Paradigms of Science and Society

Aesthetics govern Paradigms:

Sensory stimulation from our environment directs our neuroprocessing – aesthetics drive our cognition. So what we sense & enjoy guides how we think, and what we know & value. Paradigms are our transient narratives, no more no less, in the sciences & the humanities… the ramifications of this extend limitlessly… and are both fearsome & freeing.

Paradigms & Narratives:

We celebrate story & narrative as a good thing – as part of what makes for compelling communication about science. We have all heard about how story is the key to successfully roping-in your audience & making information meaningful & memorable. But it’s not all roses – narrative has thorns that can prick & stick where you don’t expect it. It comes with it’s own heavy baggage of expectations & requirements for negotiating meaning between the teller & the listener. Moreover there is intensely complex variation in the relationship between culture & narrative, let alone the relationship between culture & science & narrative. Often we’ve been talking about using story to tell about science – as if it is the new icing that will automatically make some old cake palatable. But the fact is science is already framed in deep narratives. It is packaged in them, & in some cases even born of them. Our understanding of science changes as our views & values change within society. These ways of understanding science are called paradigms by some – but they are as good as narratives. They are the stories we use to make sense of scientific observation & they even drive expectation. And critically they are driven by societal & cultural imperatives.

So this is where the kid gloves come off – & we explore the important ramifications of the fact that science, story & culture have always been linked.

Julia Siebert and I are working on a paper that explores this theme: Rhetoric, Narrative and Science (see also future projects).

Click here for more potential projects in the works on paradigms in science.

At a special symposia on the Dangers of Narrative (ScienceTeller 2011) with Professor Kay Flavell*, we started considering these issues:

–       A scientific paradigm has to be communicated through a narrative and is judged by expectations governing specific narratives in certain contexts.

–       The narrative edge is where science blurs with other forms of storytelling including myth and history.

–       Bad science ignores its narrative character; better science is aware of its dependence on metaphor and other linguistic tricks.

–       Confusion in case of l’Aquila earthquake: scientists said they couldn’t predict, but then speaking off the cuff added a reassuring cultural narrative. So the charge against them is really – ‘you reassured us, we wanted you to warn us instead, so we’re now suing you.’ It’s not science that is on trial, it’s producing an appropriate or inappropriate cultural narrative.

 *Professor Kay Flavell, as director of an interdisciplinary research centre in the humanities at University of California Davis, designed and taught courses such as ‘Art, Storytelling and Cultural Identity in Pacific Context’. She now directs New Pacific Studio, an international organisation promoting cross-fertilisation of ideas among creative communities. She has written about how cultural identities are constructed and persist interwoven with multiple belief systems. Every culture questions not only its origins but also where it is going: Such past- and future-telling is often a contested mix of narratives, from horoscopes to religion to science. Kay is interested in exploring how prediction works on the margins of scientific and other forms of storytelling.

Here’s some more on my background interests in paradigms: