Monday, November 21, 2016

Storytelling and Other Scientific Methods

So I was listening to an episode of In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg* about Galen, and how he influenced health and medicine, which made me think about the our impulse toward storytelling, and its relationship to science. A professor of mine at SUNY Albany stressed the element of storytelling in good scientific writing. The best scientific writers are creative in a style that is almost defined by its lack of flourish or superfluity, but depends strongly on narrative ability. I consider the best popularizers of science to be skilled at getting people invested in stories.

Another scientific human impulse, I think, is the need to categorize things, or to name them and group them with other things like them. Hippocrates, or Carolus Linneaus, who invented the way that we name species referring to their characteristics, may be chief among those who sought to categorize, or maybe Dmitry Mendeleev** who invented the period table of the elements. It's the first step in telling a story, I suppose, to determine who the characters are and what they are like. (If this is all getting too phenomenologist to you, feel free to move on.) Then storytelling allows us to work out what the relationships are between different "characters".***

And a third one (I won't say final, but three is a nice number to end on) is the desire to predict the future. It's not so much an impulse as a very often futile hope that we can know what will happen before it occurs. In Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez**** talks about a westerner bringing binoculars to some native Inuit hunters who hadn't used them before. They look at the landscape through the binoculars, unimpressed, and ask if the binoculars can allow them to see where game animals will appear in the future. And even if we can observe things perfectly, because of the observer effect, whatever we think might happen can change as the result of our interactions with it.

In trying to predict the future, we think if we can work out the "characters" and the relationships between them, we can anticipate how they will react to some stimulus, especially if we have observed how they reacted in the past. Of course, the shortcomings here are obvious. Even fairly "predictable" systems experience non-linearities and threshold effects that could not have been anticipated without lots of observations across a broad range of conditions. And if humans are involved, then all bets are off. 

* I'm a huge Melvyn Bragg fan. For more from him, check out the amazing Southbank Show and Adventure of English

** After whom the eminently useful and free citation software, Mendeley was named (a sort-of portmanteau of Mendeleev and Mendel).

*** I think this is where my interests mostly lie, scientifically.

**** I saw Barry Lopez speak at the AAG in Seattle in 2011, and I got a chance to talk to him briefly afterwards. I think he's an amazing writer, and his honorary geographer acceptance speech there was topped only by another great talk by Yi-Fu Tuan.

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