Scientist as storyteller

Chemists are storytellers out of necessity. A friend of mine just sent me an article that he wrote (and has gotten approved for publication). It begins, “One of the main problems for student comprehension of chemistry is that atoms and molecules are invisible entities.”

‘Invisibility’ imposes a very steep price on chemical knowledge. My friend didn’t say that atoms and molecules are hard to see, nor did he say that they can only be seen with the aid of special equipment. He says they are beyond seeing. This means that any thoughts you or I might have about the appearance of atoms and molecules (what size are they? what shape are they? what holds them together? and so on …) are, at best, stories, the creative products of our fertile imaginations.

These thoughts came to mind today when I read a review of Frans de Waal‘s recent book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (“Animal Acumen”, Science, 29 Apr 2016). The reviewer, Nicola Clayton, describes the book by saying,

… de Waal explores whether our mode of investigating animal cognition is inherently biased against manifestations of intelligence that are decidedly nonhumanlike.

What creates this ‘inherent bias’? Perhaps the problem is nothing more than our limited abilities as storytellers. The stories we are most likely to tell ourselves about cognition (and also about atoms & molecules) are necessarily constructed from our own mental habits and experiences, and the latter may not be terribly useful when applied to other realms.

Storytelling, whether it takes the form of words or the form of mathematical equations, is pervasive in science. Clayton quotes Werner Heisenberg, the inventor of the famous Uncertainty Principle, from “Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science”:

“what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning”

To which one could add, and scientific accounts of these observations, whether they be mere descriptions or unifying theories, are, in fact, nothing more than stories that reflect the orientation and limitations of our ‘methods of questioning.’

‘Storytelling’ is one of my favorite ways to think about science, and also about science instruction. A beginning student (we might as well say ‘beginning scientist’ because a scientist remains a student) is someone who, by definition, knows very few stories about the field in question. The beginner’s imagination can run wild. The advanced student or expert, on the other hand, is someone who has mastered a large number of stories, and can employ them to solve problems, design experiments, and weave new, scientifically plausible, stories.

You could ask, which is better, having an unfettered imagination or having a deep mastery of stories, but both have something to offer. From a ‘storytelling’ perspective, the learning of science is, at least initially, the gradual accumulation of stories, but learning also requires the practice of storytelling. Story telling complements  story learning because to solve a problem, or design an experiment, a student (scientist) must be able to identify the appropriate story and tell it in an appropriate way. Moreover, the advancement of science requires the telling of new stories. We can succeed in this only if we have practiced storytelling and loosening whatever constraints our ‘education’ may have imposed on our imaginations.

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