Science, Stories, and Humans

The opening statement of this NPR blog really struck a chord with me. The rest of the article does a nice job explaining the exciting science behind the recent voyager news, but doesn’t pursue the opening idea as far as I wanted.

“Science at its most fundamental level is not made of experiments or math, copper tubing or silicon chips. Science, at its most fundamental level, is made up of stories because that’s how human beings understand themselves and their place in the cosmos.”

This story-telling aspect of human nature is everywhere and can’t be ignored. I used to think that there was a stark difference between ‘facts’ and ‘stories.’ Many (most?) people still do. But really there are just stories that do better or worse jobs of describing the world, or just describe certain aspects of it. In this way, history and engineering are more similar it may appear on the surface (though they are still quite different.)

What is a theory but a story that explains observations well enough to predict future ones? They aren’t immutable – only standing until a story (theory) that explains the world even better comes along.

This may seem really touchy feely, perhaps it is if you dwell on it too long. But, like any aspect of human nature (thanks Kahneman) I think it’s a crucial concept to always have in the back of our minds. The inseparability of storytelling and human nature is relevant because everything we experience goes through at least one human brain (our own) but more often hundreds of others too (the guy taking the data, the guy modeling the data, the guy who writes the article about the model, the editor of the article, etc.) Each person perceives and transmits the story slightly differently in a giant game of telephone.

Much more information could be transmitted if debates were framed as “I think my story is better than yours” rather than “I’m right, you’re wrong.”

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