The Frontal Cortex

Storytelling and Science

Robert Krulwich, speaking at the Caltech Commencement, issues a cri de coeur for the importance of stories, even (especially!) when speaking about science:

Because talking about science, telling science stories to regular folks like me and your parents, is not a trivial thing. Scientists need to tell stories to non-scientists because science stories have to compete with other stories about how the universe works and how it came to be….and some of those other stories, bible stories, movie stories, myths, can be very beautiful and very compelling. But to protect science and scientists – and this is not a gentle competition – you’ve got to get in there and tell yours.

As far as I’m concerned, the best kind of “framing” is really just a good narrative.


  1. #1 Jonathan Vos Post
    June 23, 2008

    I was there. It was one of the greatest talks that I have ever heard, on any subject.

  2. #2 Matt
    June 23, 2008

    Thanks for the link! That was a really nice speech.

  3. #3 Jonathan Vos Post
    June 23, 2008

    I saw many strong parallelisms between the masterful Krulwich talk, the wonderful book “Proust was a Neuroscientist”, and:

    Curriculum Designed to Unite Art and Science
    The New York Times
    May 27, 2008

    … In designing the New Humanities initiative, Dr. Wilson is determined to avoid romanticizing science or presenting it as the ultimate arbiter of meaning, as other would-be integrationists and ardent Darwinists have done.

    “You can study music, dance, narrative storytelling and artmaking scientifically, and you can conclude that yes, they’re deeply biologically driven, they’re essential to our species, but there would
    still be something missing,” he said, “and that thing is an appreciation for the work itself, a true understanding of its meaning
    in its culture and context.”

    Other researchers who have reviewed the program prospectus have expressed their enthusiasm, among them George Levine, an emeritus professor of English at Rutgers University, a distinguished scholar in
    residence at New York University and author of “Darwin Loves You.” Dr. Levine has criticized many recent attempts at so-called Literary Darwinism, the application of evolutionary psychology ideas to the analysis of great novels and plays. What it usually amounts to is
    reimagining Emma Bovary or Emma Woodhouse as a young, fecund female hunter-gatherer circa 200,000 B.C.

    “When you maximize the importance of biological forces and minimize culture, you get something that doesn’t tell you a whole lot about the particularities of literature,” Dr. Levine said. “What you end up with, as far as I’m concerned, is banality.” Reading the New Humanities proposal, by contrast, “I was struck by how it absolutely refused the simple dichotomy,” he said.

    “There is a kind of basic illiteracy on both sides,” he added, “and I find it a thrilling idea that people might be made to take pleasure in crossing the border….”

    Jonah Lehrer: do you have any comments on any pair of these 3 citations, or of the trio?

  4. #4 Kjerstin
    June 24, 2008

    Amen to that. I think stories very often get lost in scientists’ obsession about “getting the facts right”, and that’s what accounts for so much of the poor science journalism out there.

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