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Narrative Ordering and Explanation in the Sciences: Historical Investigations and Perspectives

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - NARRATIVENSCIENCE (Narrative Ordering and Explanation in the Sciences: Historical Investigations and Perspectives)

Reporting period: 2019-10-01 to 2021-03-31

The Narrative Science project (2016-2021) was dedicated to opening up the historical and philosophical understanding of the role of narrative in the modern sciences, more especially narrative’s role as a way of coming to know things. The project’s two central objectives were: (1) to see how narrative was used in a wide variety of sciences and different kinds of scientific practice. (2) to provide a systematic analysis of the functions that narrative plays in the sciences. The project integrated the history and philosophy of science with insights from literary theory and narratology.

Our project thrived on interdisciplinarity. We drew on literature studies to understand that an important feature of narrative is that of giving a joined-up account: one that tells or shows how the elements in the account are related to each other. Scholars in literary fields, such as narratology, have made this ‘relatability’ a primary focus of their investigation and developed tools for its analysis. Narrative only works in certain ways, and the appreciation of these ways in the sciences requires care and precision. Using ideas adapted from literary theory, we analysed the characteristics and functions of narrative in as wide a set of historical and current science case studies. From this, we developed an account of narrative in science that offers an original contribution to both philosophy of science and narrative theory: we now understand narrative as both a sense-making technology and as a representational device, where both are used in scientific reasoning and knowledge making. Our novel ideas are now feeding back to literary scholars looking into the role of narrative at non-fictional sites.

Narrative is not solely a tool for journalists, politicians, and public relations experts, nor the natural home for poets, dramatists, and novelists, but is rather – as we show - an essential feature of how scientists think, reason, and make sense of things. It is important that we understand how narrative works in the sciences for our broader understanding of how science works for society. Utilising our insights, we produced a suite of resources (all published online via the project website) for the use of researchers, teachers, and broader groups interested in how scientists use narratives in doing their sciences.
In the first phase of the project we gathered appointed an excellent research team, who between them had interests covering engineering, psychology, chemistry, biology, economics, geology, pharmaceuticals, and anthropology. At the outset, the PI co-edited a special issue of the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (2017, Vol 62) dedicated to the theme ‘Narrative in Science’, including papers on the role of narrative in political science, palaeontology, biology, social science, natural history, medicine, and chemistry. An introduction to the idea of narrative science is found in the opening essay is

The project team subsequently developed a range of resources, all of which are freely available on the project website: These include: an annotated bibliography, two Anthologies of Narrative Science, each containing multiple ‘cases’- original extracts from scientists’ work, with accompanying commentaries on their narrative content (authored by team members and external collaborators). We also provide probing reports from all our seminar and 11 workshops, each of which addressed a different theme at the intersections of narrative and science (eg on the use of visuals with narratives; on the role of anecdotes; on expert system narratives in the public domain), with contributory analyses from across the sciences. Between the launch of the website in August 2018, and the official end of the project in March 2021, the website accrued 6267 distinct users, and 15041 Unique Page Views (data from Google Analytics). We also built a mailing list which now consists of 365 people, and created a ‘Network’ bringing narrative scholars from the history, philosophy and science studies together with those from literary studies, To increase the outreach and extend the longevity of the project, we will continue to update this website as new publications emerge.

Finally, apart from many academic papers, the most significant output is a new edited book, Narrative Science: reasoning, representing and knowing since 1800, featuring 22 chapters exploring our major findings by combining history, philosophy and narrative approaches. Edited by Prof Morgan, Dr Hajek, and Dr Berry, this Cambridge University Press book will be a free open access download and available for purchase in print.
There are a great many features of scientific life and practice that contain core narratives, or draw on some underlying narrative, or rely on narrative in order to present and develop understanding. Many such examples will be familiar, such as accounts of evolutionary descent, explanations of how geological formations come to be as we find them, or a doctor’s case history of their patient. In each of these sites, narrative is an indispensable part of thinking through the problem, assessing the most likely explanations, and producing knowledge.

We have moved beyond the state of the art in a number of ways. First, we have uncovered narrative operating in scientific spaces and places that have not previously been investigated on these terms. Mathematical equations and proofs, for example, seem the most unlikely partners to narrative, yet we find evidence of narrative at work in them, and our analysis reveals their narrative structure. Likewise cellular development in microbiology, reverse syntheses of organic chemicals, or processes of drug discovery, are kinds of phenomena that have rarely been understood on narrative terms yet out analyses shows how important narrative understanding is to their scientific construction and usage. Second, we have expanding the range of objects and texts in which narrative can be found, well beyond the range usually attended to by literary theorists. Laboratory protocols, recipes, schema, maps, charts: narrative can be found at work in them all, demonstrating a far wider significance for results coming out of literary theory than had previously been appreciated. Third, using research in the humanities, in particular literary theory, in conjunction with some extant ideas in philosophy of science we have been able to develop a comprehensive account of the important roles that narrative plays drawing on our wide range of case-examples. This account offers alternative insights to those coming from narrative theory applied to non-fictional cases. Rather it draws on the philosophy of science to open up the particular spaces in which narrative matters to our understanding of, how scientific knowledge is produced.

Summarising the project’s aims and outcomes: we aimed to explore and map the terrain of how narrative is used in the modern sciences (c1800-present) and, by using resources from history and philosophy of science and literary theory, we showed how narrative provides a technology of sense-making for scientists which offers a reasoning tool for inference, argument and even explanation. Our research work has been made available in academic circles and in a public facing website.
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