This essay parallels in interesting ways Revisiting Science in Culture: Science as Story Telling and Story Revising, was sent to Paul Grobstein, who wrote that article, and is made available here by permission of Barry Bickmore and David Grandy as a contribution to ongoing discussion of Science as Story Telling in Action.
Explaining the origin and intent of the essay, Barry Bickmore wrote
I have been crystallizing some thoughts about teaching the nature of science to my students, and trying to make them see it as relevant to their own lives. I remembered a comment by Paul Feyerabend that modern scientists serve a function equivalent to court jesters in earlier times, and came up with the idea that science is a form of storytelling. I thought that if I could effectively explain this idea, and adopt this "Science As Storytelling" theme throughout my course curriculum, maybe this would serve to enhance my students' attitudes toward science even further. Furthermore, I have also noticed that in the Evolution/Creationism/Intelligent Design debate that has been going on, science educators often complain that, "If they could just understand the Nature of Science, they would see that ID is not science!" But then, when they go on to explain their concept of the nature of science, it turns out to be demonstrably false, and usually patronizing towards religious students. Therefore, I set out to write an essay that will form the basis of class discussion on the Nature of Science ... and designed to help students see science as thoroughly human and non-threatening.
Brigham Young University
D. A. GrandyDepartment of Philosophy
Brigham Young University
What is Science?
Much of our modern culture revolves around something called "science." Governments want "scientific" analysis of various problems to guide policymaking. News reports detail the latest "scientific" studies about human health. People worry about whether their religion conflicts with "science." But what is science? This turns out to be a complicated and controversial question, and whenever we try to come up with a really precise definition, we end up calling some activities "science" that we would rather exclude, or excluding some activities we would like to include (Laudan, 1996). For example, some people might distinguish science from other activities by noting that scientists perform experiments. However, some sciences are not particularly experimental, e.g., it is hard to imagine astronomers performing experiments on celestial bodies. On the other hand, astronomers do collect and record observations, even if these cannot properly be called "experiments." Is the collection of observations of the natural world the defining feature of science? Apparently it is not, since astrologers have been observing and recording the motions of heavenly bodies for millennia, and most people would not classify astrology as science. Scientists typically go on to explain their observations by creating theories that might be used to predict or control future events. However, astrologers also explain their observations by creating theories, and they certainly try to predict things by their theories (Okasha, 2002, pp. 1-2)! Furthermore, there is a certain breed of physicists, called "string theorists" who have not yet come up with a single prediction, but that does not keep them from being classed with the other scientists in the university physics departments where they work.
Even if a precise definition of "science" is not forthcoming, however, most people would agree that, in general, science does involve collecting observations about the natural world and coming up with explanations for them that might help us predict or control the future. Therefore, we could propose a loose definition of science like the following.
Another point that may trouble you about our definition of science is that we have not yet gotten rid of the astrologers. A prominent philosopher of science put it this way: "The difference between science and other endeavors that seek explanations of why things are the way they are can be found in the sorts of standards that science sets itself for what will count as an explanation, a good explanation, and a better explanation" (Rosenberg, 2000, p. 21). In order to help you understand why things like astrology (or history, or any number of other fields of study that could fit our loose definition) are not considered "science," we must explain the kind of standards scientists set for themselves when developing their stories.
Rules for Scientific Storytelling
Just like any literary genre, scientific storytelling follows certain rules that set it apart from other genres. However, it is important to realize that rules are chosen, not because no others are possible, but for convenience in attempting to accomplish certain goals. Remember that science is the art of creating explanations for natural phenomena that could be useful for controlling or predicting nature. What kinds of rules could be made to make science more useful in this way?
Rule #1: Reproducibility
Our first rule has to do with the kind of observations that are acceptable as a basis for scientific stories.
There are very good practical reasons for this rule, e.g., people have been known to be tricked into thinking they see things that aren't really there, or even to hallucinate. Sometimes people tend to "see" what they expected or wanted to see, or even lie. Should we accept someone's personal experience as "data" that has to be explained by science? Clearly that would open up a can of worms with which most scientists would not want to deal.
As practical as this rule is, on the other hand, it is possible that it could be a limitation on science, especially in cases where someone observes something that happens only infrequently. For example, "falling stars" are frequently observed streaking across the night sky, but it is relatively rare for them to be observed in such a way that they can easily be connected with the meteorites that are sometimes found on the ground. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, reports of "stones falling from heaven" were met with extreme skepticism among scientists, because this was not possible according to the prevailing theories about the make-up of the heavens. When a meteorite fall was reported by two Harvard scientists, Thomas Jefferson responded, "I could more easily believe that two Yankee professors would lie than that stones would fall from heaven" (Watson, 1945, pp. 172-173).
In essence, the rule that observations must be reproducible to be "scientific" narrows the field of "facts" that science must explain to experiences that are, in principle, transferable from person to person. Inner religious experiences, strange phenomena that only ever occur to single observers (e.g., UFO abduction stories,) and even extremely rare (and therefore sparsely attested) phenomena are ruled out. This is not to say that such observations must be hallucinations or lies. Rather, this is simply the scientist's way of dealing with the fact that people are not always reliable witnesses.
Rule #2: Predictive Power
Our first rule has to with the idea that scientific stories might be useful for predicting the future course of events.
On the other hand, in the 19th century the great British scientist, Lord Kelvin, suggested that the sun might be a glowing ball of liquid, formed as meteorites coalesced by gravitational attraction and generated heat from friction, etc. If this were true, Kelvin reasoned, it ought to be possible to calculate the sun's age, based on estimates of its annual heat loss. He estimated that the sun had been losing heat for a maximum of 100 million years (Thomson, 1862). Further research into the frequencies of light waves emitted by molten meteorites might also have served as a test of the predictive power of Kelvin's story. Now, it turns out that scientists since Kelvin have come up with much better ideas about what the sun is, and how its heat is generated, and these new explanations can account for many more observations than Kelvin's. For example, the light waves emitted by the sun are not characteristic of molten meteorites, and radiometric dating techniques seem to support the idea that life has existed on Earth for much longer than 100 million years. In other words, Kelvin's explanation is now considered to be flatly wrong because its predictions failed. However, it is still considered a "scientific" explanation, because it generated predictions that were not originally used in the creation of the explanation. This kind of prediction allows science to go forward, rather than getting stuck in a rut.1.
To this end, scientists accord special value to stories that are mathematically precise. Lord Kelvin, you will remember, was able to calculate an absolute upper bound for the age of the Sun, and posited a relatively precise account of the kind of material from which the Sun might be composed. This kind of precision is valuable because it offers a larger target at which other scientists can shoot. In other words, if a story that generates precise, testable predictions, happens to be blatantly wrong, it should be relatively easy to shoot it down and move on.
Although some "scientific" explanations do not immediately produce predictions that we can test (remember the string theorists), it is easy to see why scientists prefer precise, testable stories. That is, if we allow too many explanations that cannot be tested in any way, then it becomes harder to decide whether to prefer one story over another.
Rule#3: Prospects for Improvement
In order to fully understand why scientists prefer testable predictions, one must first come to the realization that science is not about establishing "the facts," once for all, but about a process of weeding out bad explanations and replacing them with better ones.
Indeed, we claimed above that scientists are perfectly capable of ignoring some observations that conflict with their established explanations. Why would they do such a thing? The fact is that sometimes observations go wrong-instruments do not work correctly, experiments are contaminated, and people can be deceived in what they think they see. Furthermore, the world is a complicated place, and even if a few observations seem to conflict with an explanation, it may still be mainly correct. And if it is not immediately apparent how to fix the theory, that is no reason to throw out an otherwise perfectly good explanation. However, if observations that do not fit a scientific story keep piling up, rather than being successfully explained away, scientists begin wondering whether they ought to look harder for a better story (Kuhn, 1996).
Consider the example of Galileo. In his time, the geocentric (Earth at the center of the Universe) astronomy that was in fashion at the time was in trouble-a number of observations seemed to conflict with the theory. To overcome some of these problems, Copernicus had proposed that the Sun is at the center of the Universe, and everything else revolves around it in circular orbits. Galileo used a telescope to produce observations that he then advertised as supporting the Copernican theory. For example, he could show that the brightness of the planets changed through the year, which was predicted from the Copernican idea that the Earth should be at different distances from the planets at different times of year. However, the magnitudes of some of these variations were not nearly large enough. Also, many people who looked through Galileo's telescope distrusted it, because although it seemed to work well when pointed at objects on the Earth, optical illusions (such as double-vision) were noted when it was pointed toward the heavens (Feyerabend, 1993, pp. 86-105). Clearly, the Copernican theory had problems of its own, and many of them were not solved for decades, or even centuries, as the Copernican theory was adjusted to accommodate things like elliptical, rather than circular, orbits and better theories of optics were developed. So why did it quickly become the dominant explanation of the motion of heavenly bodies, even in the face of contradictory evidence? Perhaps the answer is that even if it had problems, the adherents of the Copernican theory saw it as a more promising avenue of research than the competition, and so they were willing to try to work out those problems.
The idea that we hope to get across here is that science employs reasonable methods for coming up with good explanations for natural phenomena. But in the end, it is a human enterprise, prone to human limitations.
Rule #4: Naturalism
The kind of human limitations just discussed are not the end of the story, however. It turns out that scientists also deliberately impose certain limitations on their craft for practical reasons.
Looking back to some of the examples already discussed, it is clear that the explanation of the sun that included the Greek god Apollo is ruled out from the start, whereas Kelvin's explanation is not. Whereas the Apollo story involves a supernatural being, Kelvin only appealed to natural causes, such as the gravitational attraction between meteors and heat generation by friction. He said he favored his explanation of the sun's heat because "No other natural explanation... can be conceived" (Thomson, 1862).
This brings us to a rather odd problem. That is, many scientists believe in Judaeo-Christian, Muslim, and other concepts of God and spirituality along with most of the rest of the world. Many of them even believe that "supernatural" events have occurred. And yet, when they practice science, they never introduce the supernatural into their explanations. For example, Lord Kelvin not only believed in a Christian concept of God, but he even used his estimate of the age of the sun to show that there could not possibly have been enough time for life on Earth to have evolved from lower forms, as Charles Darwin suggested. He went on to propose that a relatively young solar system ruled out organic evolution and this, in turn, implied an intelligent Creator. If Kelvin believed that God supernaturally generated life on earth, then why would he feel compelled to stick to "natural" explanations when offering a scientific account of the origin of the sun?
There are three practical reasons for sticking to naturalistic explanations. First, we have already seen that supernatural explanations (like Apollo's chariot) tend not to generate new predictions. Not only does this stop the scientific enterprise in its tracks, it is not very useful. That is, supposing the sun is Apollo's chariot, what can we then do with that information? Science operates by observing regularities in nature, but supernatural beings like Apollo might decide to change the natural order at any moment, and how could we predict when or why that would happen? Second, it is very difficult to place limits on which supernatural explanations are acceptable. For example, if it is acceptable to say that the sun is Apollo's chariot, then why not Odin's shiny helmet? Both of these points can be overstated, however. It might well be possible for supernatural explanations to generate new predictions-even some that could easily be tested - but in order for this to be so we usually must know something in advance about the supernatural agent in question. For example, if we say that God created the world, we can generate predictions about what the world is like only if we know something about what God could have and would have done during the Creation. And this brings us to our third reason for sticking to naturalistic explanations. Since different groups ascribe different attributes to God and other supernatural agents, if we allowed supernatural explanations in science we would end up with various versions of Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish science, to name but a few. In pluralistic society, and in an age when science is a big-money, publicly funded enterprise, most scientists would prefer that we all just try to come to some sort of compromise, for the moment, and that compromise entails keeping God out of the explanatory picture.
Another example of the usefulness of a naturalistic approach to science is the story of the ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates. In Hippocrates' day, illness was often attributed to the anger of the gods, and that sort of thing. In that case, a physician's job was to invoke the aid of the gods (usually Asclepius, Apollo's son) to heal the sick person. Hippocrates challenged this practice, not because he did not believe in the gods, but because he thought that the physicians of his day were often using the gods as an excuse for their own ignorance of the causes of disease. If, on the other hand, diseases were mostly the result of natural causes, one might often find natural cures (Rubenstein, 2003). This sort of pragmatic attitude is very prevalent today, even among deeply religious people. That is, when people are seriously ill, they usually check into the hospital, even though they might pray for divine help, as well.
On the other hand, even if the supernatural is not allowed in scientific explanations, individual scientists may still use their religious views or other inner experiences in the creative process. For instance, Albert Einstein frequently used to muse about how "the Old Man" (referring to his impersonal concept of God) would have done things. However, when it came to his published scientific explanations, "the Old Man" never made an appearance. The Belgian scientist Friedrich Kekulé hit upon the idea that the benzene molecule has a ring structure after having a dream where a snake tried to swallow its own tail, but went on to test this idea using scientific methods (Okasha, 2002, p. 79). In the creative process, anything goes, so long as a naturalistic account can be given later.
It should always be remembered that scientists do not allow God and other supernatural agents into their stories only because there are practical reasons not to, rather than because we cannot.2 Furthermore, just because we can come up with a naturalistic explanation for something, it does not follow that the explanation is true. As discussed above, we can never be sure that we have hit upon the one and only possible explanation for our observations, and we can never be sure that more observations will not contradict our stories.
Once this point is clear, it should be apparent that once in a while, there will be conflicts between science and various religious viewpoints. If we do not allow the supernatural to play any part in scientific explanations, how can we expect them to always be in harmony with religious philosophies that specifically claim there are supernatural influences on the natural order? Occasional conflicts would seem to be inevitable, and therefore such conflicts should not come as a shock to anyone.
Rule #5: Uniformitarianism
Most people will agree that most of the time the world operates in a regular manner, according to some natural laws. Therefore, they have little problem with most science as it is now practiced. On the other hand, some people believe that this has not always been the case in the past. For example, some people believe that God created the world out of nothing in the not-too-distant past, and that other "miracles" have occurred in the past. This poses a problem for the "historical sciences"-those that interpret the present state of things in terms of past events. For example, consider the popular TV series, CSI. In this show, crime scene investigators (forensic scientists) examine the details of a crime scene (blood spatter patterns, angles of bullet holes, articles that seem out of place, injuries evident on a dead body, etc.) and make up stories about how the present situation might have come about. In order to test their stories, they might shoot bullets into Jell-O, try to mimic the production of blood spatters, use trigonometry to determine from where a bullet might have come, and that sort of thing. The assumption implicit in all of these activities is that the crime scene reached its present state via processes that can be mimicked in the laboratory. They do not even consider the possibility that some supernatural entity might have been involved. Why? Because if they admitted such a possibility, all their normal methods for evaluating evidence would go out the window. Furthermore, when the case reaches the courtroom, even juries packed with deeply religious people tend not to listen to pleas by defense attorneys that supernatural entities adjusted crime scenes to make the defendants look guilty. This brings us to our next rule.
Once again, this is something we cannot know in any absolute sense, because we cannot travel back into the past to verify it. And even if we could travel back into the past, we certainly could not verify that the laws of nature have always operated in the same way at every moment, and in every location, in the past. Furthermore, we may well discover new "laws of nature" in the future that we have never noticed before, or discover that some of the laws familiar to us have exceptions.
We already mentioned that there could be supernatural agents who change how nature operates from time to time, and in fact, many people (including some scientists) believe that this has happened on occasion. Why would scientists, even those who do not believe it, make the assumption of Uniformitarianism, if it can never really be verified? This question can be answered by asking what would happen if scientists assumed the opposite, i.e., that for whatever reason, the laws of nature do not always operate in the same way. In that case, how could we explain any past events? Scientists draw inferences from regularities we observe in nature. Therefore, if we were to assume that these regularities did not operate in the same way in the past, science would have to be shut down, at least with respect to explanations involving past events. Again, scientists make this assumption as part of the cost of doing business, rather than because we are sure it is always true. Even if it is only true most of the time, such an assumption is probably worthwhile.
This kind of thinking is completely normal both in science and everyday life. For example, when scientists perform calculations to predict the gravitational attraction between the Earth and other objects in space, they routinely assume that the Earth is spherical. They know perfectly well that the Earth is not actually spherical-it is slightly squashed on two sides, and somewhat lumpy. However, the assumption that the Earth is spherical makes the math involved in the calculation so much more simple that the problem becomes easily solvable, and the answers we obtain are not very far off from those we would have gotten otherwise. As another example, consider the behavior of people who live in earthquake-prone areas. They get up and go to work, assuming all the while that no major earthquakes will occur that day, and yet they know in some corner of their minds that the "big one" might happen any time. They assume something that they know might not be true because their assumption will be true most of the time.
Rule #6: Simplicity
Another practical assumption is embodied in our next rule. Once again, it is the kind of assumption that must be made in order for science to keep operating.
This rule could be considered a rather obvious point, and not directly related to the art of scientific storytelling. However, it must be realized that it is possible to make scientific stories that are more descriptive than explanatory, but the fact is that scientists value explanations more than descriptions. For example, Sir Isaac Newton created a simple, yet amazingly accurate mathematical equation to describe the force of gravitational attraction between objects, but he could not explain why such a force that acts at a distance should exist. Many of his fellow scientists were very uncomfortable with this, and called gravity an "occult" force (Rosenberg, 2000, pp. 82-83). If scientists were content merely with description, rather than explanation, perhaps the idea of "action at a distance" would not have caused such a stir. However, the search for an explanation for gravity was continued, and eventually Albert Einstein showed that gravitational attraction could be explained as an effect of the curvature of space-time around massive objects.
Now, if you are scratching your head and wondering what "the curvature of space-time" might mean, then it is an opportune time to point out another fact about the assumption of Simplicity. Namely, even though scientists assume nature is simple enough to understand, it does not follow that nature adheres to what we might call "common sense." The fact is that people do not usually form "common sense" judgments about things based on very careful observations, and when we force ourselves to observe carefully, it often turns out that reality does not conform to our expectations. For instance, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle explained that earthly objects fall downward because their natural place is on the earth, whereas fire goes upward because its natural place is in the heavens. This is a good "common sense" story that actually explains quite a bit of what people observe on an everyday basis. However, when more careful observations were made about the acceleration of falling bodies, the motion of the planets, etc., it soon became clear that Aristotle’s physics could not do the job. The physics of Newton and Einstein were successive attempts to explain more and more careful observations that conflicted with a "common sense" view of the world (Wolpert, 1992).
Rule #7: Harmony
Scientists generally want people to accept their stories and make use of them, but most people would hesitate to do so if they could see that different scientific explanations contradicted one another at every turn. Even if we can never be sure our explanations are correct, we do not want them to be obviously false.
Clearly, science is not solely about discovering "facts" about the natural world, although scientists do spend a lot of time making observations and experiments. Rather, the real essence of science is storytelling - creatively making up stories to explain what we observe in the natural world. But how is science different than other kinds of attempts to understand the world? We have listed a few rules of thumb to help make this distinction, but in some cases these rules have clear exceptions. For example, scientific stories are not always immediately testable, and therefore not always amenable to the constant winnowing process that scientists employ. They also do not always mesh perfectly with other established scientific explanations. However, scientists clearly place a much higher value on stories that make precise, testable predictions about the natural world, and mesh well with the other stories scientists tell. This value system, more than anything else, is what makes modern science so powerful. If scientists place more value on stories that predict new things, then the best scientific stories are the ones that are put at the most risk of failure. And when they do fail, scientists eventually try to find and fix the problems, leading to even more powerful stories. Similarly, the warning flags that go up when a scientific story does not mesh well with others can lead to more progress as scientists try to resolve the apparent contradictions. By constantly subjecting their stories to this kind of scrutiny, scientists try to make their stories realistic, even if we can never tell whether we have hit upon a completely true description of reality.
On the other hand, some of the rules explained here represent unprovable assumptions that scientists adopt in order to make the problems they tackle in some sense solvable. If there really were supernatural entities that sometimes alter the natural order, science would be blind to that fact. If nature were really too complex for the human brain to comprehend, science would ignore it. In some other fields of inquiry (e.g., religion or philosophy,) we can ask "why" things happen, or what "ought" to be done, but not in science. Science can help us control powerful processes like nuclear fission, but cannot tell us whether to use them for peaceful or warlike purposes. Indeed, scientists limit their stories to explaining only those observations that are reproducible, and this sometimes might exclude aspects of reality that are not easily transferable from one person to another. Therefore, science is a powerful, but limited, path to understanding.
When you see science for what it is - a powerful, yet limited and thoroughly human enterprise - it is our hope that you will be ready to make your own informed judgments about where scientific stories should fit in your own life, and in contemporary society.
1Not only that, but prediction becomes part of the success story of science. "The power of prediction," Thomas Huxley wrote, "is commonly regarded as the great prerogative of physical science" (Huxley, 1903, p. 10). What he had in mind is that scientific prediction is widely regarded as much more reliable than, say, religious prophecy or psychic precognition. One need only recall the public surprise that accompanied the 1758 appearance of Halley's comet. Comets had always elicited wonderment, but this time much of the wonderment stemmed from the accuracy of Edmund Halley's prediction, which enhanced the status of Newtonian science. (return to text)
2In fact, for most of the history of science since the Scientific Revolution, it has by no means been taken for granted that science and religion should be so separated. Furthermore, science and religion have had a very complex history of interaction, and blanket statements about whether religion has had a positive or negative impact on scientific inquiry are not historically credible (Brooke, 1991). (return to text)
3The assumption of simplicity is related to the assumption that the world has a rational order and that we, by exercising reason or our rational capacity, can come to understand that order, at least in part. Thus nature might be simple or intelligible because we, being part of nature, are attuned to it to some extent. (return to text)
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|Science as Story Telling in Action|
|A project initiated by the
Serendip/SciSoc 2005 summer working group