Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The stories scientists tell

with 4 comments

Peter Medawar

What scientists do has never been the subject of a scientific, that is, an ethological inquiry. It is no use looking to scientific “papers,” for they not merely conceal but actively misrepresent the reasoning that goes into the work they describe. If scientific papers are to be accepted for publication, they must be written in the inductive style. The spirit of John Stuart Mill glares out of the eyes of every editor of a Learned Journal.

Nor is it much use listening to accounts of what scientists say they do, for their opinions vary widely enough to accommodate almost any methodological hypothesis we may care to devise. Only unstudied evidence will do—and that means listening at a keyhole. Here are some turns of speech we may hear in a biological laboratory:

“What gave you the idea of trying…?”
“I’m taking the view that the underlying mechanism is…”
“What happens if you assume that…?”
“Actually, your results can be accounted for on a quite different hypothesis.”
“It follows from what you are saying that if…, then…”
“Is that actually the case?”
“That’s a good question.” [i.e. a question about a true weakness, insufficiency, or ambiguity]
“That result squared with my hypothesis.”
“So obviously that idea was out.”
“At the moment I don’t see any way of eliminating that possibility.”
“My results don’t make a story yet.”
“I’m still at the stage of trying to find out if there is anything to be explained.”
“Obviously a great deal more work has got to be done before…”
“I don’t seem to be getting anywhere.”

Scientific thought has already reached a pretty sophisticated professional level before it finds expression in language such as this. This is not the language of induction. It does not suggest that scientists are hunting for facts, still less that they are busy formulating “laws.” Scientists are building explanatory structures, telling stories which are scrupulously tested to see if they are stories about real life.

Peter Medawar

Written by nevalalee

March 9, 2014 at 9:00 am

4 Responses

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  1. I often frame what we do as finding more and more comprehensive constraints on what we know about the universe. A working explanation has to satisfy the data, and as the data become more subtle and more comprehensive, more explanations can be rejected. Sometimes this allows us to choose between theories, sometimes it leaves us in a void, needing a new one. Sometimes there are competing explanations which we still cannot separate, so we have to invent a new test that can choose between them.

    The quotes you list are all familiar. I would add:

    “Yes, it disagrees with my ideas, but I think s/he’s done a lousy experiment so I’m going ahead anyway.”
    “What you forgot to account for is…”
    “I don’t think your measurements actually tell you that.”

    and, of course,

    “Yes, but he would say that.”

    Science is, after all, a human endeavour.

    My favourite bit is the last sentence. In the end, the universe is the arbiter,not what anybody thinks, and that is what makes it science.


    March 9, 2014 at 9:46 pm

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful response. It occurs to me that “finding more and more comprehensive constraints” neatly describes what artists do as well.


    March 10, 2014 at 10:49 am

  3. i’ve been coached probably since undergrad that scientific research needs to tell a story. but i submit to you that all (well, at least in my romanticized version of scientific endeavor) scientists are trying to discover and tell interesting stories that fit into the overall design and function of the universe. The meta-narrative of the universe, if you like, which is governed by basic atomic, molecular, and energetic interactions that underpin all of physics, chemistry, and biology. Facts are dry, apparent to all, and by themselves are limited in what they reveal to us about our physical reality. It’s when we see those facts in a larger context, see from what or where they arise and what implications they have for predicting the behavior and nature of our world, that they then begin to take on a certain beauty and life, even agency. The stories become compelling because they give us an accurate, intricate, and wondrous view into our universe, and it does science a disservice to equate its stories to convenient, thinly veiled fiction; its scientists to mere fabulists. Do scientists ever have pet theories towards which they erroneously try with to bend the facts? Has an author ever hung onto a favorite character or conceit to the expense of the overall quality of his writing? The answer is probably yes to both. The danger is in throwing out the entirety of storytelling, whether scientific or literary, because some do it poorly.


    March 16, 2014 at 7:55 pm

  4. Nicely put—and it seems especially appropriate in light of today’s big cosmological announcement, which is a longstanding story verified at last by the metanarrative of the universe.


    March 17, 2014 at 6:13 pm

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