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Scientific Fables

January 7, 2010

Academia rarely produces so nicely written a paean to curiosity and scientific method that I found the one written by David Barash and Judith Lipton particularly worthy of mention.  The authors tie together the often disparate strands of narrative and scientific validation through the lens of evolutionary biology and psychology: fields which I have found particularly compelling for just such a reason.

Ever since ethologists, geneticists, and ecologists joined together to create “sociobiology,” more recently called “evolutionary psychology” when applied to human beings, practitioners have had to contend with the accusation that their work consists of modern-day just-so stories, imaginative accounts of how the biological world came to its current estate, how the various creatures are connected to each other, and—more controversial, at least for some—how the human species fits in. Efforts to understand the intimate details of Homo sapiens have especially evoked the skeptical rejoinder of “just-so story” when the hypothesized details are conjectures (worse yet, “mere conjectures”), lacking empirical validation. Among evolutionary biologists in particular, that can be a scathing criticism: To call something a “just-so story” is to dismiss it as unscientific moonshine.

Though such fields sometimes lack empirical grounding because they are not based on a posteriori observations, they do not fail Popper’s “scientific” ideas test, since they are subject to invalidation through methodological testing that has been developed to see if certain adaptations would actually be more advantageous in simulated evolutionary situations. The benefit of such narrative approaches is that they are inherently closer to the functional reason humans have scientific impulses and curiosity to begin with: understanding the world around them allows us to manipulate and predict its behavior better resulting in a more satisfying life for humans.  Merely accumulating empirical observations does nobody but the makers of hard drives happy; collecting stories, on the other hand, enhances our understanding of culture, anthropology, biology, history, technology, ethics, and science in general (in the way Popper would have thought of it).

So to all the empiricists out there, I commend you for sticking through the numerous tests you run before writing your overly technical article that you can’t really share with anyone but the 3-4 other experts in your community.  Certainly your work will advance the raw understanding amongst experts, but when it comes to piquing scientific curiosity and understanding the more esoteric and historical questions, you can’t deny the value of the narrative.  If only NASA had learned this lesson and hired a few poets, maybe we’d be at Mars by now.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2010 5:58 am

    It’s so true – how do you get people excited about reams and reams of data? The story is the hook that gets people excited about your data, if you have it.
    -sarah

  2. January 7, 2010 10:11 am

    in some ways more compelling than storytelling (and in other ways exactly like storytelling) is *visualization*, which is all the rage these days and has become a science unto itself!

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