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During the summer of 2005, the Serendip/SciSoc Group focused on the theory and practice of "Science as Story Telling and Story Revision". Among the issues that arose was a recognition that the original article would generate different specific concerns in different audiences, and so it would be useful to address these with several more targeted versions of the general argument. One such version, directed to an audience of professional scientists, is provided below. Rebakah Baglini was a junior linguistics major at Bryn Mawr College when she wrote this article. Comments are welcome in the on-line forum for discussion of Science as Story Telling.

Why Reconcile Science and Culture?
Important Challenges for the Scientific Community

Rebekah Baglini

In his article "Revisiting Science in Culture: Science as Story Telling and Story Revising", Paul Grobstein argues that science is "nothing more (or less) than the dynamic combination of curiosity and skepticism that fuels virtually all productive inquiry." But such qualities, he notes, are not the exclusive domain of individuals rigorously trained in traditional scientific disciplines; rather they are "inherent in all humans from the time they are born," though often stifled by upbringing, religious beliefs, and schooling. By recognizing that we are possess the capacity to be scientists in some sense, Grobstein hopes to combat the misconceptions, fears, and anti-scientific biases held by so much of the population.

Grobstein further defines scientific inquiry as a process of "storytelling:" summarizing observations, making new observations, and deriving implications. This process is, like all other human stories, subject to the influence of cultural background, personal temperament, and individual creativity-which Grobstein regards as an asset, rather than a setback. Acknowledging that the pure objectivity of science is a myth, and that science can in fact allow room for personal interpretation, the field of science is indeed being taken down off of a longstanding but artificial pedestal. Science is not the business of truth, nor is it the antithesis of religion or faith. Grobstein seeks to open the doors of science to people with all different ideas of what they want to get out of it, in the hope that through exploration they will find something of useful for themselves and in the process contribute to science on the whole. But it is important to note that Grobstein isn't just looking to create more Christian bio majors, or to make the field of physics more appetizing to those who've grown up among anti-science, anti-intellectual stereotypes. The goal is far broader: to create a society in which science is regarded as an interesting and useful cultural activity in which everyone can participate and from which everyone can benefit.

This is all very idealistic, but to facilitate such a radically different role for science in society the scientific community would be forced to make some drastic changes to traditional procedure. Why expend the time and energy? Why would opening up science to the masses be worthwhile? Why is it worthwhile to embrace a new philosophy of science, one which abandons the notion of science as the exclusive domain of objective truth seeking?

I argue that not only are such changes worthwhile for the scientific community but necessary for the continued growth and progress of the field. Science faces major challenges that I feel overcoming will enable to field to grow, progress and improve to its fullest potential.

Science cannot afford to keep itself isolated from other academic disciplines.

Collaborative research spanning different scientific is becoming increasingly commonplace, and is responsible for the creation of important new fields like bioinformatics and cybernetics. However, collaborative pursuits among scientific and non-scientific disciplines are still extremely rare. Interdisciplinary study is not an impossible dream, a waste of time, or a dumbing-down of legitimate disciplines; collaboration among academics of many varied disciplines can facilitate advanced, cutting-edge research, especially in newer fields that are less easily placed in the domain of one discipline or another.

For example, consider Bryn Mawr College's Emergent Phenomena Working Group, a two-year-old discussion group of students and faculty from the sciences, social sciences, and humanities who have made impressive headway in exploring the elusive field of emergence and complex systems. As any of its members will tell you, much of their success results from the group's interdisciplinary approach to emergence, each week viewing a problem or question of emergence through the lens of a weekly presenter's academic background, be that in philosophy, English literature, biology, linguistics, or mathematics. The scientific community must strive for more of such interdisciplinary research undertakings, as it becomes increasingly clear that exciting future areas of study may not fall conveniently intro predefined disciplines, and that existing ideas may find new life viewed from another perspective.

Science cannot afford to keep itself detached from culture and society at large.

In Revisiting Science in Culture, Grobstein cites the influential lecture and essay of the 1950s The Two Cultures, in which novelist and scientist C.P. Snow argued that the increasing intellectual division between scientifically-minded people and those more at home in the humanities was a considerable hindrance to the progress of human thought. This division is just as clear today: the decline of science education in schools, resulting in millions of citizens without basic math skills or the slightest appreciation for the use of science, is a regular topic of news stories and op-eds. At the same time, the scientific community flourishes, but new advances and discoveries go largely unnoticed by the general public. With the exception of accessible science publications such as Scientific American or the New York Time's weekly Science Times, science stories go largely unreported in the mass media. But why would this be otherwise? Although the scientific community spends a tremendous amount of energy presenting new work to colleagues, potential research funders, and peer-review journals, often little or no attention is directed to fulfilling the public's interest in accessible, up-to-date information about science. With the scientific community so isolated from the culture at large, and the general public so ill-informed about science, we can only expect that science disinterest and illiteracy will worsen.

Although thinkers like Grobstein would argue that the situation is already dire, the future disastrous consequences must be clear to all scientists: the public ultimately controls the scientific community's purse strings, when so much of major scientific funding (at least in more affluent countries) is provided by the government. The public is also responsible for choosing the representatives who will make laws regulating what sort of scientific research may be conducted (consider the ongoing stem-cell debate: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stem_cell#Blastocyst_stem_cell_ethical_debate). Without accurate, accessible information about science, the public will make ill-informed decisions, basing their votes on no information at all or information from non-scientific and potentially biased sources.

Relatedly. a division is also often drawn between science and religion. As the thousands of scientists who actively practice religion will attest, science and religious beliefs are easily reconcilable, although probably not in the same way for any two people. In a country where more than 60% of the population define themselves as not only Christian but evangelical, making the case that science is not antithetical to faith should be a priority for the scientific community. This issue is one where Grobstein's conception of science as storytelling is most useful: underscoring the personal relationship-the unique story--each individual will create participating in science makes it more inviting to those with existing beliefs which they want to keep strong and intact.

Science cannot afford to be taught by traditional means alone.

As mentioned in the last section, science education-particularly at the pre-college level and in public schools-is failing.

The scientists of tomorrow will certainly need to be equipped with factual knowledge, but factual knowledge alone will leave them unable to compete at the forefront of scientific research. They will also need to be creative. Though it's rarely described this way, the second step of the scientific method is imagining: to hypothesize is to imagine a possible explanation for the phenomenon observed and summarized. It is probable that more students would become interested in science if the pursuit were not so often characterized by rote memorization, but presented as it really is: a pursuit requiring creativity and independent thought, guessing and experimentation, new descriptions and ways of thinking about the same processes.

But most graduates of public school science programs will not go on to be scientists, and their relationship with science as an academic discipline will likely be short-lived. The four or five years that student will spend officially studying science in school will define the way they regard science for the rest of their lives. That's why it's important for science curricula to present science in a way that will make clear the importance and usefulness of science in everyone's life. As the quotations from teachers included in Grobstein's paper attest, even those involved in the educational system feel that science education failed them:

"Science came from a textbook with very little experimentation or discovery because all of the answers were written on paper, you just needed to read and understand them."

"In primary school [science] was indistinguishable from the morass of general information we learned from uninspiring textbooks and well-meaning, but insipid teachers. Middle school was worse: sterile classrooms in which science was lectured at us..."

To make science more approachable, engaging and useful to students is another goal not well-served by the traditional standard of teaching science through memorization and testing of factual knowledge. Instead, we should seek to create science curricula that engage students by relating to their individual interests and goals and the world in which they live and spend less time worrying about "right" answers and more time encouraging exploration and thinking, whether or not "right" answers are ever found. Relying less on textbooks and lectures, and more on articles and documentaries connecting science with current events, experimentation with interactive models and in labs, and even self-directed research connecting concepts learned in textbooks with areas of individual interest, could make the science classroom less an environment of boredom, confusion, or fear, and more an environment for questioning, critical thinking, and first-hand discovery.

Every person on this planet has the capacity to be a scientist, in one way or another. By unnaturally dichotomizing science and the rest of culture, too many people are being robbed of the opportunity to take part in a constructive, fulfilling, and important activity, while science is weakened by such a widespread lack of interest and understanding. It's time for the scientific community to acknowledge the problem and to challenge itself to work toward a new role for science in culture, in the interest of the field and in the interest of all human intellectual progress.


Grobstein, Paul. Revisiting Science in Culture: Science as Story Telling and Story Revising, Journal of Research Practice, Volume 1, Issue 1, Article M1, 2005


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