For most of the last decade, I’ve been noticing the failure of contemporary science to tell its own story. While I’m not a scientist (although my father was), I am a seasoned, Emmy-award winning documentary filmmaker and telling stories is what I do. That has helped me to see an important problem with the narrative of contemporary science … and a potential solution as well …insights that emerged during the six years that my partner Catherine Ryan and I have been producing and directing our first science documentary, soon to be broadcast on PBS, “My Love Affair with the Brain: The Life and Science of Dr. Marian Diamond.”
The documentary is part biography, part scientific adventure story, and part inspirational tale about one of the founders of modern neuroscience, Dr. Marian C. Diamond, Professor Emeritus at University of California, Berkeley. It is no exaggeration to say that her research changed not only science, but the world. Dr. Diamond and her team published paradigm-shattering research in 1964 measuring anatomical differences in rat brains exposed to enriched and impoverished environments, the first published data demonstrating plasticity in the brain. (Among her many publications on this topic, she was co-author of the Scientific American February 1972 cover article, “Brain Changes in Response to Experience.”)
While working on the film, a broader question emerged for us, something beyond any one field within science, a question that goes to the heart of how contemporary science relates to the broader public today. I pose that same question to you now.
Ask yourselves: is contemporary science offering a convincing and inspiring narrative to persuade people that science can be relied upon to explain the world around us? Is science telling a story?
Of course for many of us it does precisely this. Merely by reading this magazine you demonstrate that you are already on-board with the scientific narrative. I know that I am! We are whole-hearted supporters of the scientific method as way of examining and describing the world, of differentiating between factual and bogus. We know that there is no such thing as “alternative facts.”
So why doesn’t everybody agree with us?
Let me suggest one broad problem, one critical element missing in the narrative of contemporary science: Biography. All too often, we are missing the stories of the scientists themselves. With few conspicuous exceptions such as the personalities Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, contemporary science tells its story in facts and figures, largely leaving out vivid characters, instead sketching a picture of science without backstories or biographies, omitting humanity’s chaotic complexity.
Part of this is by design. One of the virtues of the scientific method is objectivity. It doesn’t matter who performs the experiment; when properly done with methods, conditions and variables controlled, the results should remain the same, thus confirming a hypothesis. But what is valid for the individual experiment may not be valid for justifying the field as a whole. Objectivity helps us to perform an experiment and to review data. But objectivity is the means to an end. The final goal is broader. By testing a hypothesis, by determining if it is trustworthy as an explanation, we create a narrative that explains and reveals the world around us, a narrative that one can share, that can be transmitted between people, cultures, eras.
This then, is the big picture perspective. Science is a narrative, one that we tell ourselves to allow us to understand the world. If we let our pursuit of objectivity exclude the human factor, we are led to an either/or fallacy, a scientific narrative that demands we choose between human or scientific. Excuse me but … oh, my fellow SciAm readers … aren’t we both? Human and scientific?
Yet that is not what we see in print or television or multi-media today. Contemporary science is all too often depicted via breakthroughs, new developments, and explorations of state-of-the-art science. Yes, those advancements are welcome news. But however worthy, that narrative that leaves out deeper human engagement, and most importantly, deflects us from seeing the value of science that creates a deeper human understanding of the world it strives to describe. As a practical matter, the absence of the scientists-as-humans narrative inadvertently emphasizes a host of inherent problems within the reported results themselves; issues like confirmation bias, or the ambiguity effect where the need for conclusions crowds out the realities of on-going uncertainty.
Moreover, what about the inevitability of scientific paradigm change where entire fields of study are called into question? How long before today’s breakthrough is disproven by tomorrow’s advance? Exactly what is the shelf life for state-of-the-art science? The arm-chair science watchers, the average citizen, ends up receiving a never-ending treadmill of one-off studies, often contradictory, and is left confused, betrayed, and unwilling to trust science. Is coffee good for me, or bad? Will drinking wine shorten my life, or lengthen it?
The ping-pong nature of contradictory studies on exactly these questions within my own lifetime, each loudly proclaiming mutually exclusive positions, yields a sadly predictable result: loss of scientific credibility. If science can’t explain to me the benefit or harm of my daily morning coffee, how can I trust it to help me understand climate change?
Luckily, a solution is immediately at hand. Scientific history presents a narrative dominated by biographies, the life stories of the great personalities who did the work. We don’t just study gravity, we study Galileo’s experiments with gravitational acceleration. It isn’t merely the Law of Universal Gravitation, but Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation. Many of us know the story of Archimedes, so lost in his calculations that he was murdered by an insensitive Roman soldier. Think of the intensity of Archimedes’ commitment to math, strong enough to blind him to an on-coming, life-ending threat. By remembering the man, we REALLY learn the depth of meaning and relevance that math can offer.
The narrative that scientific history presents to us is a parade of brilliant men and women, a pantheon of scientific greats, deeply engaged in making significant insights and advances. We are presented with great thinkers, but we also learn that they make mistakes, get corrected by others, are buffeted by history, and have personal lives subject to the same hopes and despairs as the rest of us. And yet they persevere… and scientific progress results. It is a more complex, more human picture, one that is inherently persuasive.
As independent documentarians, we have had the luxury of practicing what we preach. Biography as narrative is a familiar, effective approach. It is neglected within the context of contemporary science, but certainly not absent altogether. By no means is this blog a claim to have invented the approach, nor a claim to be the only practitioners of it, far from it. However, as independent documentarians, we have had the luxury of putting into practice what we preach. The persuasive humanity of our scientists is all around us. Scientific biography is a readily available solution to creating broader and better public acceptance of science. It advances the narrative of science in an inclusive, authentic way. The biographical narrative of science not limited to a historical context, nor to any one particular scientist, nor even to one documentary. The audience-pleasing experience of showing “My Love Affair with the Brain: The Life and Science of Dr. Marian Diamond” can serve as an example, confirming that biography can be marvelously effective in advancing the overall narrative of science within the biography of a contemporary, living scientist.