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Storytelling in Science


How Much of Science Today Involves Storytelling?


The following are quotes from the book: “The Limitations of Scientific Truth” by Dr. Nigel Brush (Ph.D., Anthropology, UCLA; B.A. in Anthropology from The Ohio State University) Geology professor at Department of Chemistry/Geology/Physics at Ashland University.


In an essay titled “Literary Bias on the Slippery Slope,” Stephen J. Gould who taught biology, geology, and the history of science at Harvard University noted:

 “So much of science proceeds by telling stories – and we are especially vulnerable to constraints of this medium because we so rarely recognize what we are doing. We think that we are reading nature by applying rules of logic and laws of matter to our observations. But we are often telling stories – in the good sense, but stories nonetheless.” (1991, 251) p. 104

Gould also said:

“This (storytelling) constraint does not apply only to something so clearly ripe for narration and close to home as ‘the rise of man from apes’ (to choose a story-like description that enfolds biases of gender and progress into its conventionality). Even the most distant and abstract subjects, like the formation of the universe or the principles of evolution, fall within the bounds of necessary narrative.” (1991, 251) p. 112


Roger Lewin, a British prize-winning science writer and author of 20 books said:

“By studying genetics, fossils, and modern primates, anthropologists attempted to answer the ultimate question, ‘Where did I come from?’ They may have believed that they were conducting objective, analytical research on human origins but, according to Lewin, they had in fact been telling stories. Scientific stories, to be sure, but stories nevertheless."

(Lewin 1987, 32). p. 108


Timothy Ferriss, a Princeton University grad., and an American best-selling author, entrepreneur, and public speaker said:

“A scientist’s understanding about nature and the universe will always be tinged with subjectivity. And because scientists in fields as diverse as anthropology and astronomy need to attract the attention of their colleagues as well as to make their theories and discoveries interesting, understandable, and attractive to the general public, scientific theories often incorporate literary elements – motifs, plots, myths – into their writings. Thus, those theories will always contain a mixture of truth and fiction – as do all good stories: ‘The known universe is and always will be in some sense a creation of our (hopefully creative) minds’(Ferris 1992, 5-6) p. 115

Much of science today has to do with past history, which cannot be repeated.

As Gould also stated: 

“Many large domains of nature – cosmology, geology, and evolution among them – must be studied with tools of history.”

Brush went on to say: “Thus, when scientists attempt to explain the present by looking into the past, they have entered the realm of history. When they attempt to reconstruct what the world or the universe was like in earlier periods, they are not conducting experiments or quantifying, they are in actuality writing history. It is an unfortunate circumstance, though, that the writing of history is influenced strongly by the culture in which that writing occurs.” p. 96

“Indeed, some of the most interesting information that science can give us is about historical events: the Big Bang, the formation of galaxies and solar systems, the appearance of life, Snowball Earth, the Cambrian Explosion, supercontinents, dinosaurs, asteroid impacts, mammoths and mastodons, early civilizations, and so on. However, these are all unique, one-time events that cannot be reduced to laws or replicated in the laboratory. Scientists who are studying these events are not only doing science, they are also doing history.” p. 102

My question:

Whether a story starts out: "Once upon a time, long ago and far away," or: "Millions of years ago," wouldn't most of what comes after that consist of a made-up story?

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