Not Fear, but a Bond
At times, when I've spoken of narrative as a motive force to scientists, I've encountered a certain queasiness. Could it be that if we admit we tell a story of our research, that we get uncomfortably close to "just so" stories, inventions, fiction? Or, God forbid, that we should render support to relativists, that nefarious social-construction-of-science gang?
Relax. What we study is real. Yet we live in a mansion furnished with real things and an infinity of mirrors. Modern science is a successful social invention for acquiring not truth, but reliable knowledge (to borrow a phrase from John M. Ziman). An essential part of the structure of science is a built-in alternation of flights of wild theoretical and narrative fancy with experimental probing of some underlying reality. The fancy is not unfettered. In the pursuit of the art, craft, science and business of chemistry, there are numerous checks with reality. To be sure, each is individually deconstructible, but their totality shapes a pretty reliable network of knowledge.
But this in no way precludes tall, fancy and mythical stories that fit into absolutely every category of folktale you have, for it is human beings that seek reliable knowledge. So we clothe the oral and written reports of our curious exploration with the fabric of narrative. Narrative is absolutely indestructible; it looms just under the surface in the driest chemical article. And I am so happy that I am privy to the codes, so that I may see the myth (and the approach to reliable knowledge) underneath.
John Polanyi has recently described the close relationship between science and story-telling:
Scientia is knowledge. It is only in the popular mind that it is equated with facts. This is, of course, flattering, since facts are incontrovertible. But it is also demeaning, since facts are meaningless. They contain no narrative.
Science, by contrast, is story-telling. That is evident in the way we use our primary scientific instrument, the eye. The eye searches for shapes. It searches for a beginning, a middle, and an end.
The power of stories may indeed exceed that of facts. As Walter Benjamin has written:
The value of information does not survive the moment when it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.
In telling the story of scientific discovery, we form a praiseworthy bond with literature and myth, all the other ways that human beings have of telling stories. Yes, there are times when the story has to be told simply, the fire engine sent the shortest route to the fire. But a world without stories is fundamentally inhuman. It is a world where nothing is imagined. Could a chemist be creative in such a world?
© Roald Hoffmann