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The Tensions of Scientific Storytelling

Science depends on compelling narratives.

Roald Hoffmann

Tension and Narrative in Science

In fiction, there is no end to the ways that the author has of posing the narrator—as an omniscient being privy to the thoughts of all the characters, as the inner voice of one protagonist, as a pseudowriter—these are just selections from a repertoire of authorial Russian nesting dolls. Yet even as we recognize the artifice, the author’s métier is to have the reader suspend disbelief. Readers enter into a writer’s machinations to the extent that they forget the author, so eager are they to access the soul of another.

The tension in scientific articles is of another ilk. The protagonists are the investigators of nature. And the investigator takes on two roles. The first is the scientist trying to understand; in his or her mind is a congeries of what teachers taught, what is known. He or she concocts fecund stories of what might be and calls them hypotheses. I refer to that face of a scientist as the “scrabbler,” because attempting to understand anything is a struggle at first. The second face of the scientist is the “writer.” The writer sanitizes, gives the best yield of a reaction, the most plausible story, as mathematically or logically dressed up as possible. Both are narrators—the desire-driven and mistake-prone scrabbler, the oh-so-logical Occam’s Razor–wielding writer. The late Nobel Prize laureate Peter Medawar described the process beautifully in his 1963 lecture “Is the scientific paper a fraud?”

The subject of the scrabbler’s and the writer’s story is reality, represented by the world of science in its ephemeral guise. Represented reality has some observables to throw in the path of the scrabbler who becomes the writer (in a multiauthor paper, each person sometimes takes on the scrabbler role, and other times the writer one). The significance of the facts has to be interpreted. It took us a long time to get past our exquisite yet easily seduced senses, and we need the skeptical rancor of debate to calibrate the reliability of those sensory extensions, our instruments. Carefully done measurements of observables are an essential ingredient of science, against which theories must be measured. They constitute facts, some will say. Well, facts are mute. One needs to situate the facts, or interpret them. To weave them into nothing else but a narrative.

The tension of the scientific narrative resides in the divided personality (or personalities) of the authors, scrabbler and writer, and the representation of reality that their work shapes. Reality turns a different crystal face to all its viewers. With the writer telling the neat story that the stumbling yet imaginative scrabbler found, the investigators together build reality, or a face of reality. That face is in turn seen in a different light by others who compete with, or who follow, the one person who is both scrabbler and writer.

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