Science, Evidence, and Narrative

Science, Evidence, and Narrative

I’ve heard it said that the way we see the world in some ways determines the world we see.  I think this is true, though I’m not well equipped to delve into this from any deep philosophical vantage point. And I don’t mean to suggest any type of supernatural causation instantiated via the human gaze. All I am attempting to query here is the role of narrative in perception. Well, not simply perception, maybe “knowledge construction,” but I’m not sure what the right terminology is for the idea I seek to explore.

Let’s start with this: There seems to be a great deal of positive talk about use of narrative to communicate science. I found one Scientific American blogger, Bora Zivkovic, who sketches a narrative methodology for science communicators and provides a short typology: “cool stories” play on the sense of oddness or peculiarity in a bid to capture the curiosity of the audience; “relevant stories” seek to inspire some sort of behavior or action; and “fishy stories” look into the workings of the science and scientists themselves. These types of science narratives suggest that there is translation to be done from some pre-narrative domain to a narrative domain, or that stories are written in a way such that the ‘facts’ or the science is dragged along with a plot.

In his article “Re-calibrating the Science-Media Conversation,” Jacob Berkowitz argues that the use of narrative is a plausible way of traversing conceptual divides that hamper cross-domain communication. I’m quite confident that he is spot-on in this, though perhaps not in the exact way intended.

Berkowitz’s piece suggests something similar to Zivkovic when he writes that he is exploring the use of narrative in the construction of science-based theater, books and plays, but he hints at something that I think is more significant. He discusses the analogy of the iceberg in the context of cross-domain communication: “Only a small portion of an iceberg is visible above the waterline. In science communication it’s the facts that are visible above the cognitive waterline. The vast bulk of what’s actually being communicated lies invisible below the factual surface. Down there are the beliefs, histories, ideologies, personal and community relationships—all the things that actually make or break cross-cultural communication.”  What is unclear, however, is whether or not the above portion could stay afloat on its own accord. In other words, is it the case that science lays outside of the narrative domain? Or is it that it atop of all that ‘other’ noise?

The point I am trying to get at is this: I am not convinced that there is a pre-narrative domain as is suggested in the narrative methodology of science communication. In a recent talk at the University of Saskatchewan, Cindy Patton discussed her analysis of the ways evidence is derived from studies designed to examine what appeared to be a correlation between an increase in crystal meth use and rates of HIV. She argued that the evidence was taken to instantiate, what I would call homophobic policies that amounted to the policing of non-heterosexual activity. On one level, it appears that the results of the studies that were conducted were read (even constructed, perhaps one might argue) in the narrative context of normative (compulsory) heterosexuality, a narrative that saturates virtually every cultural domain and permeates our conceptual history and heritage.  Seeing differently takes education and adaptation—though I’m not sure in which order. Either way, it seems that we need to investigate the narratives that shape and house our discoveries and insights as much as or more than we need to translate them into second level stories (though I’m quite sure this is a very good thing in and of itself).

Perhaps we need to dig into our narratives at an even more basic level. Lakoff and Johnson (1980/2008) suggest that our basic means of operating within the world is primarily metaphorical. Our conceptual practices structure “what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities” (3). These authors argue that experiences and interactions provide the basis for the development of conceptual metaphors, the transference of experience and interactions with the material/physical world, or source domains, into ideas and concepts–conceptual or target domains, and these become systematized into more comprehensive frameworks. Looking more closely at these frameworks may be one way of digging into the narratives that are embedded in the presumed pre-narrative perceptual domain.

What does this have to do with communicating science?  Well, let’s see. I have serious doubts, for example, that there is any type of story, play, book, or theater production that will convince a Christian creationist of the validity of evolutionary science. However, maybe, if we look at the differing narratives and the conceptual metaphors that structure them, we may find patterns that are common to multiple domains. Metaphors that convey concepts of group belonging, in/out metaphors, for example. Or perhaps we will find common ontological metaphors that invest ethereal concepts and ideas with material properties and thus facilitate certainty and security that functions to ward off the paralysis of fear and doubt. It may be that these basic conceptual metaphors furnish a cohesive narrative that shapes perception and can be drawn on to proffer the ‘spirit’ of science and discovery rather than the ‘facts’ themselves.

Of course, this leads us onto a slippery slope which may in the end leave the whole point moot anyway. If what I am suggesting has merit we are going to find ourselves having to face the ethics of narrative manipulation. [i1]  I think we first need to face the deep entanglement of science and narrative that already seems to have us knotted and twisted in all sorts of weird and wacky contortions. Of course, while we debate these ethics, our narratives are already being expertly manipulated by scientific discourse and competing narrators that want us to utilize all sorts of paraphernalia that we had no idea existed and didn’t realize we desperately needed.

Paradigms. Worldviews. Conceptual frameworks. Cultures. Ideologies. Perspectives. Ways of knowing. Call it what you will, but it seems to me that we see the world through the lens or lenses of certain full-bodied cognitive sets. One could have all the evidence in the world, but when it butts up against an impenetrable embedded narrative, acceptance becomes difficult. Remember OJ? A tight glove and a cute little rhyme to challenge what seems so obvious could very well be enough to let the guilty walk free. But is this the same for scientific evidence? Must observable reality be vetted through accepted networks of perceptual pathways? I think so. It’s messy but surely it’s part and parcel of what we do. We need science and story, but though they may be parsed at a literary level, I think that at a more basic level they are one and the same.


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