for methodological pluralism, all for questioning large abstract claims that are ungrounded in local realities, etc....basically, am "in your camp...."

Where I found myself wanting to push back was in two particular locations (which actually turn out to be one): the repeated slide between "scientism" and "scientific" (in which the first "straw man" becomes a stand-in for the second "real thing") and the repeated opposition between "science" and "narrative" (in which "scientism" becomes the stand-in for "science").

The keynote of the course on The Story of Evolution/The Evolution of Stories that Paul and I taught last spring was that storytelling IS science. Below find 2 early postings, first by him, second by me (from the class forum archive):

Name: Paul Grobstein
Subject: science and story
Date: 2004-01-20 19:53:52
Message Id: 7649

Enjoying reading your thoughts here, and enjoyed hearing your reactions to my story this afternoon. Thanks for both.

Lots to talk more about (and looking forward to a semester of doing it) but one issue from this afternoon sticks in my mind particularly: the idea that "science" is different from "story", and is in fact something that one can appeal to to test the "validity" or "correctness" of a story.

I think that's lots of peoples' story of the relation between science and story, but its not what I was trying to convey in my story this afternoon. What I wanted to convey is the idea that science IS story, in the sense that it is nothing more (and nothing less) than something one makes up to make sense of observations. And then tests/revises (inevitably) by making additional observations.

Am I SERIOUS about this? As a scientist? Yep. Moreover, I think the story that science is a story is itself a GOOD story ("good" in terms we need to talk more about; perhaps, for the moment, "has a long lifetime"?). If you're intrigued by that story, here are a few other places/ways I've tried to tell it ...

Looking forward to talking more about this, among other things.

Name: Anne Dalke
Subject: Storytelling IS Science
Date: 2004-01-21 20:59:11
Message Id: 7704

Yes, science IS story and (this will sound predictable, but I'll say it anyway): storytelling (well done) IS science. That is to say: if we acknowledge that every account is temporary (as we are temporary), that every account is unfinished (as we are unfinished), then all storytelling (like all living) is an endless predicting and testing and revising, as we ask ourselves repeatedly how useful our current accounts are for making sense of what we (and others) are observing and experiencing. I'm convinced that this process--Quakers call it "continuing revelation"--can happen in religion as well as in science.

And yes, one measure of a "good story" is that it has "a long lifetime"; but a better story does something else: it generates further stories. I got this idea from Michael Tratner: that the better stories are those with enough familiarity to be understandable, enough novelty to be surprising, and enough of both to provide a pattern for repeated variants.

I'd spoken publically about these ideas before this course began--but am already ready (you guys are GOOD!) to revise what I said there/then. Following Su-Lyn: the best stories are those which enable us to ACT. In preparation for a graduate seminar later this week on Explorations of Teaching, I'm reading Paulo Friere's Pedagogy of Freedom. Freire, the great Brazilian educator, talks about science and storytelling in just the ways we've been using the terms: as a permanent process of searching that involves what he calls "critical consciousness." Freire recognizes that the risk of establishing a genuine public sphere (like this one?) is that the outcomes of our storytelling are NOT guaranteed--AND that the point of the whole process is that it facilitates both individual and social CHANGE--i.e.: that it enables us to MOVE.

Here's the rub, I think, to Lindsay's observation that she could be more supportive of the mission to Mars if there were something to gain by it. Problem is, we CAN'T know, ahead of time, where the gains will lie. (See tomorrow's reading--Schwartz's NYTimes article--on this: we can't get there except by going there.)

And, know what? I feel well on our way, and most excellently accompanied en route. Thanks to all, and looking forward to more....

Reading those passages, Sandy, you'll be able to see (I think), that I'm resisting your resistence to political science mis-taking "science" as paradigm-- because I'm resisting the understanding of science inherent in that claim.

All of which (presuming you're still reading/haven't given up on me yet) is prelude to an invitation to join us in the collection of dialogues about Writing Descartes. Paul got this whole shebang going @ the end of June w/ a short piece. You'll see (remember?) that I quoted you in one of the many spin-offs.

But there's lots more here that might well interest you as a philosopher-- and to which, as a political philosopher, you actually have quite a bit to add. For instance, in your discussion about methodologies, you might find of particular interest a dialogue I conducted with Anneliese Butler (a BMC anthro grad who's enroute to GSSWSR this fall), about the "practical use-value" of web forums like these. Embedded in that dialogue is a key passage from Hofstadter and Dennett's collection, The Mind's I, which speaks directly to the binary you use/I refuse above:

"Well, all these fantasies have been fun, but..they're just so much science fiction. If you want to learn the truth--the hard facts--about something, you have to turn to real science...." This reponse conjures up a familiar but impoverished vision of science as a collection of precise mathematical formulae, meticulous experiments, and vast catalogues of species and genera, ingredients and recipes. This is the picture of science as strictly a data-gathering enterprise in which imagination is tightly reined in by incessant demands for proof....

In fact, of course, science is an unparalleled playground of the imagination....Science advances haltingly, bumping against the boundaries of the unthinkable: the things declared impossible because they are currently unimaginable. It is at the speculative frontier of thought experiment and fantasy that these boundaries get adjusted....the storytelling side of science is not just peripheral, and not just pedagogy, but the very point of it all. Science properly done is one of the humanities. (457-460)

More than too much, I know... But should you be interested in responding to any of this, I warmly invite you to do so-- w/ an e-mail to either Paul or me or both saying... whatever it is you have to say!


From Sandy
August 17, 2004

Hi Anne and Paul,

Thanks, Anne, for the comments on my article.

Those are some very thoughtful exchanges you folks had. I basically agree with your orientation as you folks seem to with mine. But the difference is that you folks don't think like most scientists and most science is practiced in ways that fundamentally disavows what you are saying about science as a humanities, science as story, etc. Therefore, most science is practiced as a form of scientism--defined here as an ideology that is in denial about its narrativity and insistent on its ability to directly represent reality, nature, the objective world, etc.

I therefore agree that we should see ideally science as a wonderfully thoughtful and creative playground for conjuring up useful, fulfilling, and meaningful stories about the world, but I think we would be hard put to get many natural scientists to agree. They don't call it the "science wars" for nothing. And we can't pretend like the science wars didn't happen and aren't still going on. They are.

Scientists tried to embarass my good friend Andrew Ross as editor of Social Text (a journal I regularly publish in) by constantly reminding everyone, even on the editorial pages of the New York Times, that Andrew, as a prominent participant in the science wars, was so gullible as to publish a ficticious article by Alan Sokal on postmodern physics, thereby proving that us Social Text critics, who largely write about how science and everything else is textual--so the name Social Text, are ignoramuses of the first order.

Andrew told me in detail the true story of the Sokal hoax which nobody seems to want to hear that he pleaded with Sokal to change his article because it was too fantastic and Sokal refused so Andrew published it as an example of how one physicist did believe some outrageous stuff. Then Sokal turned around and announced the article was hoax and that Andrew and Social Text, including me I guess, are a bunch of idiots who believe that science is just stories.

Everyone ignored Andrew's rebuttal that detailed how Sokal refused to change the article and now many books and satirical critiques later many people believe that science as beyond stories has been vindicated, spared from the clutches of the likes of folks like you and me. So we can say that science is great, that scientists are great, and it is and many are, present company of course included here big time, but the fact of the matter is scientism reigns supreme in science still today.

I was recently asked to become the head of the doctoral program in Science in Society at another university and the folks there live in the belly of the beast where the University President abolishes programs if they do not lead to major technological developments in science that can bring in millions of dollars in new funding. The entire university is driven by the pursuit of corporate funding to further support the ability to produce more and more technology. The Science in Society program is small but teaches undergraduate and graduate students and is this island in a sea of corporate machinations. This is the real world of science as story.

From Anne
August 19, 2004

Am remembering an earlier exchange among us about harm-reduction and risk-taking, and a later one about responsibility for both individual and social change. You said then that "Marx defined what he called 'species being' as being in humans the distinctive ability to recreate themselves. So I guess he would agree with your requirement." Am thinking also that a recent comment of Paul's, in a talk he gave on Science In Society in the 21st Century: Interdisciplinarity and Beyond, gives us a pretty good roadmap for that sort of recreation, both individual and social:

"It is not only the 'story' but the methods of developing the story that are, should be continually subject to skepticism."

I'm hearing, loud and clear, Sandy, what you're saying about the way science functions as story in the "real world." But I'd like to lay alongside your account one of my own experiences in this realm. I was a very curious child, but I was never EVER interested in any of my science classes. None of them gave any space to my curiosity about the nature of the world, my desire to explore how and why things worked the way they did. I was repeatedly asked to reproduce experiments that had been run (presumably successfully) by scientists in the past. They always failed; I never knew why, never knew how--was never helped--to figure out why. By high school, I had become a pronounced "science-phobe": not only dis-interested in, but very much afraid of science, a realm where a certain sort of expertise reigned, and where I had no place.

This started to change about seven years ago, when I began hanging out with our bi-college colleagues in the sciences ( I first co-taught a gender studies course w/ Kaye Edwards, a developmental biologist at Haverford, in 1997; my science education picked up steam as I co-taught a sequence of BMC College Seminars, first with Liz McCormack in Physics, then with Peggy Hollyday and Paul Grobstein in Biology). With some labor, and a lot of curiosity and questioning, I found that the notion of "science as story" a very productive one for my own re-education into science matters. It invited me to participate in and contribute to that realm, to think about myself as a scientist, to think of what I knew experimentally and experientially as valid contributions to the evolving account about the nature of the world. I didn't have to be "right": I just had to contribute what I knew to the common sandpile, knowing that whatever I said was correctible by others who knew other things, and that the process was an unending one. Seems to me that that story, about "science as story in the real world," might also have some usefulness here?


From Paul
September 5, 2004 Sorry to be a little late in getting into this conversation, but you two have laid some rich groundwork and I appreciate the thought/work that has gone into it. I too think the Two Culture issues are still very much alive and, in that context, it seems to me not only appropriate but perhaps even desirable to have a foundation put in place by a "humanist" and a "social scientist" with the "scientist" only subsequently appearing on the scene.

It was good of Anne to bring to the table some of the things I've written about "science" and, rather than repeating them, let me just say that I am happy to stand by them ... as a "scientist".

Science proceeds not by proving "truth" or "reality" but rather by disproving falsity, not by painting the "right" picture but by painting a picture "less wrong" than prior pictures. And that, rather than either "objectivity" or some other privileged access to "reality" is in fact the basis of the demonstrable power of science. Science is indeed, to this "scientist", a story (or a painting). And I'm not at all the only one for whom that is so.

What I think is even more important about Anne's contributions to this conversation is her characterization of herself as someone who earlier on was "not only disinterested in, but very much afraid of science" and subsequently found it to be a valuable part of her development as a person and an intellectual. This speaks not only to the usefulness of the "science as story" story, but also to the still more important question of the role that science can, and should I think, play in human culture. I am myself not particularly interested in defending science as a professional activity/community, but I am very interested in science as an amplifier of human potential, and in trying to assure that it is tool available to all human beings for their individual empowerment (cf Everybody "Getting It Less Wrong" Together). People who are "afraid of science" are, knowingly or unknowingly, depriving themselves of an important source of power and this is good neither for them nor for human cultures in general.

I am, at the same time, keenly aware that there are forces within science that promote "an ideology that is in denial about its narrativity and insistent on its ability to directly represent reality, nature, the objective world, etc". And I'm as inclined to oppose those forces as you are (cf Science As "Getting It Less Wrong" and Two Cultures or One? and Science Matters ... How?). What I am, though, perhaps less inclined than you to do is to conclude that "scientism reigns supreme in science" or that "the pursuit of corporate funding to further support more and more technology" is a related aspect of science. And for these reasons (probably among others), I have perhaps a greater inclination than you to seek a kind of discourse that focuses more on inclusiveness than on demonization as a route to desired social/cultural change.

What seems important to me is not only that there are some scientists with whom you can happily and comfortably make common cause but that there are at least as many "non-scientists" about whom you can (and should) register the same complaints as you do about scientists (or at least about "scientism"). Neither a preoccupation with knowing "Truth" nor a commitment to "corporate funding" and "more and more technology" are even remotely unique to science as a cultural institution. The former has been and continues to be a problematic claim of a wide variety of human institutions (religious, political, ideological), and the latter is endemic in virtually all aspects of western capitalist cultures. It would be astounding if science were not to some degree infected by these broader forces but I see no reason at all to equate science with them because of that. To do so seems to me to allow oneself to become distracted from the real sources of the problems that bother one.

Equally importantly, science, whatever its vulnerability to infection by broader cultural ills, is, at its core, the only cultural institution that I know of that has the explicit mission of promoting "profound skepticism" and this is, again so far as I know, the only really effective antidote not only to the social ills that currently bedevil us but to entrenched social ills of all kinds.

In short, I'm more than happy to work together to exorcise some of the demons from science (and, equally, other institutions in which they are found) but don't think its in either your interests or mine (and certainly not in the interests of those values we hold in common) to toss a valuable baby with the bath water. I think we collectively (sciences, social sciences, humanities) have bigger fish to fry and, to be most effective, we ought to go after them together. Shall we take a crack at it?

See on-line forum for continuing conversation and to leave your own thoughts.

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