Science as story

“There is no conclusion in science; it is a continual and recursive process of story testing.” ~ Paul Grobstein

Eggs Benedict. Boiled eggs. Fried, scrambled, poached, coddled eggs. Huevos rancheros, omelettes, eggnog. Just listing them makes me drool. Yellow and white killers in a crusty shell? Or nature’s little health miracle? It’s all in the science, and science is all in the story.

For many years, I worked with organizations and systems that worshiped at the feet of science. This was generally defined as peer-reviewed studies published in peer-reviewed journals. The “gold standard” was the randomized clinical trial.

The minor gods in service of the ideal were quantitative methods that produced numbers that could be compared, graphed, and used to substantiate or reject the need for some project, methodology or program.

Qualitative methods were suspect, dealing, as they did, with the messiness of human nature. Results were often dismissed as interesting but no more valid than an informed guess.

Of course, both quantitative and qualitative methods produce useful stories that summarize current knowledge. What neither produces is Truth, that shy and elusive deity who is sought but never found.

Basket of eggs

The humble and much-maligned egg from woodleywonderworks ' photostream on Flickr

Take, for example, the simple and much-maligned egg. After years during which eggs were dangerous to our health, scientists have exonerated the humble barnyard gifts.

During the egg-as-demon years, I had numerous disagreements with colleagues and friends who insisted research was objective. They viewed my refusal to give up eggs as an attack on the scientific method and an absurdly unhealthy choice.

What was really at work in my stubborn brain was the sense that research is based on stories, and stories change. I just waited them out and quietly went on eating eggs.

So I chuckled when I ran across an essay by Paul Grobstein, a neurobiologist, biologist, philosopher, and educator at Bryn Mawr. In “Science as story telling and story revising”, he writes, “the scientific method cannot validate universal claims; so scientific stories should never be regarded as candidates (or competitors) for ‘Truth’. And they are true only insofar as one is satisfied with the provisional, i.e., with a story that summarizes all observations made up to the present.”

I wish I had had a copy of Grobstein’s essay to hand out during my years in community development. Whatever methods we used, qualitative or quantitative, to evaluate the projects and programs in which I was involved, the best we could offer was a story.

The story was based on what we hoped would happen at the outset, mixed with what we observed along the way, and blended with what we learned as we reflected on the whole process. Into that mix we threw the stories of other researchers, evaluators, and participants who had contributed their observations, learnings, and reflections.

To be honest, I have to say that the people with whom I shared those stories over the years were very receptive. But it might have eased the worries of others, particularly those who were allies in the search for ongoing funding, if I could have shared Grobstein’s observation with them: “As summaries of observations, scientific stories are only as good as the breadth of observations they summarize, so the more people contributing observations the better. In addition to the observations, however, one needs the stories to summarize them, stories that in turn influence what new observations are made and what significance is attached to them….The more people, the more observations, the more stories the better.”

In the search for the Holy Grail of Truth, science’s latest stories are important. They are also incomplete, based, as they are, on current observations filtered through the lens of experience and belief the scientists brought to bear on their experimental methodology.

Maybe we should think of research findings and qualitative evaluations as interim truths. It would help us remember a quotation attributed to Albert Einstein:

Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.

Grobstein, P. (2005). Revisiting science in culture: Science as story telling and story revising. Journal of Research Practice, 1(1), Article M1. Retrieved April 13, 2010, from http://jrp.icaap.org/index.php/jrp/article/view/9/18

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