Telling stories about science …

Yesterday we were having a discussion with the 3rd year graduate students about styles of writing papers and I was reminded of the old Medawar talk again (see – P.B. Medawar (1964): Is the scientific paper a fraud). As Medawar argued then, the current standard for constructing a scientific paper is fairly contrived. The workflow prevalent today suggests that the body of data being reported came out of a very straightforward process. First, there was an enlightened review of the existing facts and literature. This inspired the scientists to propose a strong hypothesis – and that led to a series of experiments, which systematically evaluated this enlightened hypothesis (and distinguished it from some other weaker alternates). While this may be true in some (rare) cases … for the most part, actual projects in Biology often start with a “what if” or “why not” question followed by an exploratory experiment (“fishing expedition”). Many of these experiments lead no further. But some offer enough “interesting” data to build the next experiment. As a result of this process, the project being reported in the paper may have stumbled along many circuitous hills and valleys, before settling on to a stable plateau. At that point the scientists often make a judgment call about it being “time to publish the story”. Medawar essentially argued that this contradiction between the linear flow of the project conveyed by a (naïve) reading of the paper and the actual route(s) that it took in the laboratory, basically makes the scientific paper a fraudulent report on the science itself ! Whether you agree with this assessment or not, this was indeed a thought provoking article.

But our obsession with framing data in the context of a “story” – no matter how contrived that construct is, may have deeper roots. There is an interesting case currently being made among evolutionary biologists that we as a species are fixated on storytelling (and story-listening) as a survival strategy (for more on that,Jonathan Gottschall - The Storytelling animal Jonathan Gottschall’s book is a good place to start). Apart from anecdotes about how people pay more attention to factoids organised as stories than the same facts laid out in another format, there are studies suggesting biochemical responses in the brain to the structure of a story.
So, while Medawar’s call to change has its merits, the resilience of the structure of a scientific paper may owe more to the evolved preferences of our species, rather than the idiosyncrasies of scientists alone.

Further reading:

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