Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On Parables and Parabolas

Maya Angelou recently spoke at the NIH, where she weaved stories of her life. The speech was well-attended, its topic nebulous (“An Afternoon with”), its tone heart-warming.

Science professors often advise their students to tell a story. This is meant to unstuck students’ spinning minds, to get them thinking on a human-level, and to get them to contextualize results. “What’s the story here?” is often asked in response to research proposals and developing ideas. The question works so well that it’s become a cliché. The presumption being that there’s always a story, it’s just a question of finding it.

But the deeper presumption is that research is akin to storytelling. This interpretation over-stretches the all-too-often well-intended “what’s the story here?”, but it also uncovers the underlying dissonance between stories and research: Namely that stories are experiential while science is analytic.

When discussing scientific findings with fellow human beings, telling a research story never hurts, and certainly stories can help us get a glimpse at nature’s hidden clockwork. But at the same time they remain relatively indifferent towards nature herself, whose eternal laws and associations are not so whimsical as to be formed upon experience.

In this sense, scientific truth – the pursuit of which involves upending paradigms, half-truths, and rigid minds, albeit with Heidegger’s vision of our convergence towards the truth as if it were just beyond the horizon, all making for quite a story – in and of itself couldn’t be further from a story. In handling such truths, we need be imaginative yet thoughtful and delicate, lest we crudely weld man-made constructs of nature to fit into man-made stories. The later unfortunately is done all the time, even in science, and after long enough it strikes reality with a harsh dissonance. It is called wishful thinking.

-KJ Sphere: Related Content

1 comment:

  1. This is a fascinating short essay. Science as "not story" seems counterintuitive to a historian of science, but I jive. Science has also at times been compared to a hunt, a quest, and other things besides.
    I also, however, tend to cringe when "truth" is seen as such an absolute, especially as concerns science...


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