The Problem of Science Stories

Last week Kate pointed me to this post about heroic stories of science saying "This seems relevant to your interests." And, in fact, a good deal of the post talks about Patricia Fara's Science: A Four Thousand Year History, the Union library's copy of which is sitting on my desk, where I had looked something up in it just that morning. (Specifically, the part where Fara notes that the distinction between "science" and "technology" is largely a class-based fiction, dividing high-status philosophers from grubby practical mechanics.)

There are a bunch of things going on in this, and most of them are, indeed, relevant to my interests, as Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist is largely a book of stories about science. Which will most likely fall in the "Sobel Effect" zone of an article cited in the post, being too simplistic and explicitly promotional for a lot of professional historians. It's even been explicitly compared to Sobel's work (by Library Journal), and I'm happy to have that pull quote on the Amazon page.

There's also a bit of truth to the claim that these books take a skewed view of history. I've worked pretty hard at trying to make the stories in the book as accurate as I can, but the ultimate purpose of the book isn't to be a complete and accurate piece of historical scholarship. I'm explicitly trying to promote science in general, and that necessarily involves being selective about the stories I choose to tell, and how I tell them (even if that causes me some angst). I got a good comment on my video about Darwin noting that I didn't mention Alfred Russel Wallace, and that's correct, because adding the story of Wallace would complicate matters and risk obscuring the point I really care about. (There's a mention of Wallace in the book, but it's very short...) It's a good story, and might show up later this month on the blog, but it doesn't serve my purpose to tell that story in that place.

But I chafe a bit at the implication, less in the blog post than in the "Sobel effect" article, that advocacy for science is fundamentally unserious and unworthy of real academics. That strikes me as just as problematically artificial as the science-vs-technology distinction I was looking up in Fara's book.

The past is too huge to present in complete detail, so ultimately anybody who writes about it is making a choice about what sort of story to present. Telling the story of Wallace and Darwin and putting it in the proper context of class and social status and all that is one way to come at the story of evolution, and can make a number of important political points. But that's a particular choice of story, serving a particular end, and it's not intrinsically any better than a more streamlined treatment of events that aims at making a different point.

The notion that the only appropriate approach to history is through the lens of identity and social constructivism is a political stance, not anything inherent in the subject. The suggestion that there's something inherently wrong with using a positive slant on history to promote science is the kind of corrosive nonsense that sometimes makes me want to get out of academia altogether.

Now, of course, there are limits. There's a line beyond which simplifying the story tips over into being actively deceptive. As Thony describes, there's a good case that Sobel's most famous book crosses that line, and I try to talk about that when I teach it. The story of the Harrisons is very compelling, but the almost superhuman effort required to make those watches is itself a good argument that they weren't really the solution to the longitude problem. Maskelyne's lunar distance method was ultimately more practical, and continues to be taught and used well into the modern era of cheap and accurate mass-produced chronometers. Leaving that stuff out of the story changes things in a way that's deeply problematic, and we should do better than that when communicating science with history.

At the same time, though, given the power narrative has to connect with people (see, for example, Jonathan Gotschall's book arguing for storytelling as the fundamental human trait), it would be crazy not to use historical narratives as a tool for communicating science. The stories we tell about science are a powerful tool for drawing people in-- the post about my timekeeping class includes a video from James Burke's Connections series, which presents a highly simplified version of the history of science, but also made a big impression when I saw it back in the 70's.

So, the trick is to find just the right balance between including enough complexity to avoid being deceptive while keeping the story simple enough to be useful. In the end, I always come back to the notion of lies-to-children, namely the simplified versions of how things work that we tell to those who aren't yet ready to deal with the complexity of the full story. In the same way that we teach first-year students Newton's Laws before Lagrangians because they're not ready to handle the math, I think it's reasonable to tell non-scientists a simpler version of the origin of evolution, as a way of priming them for a more complete treatment somewhere down the road.

That line between lies-to-children and actual lies is going to be an individual thing, though, both for the writer and the reader. I've done the best I can to be both accurate and engaging in Eureka, but I'm sure there will be people who feel I've distorted some of the stories in it. And there's really not a lot I can do about that; in the end, I think losing a few people that way is a sacrifice worth making in order to use stories to connect with a broader audience.

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If you'd like to judge for yourself whether I'm guilty of abusing history, Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, Powell’s, and anywhere else books are sold...

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I'm a professional scientist in a field that has nothing to do with metallurgy. If you happen to be a metallurgist and want or are asked to explain some fundamental concept from your field to me, by all means, employ the KISS principle and make it as simple and non-technical as possible. But please don't describe this as "priming me for a more complete treatment somewhere down the road", as if I should have nothing better to do with my time than learn metallurgy if and when I have the ability to do so. Above all, please don't term the watered-down version of theory that is suitable to my level of knowledge "lies-to-children." People who are not specialists in the field under discussion are not children, and as for "lies" ... I may just say to myself, "No point in remembering this stuff if he says himself it's wrong," but a layman may well say, "Sounds like Professor Gruber talking."

Oh, by the way, your kids are adorable.