Narrative: Common Ground for Literature and Science?
Configurations, Volume 26, Number 3, Summer 2018, pp. 277-282 (Article)
Published by Johns Hopkins University Press
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Back when I was a graduate student of biology, I was charmed to hear
senior scientists sincerely praising research talks by equally senior
peers as “such a good story.” At the time, I simply accepted that sci-
ence involves gripping tales of discovery, mysteries solved through
ingenious hypothesis and experiment. Now a literary scholar who
teaches communications to graduate science students, I better recog-
nize the importance of narrative in science communication but also,
more profoundly, in scientiﬁc theories, models, and procedures.
Narrative suggests to me a means of interesting more scientists in
the study of Literature and Science, offering common ground that
might help alleviate remnants of suspicion and diverging goals that
continue to inhibit truly interdisciplinary work. What’s more, at-
tending to narrative promises an exciting but also productive en-
deavor for both humanistic inquiry and for science communication,
aligning them more closely at a time when both are under threat.
The real impediment to collaboration between science and humani-
ties is not lack of interest, as Jay Labinger argues in the previous
“State of the Unions” issue of JLS. A more serious problem may be
the priority implicitly given to the “Literature” in “Literature and
Science.” Some scientists are indeed drawn to humanistic enquiry,
but it isn’t surprising to ﬁnd so few in a ﬁeld where research may
be about science but rarely forms part of the scientiﬁc enterprise. No
wonder scientists “attracted to interdisciplinary activities outside
Narrative: Common Ground for
Literature and Science?
Daniel Aureliano Newman
University of Toronto
Conﬁgurations, 2018, 26:277–282 © 2018 by Johns Hopkins University
Press and the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts.
their ﬁeld generally perceive that little or no professional beneﬁt is to
be expected therefrom.”1 Another obstacle is the sense, all too com-
mon among the scientists I know or teach, that science is demon-
ized or discredited by “the arts.” Fair or not, this suspicion lumps
those in the humanities with real opponents of science—climate-
change “skeptics,” anti-Vaxxers, “scientiﬁc” creationists, and other
such denialists. These two barriers to interdisciplinarity are not un-
related. Because the humanities so dominate the ﬁeld of Literature
and Science studies, much of the research in it is done on humanistic
terms. In such circumstances, literary approaches to science—nota-
bly “suspicious reading” practices—may seem as alienating and in-
vasive to scientists as E. O. Wilson’s dream of consilience can seem
It is time to accept that a truly interdisciplinary exchange will
require something other than business as usual in Literature and Sci-
ence (which does not mean eliminating business as usual). What is
needed to attract scientists is real common ground, with direct inter-
est and professional beneﬁt for both them and literary scholars. Such
common ground might include strategic political and institutional
alliances against anti-intellectualism and cutbacks to public educa-
tion and blue-sky research. Another approach, already ﬂourishing in
some quarters, is the study of narrative using insights and methods
from neuroscience. What I’m proposing as common ground—narra-
tive—is more concrete and more directly embedded within the pro-
fessional practices of both literary and scientiﬁc scholars. Because I
assume that few literary critics would dispute, in principle at least,
the value of narratological studies of science, what follows focuses
instead on the interests narrative might hold for scientists.
“Storytelling often has a bad reputation in science,” admits Mi-
chael Dahlstrom,3 but scientists are increasingly receptive to evi-
dence showing that information communicated in narrative formats
“enhances memory, interest, and understanding.”4 Attesting to this
1. Jay Labinger, “Where Are the Scientists in Literature and Science?,” in “State of the
Unions,” ed. Melissa M. Littleﬁeld and Martin Willis, special issue, Journal of Literature
and Science 10:1 (2017): 65–69, at p. 65.
2. John Holmes, “Consilience Rebalanced: Edward O. Wilson on Science, the Humani-
ties and the Meaning of Human Existence,” in “State of the Unions,” ed. Melissa M.
Littleﬁeld and Martin Willis, special issue, Journal of Literature and Science 10:1 (2017):
3. Michael F. Dahlstrom, “Using Narratives and Storytelling to Communicate Science
with Nonexpert Audiences,” PNAS 111:S4 (2014): 13614–13620, at p. 13614.
4. Stephen P. Norris, Sandra M. Guilbert, Martha L. Smith, Shahram Hakimelahi, and
Newman / Common Ground for Literature and Science? 279
growing receptivity, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science
(PNAS)’s recent special issue on science communication includes a
consistent focus on the potential uses of storytelling.5
Promising as it is, the problem with this “narrative turn” is its
tendency to understand “narrative” as a set structure, a preformed
story template. Using narrative in science thus becomes a matter of
shoehorning scientiﬁc facts into preexisting narrative molds. A case
in point is biologist-turned-ﬁlmmaker Randy Olson, who reduces all
good communicative acts to the “three-act structure” identiﬁed by
Aristotle in the Poetics.6 An extreme case, Olson exempliﬁes how most
science communicators view the promise of narrative: as a tool for
making scientiﬁc information more communicable by “impos[ing]
upon it the form of a story.”7 This approach may serve the laudable
goal of making science alluring, through entertainment, to certain
audiences (say, young children), but it is probably quite limited as a
way to deliver complex scientiﬁc information.
There is more to narrative than “the form of a story.” As H. Porter
Abbott notes, a text can be “full of narratives and micro-narratives”
without “hav[ing] the cumulative effect of narrative”;8 as Marie-
Laure Ryan speciﬁes, it can “hav[e] narrativity” locally or intermit-
tently without “being a narrative.”9 Far more attention could be paid
by those interested in using narrative in science to the elements that
confer local narrativity to scientiﬁc texts—to the generally underap-
preciated “narratives intrinsic to science.”10 Recognizing these intrin-
sic narratives may require seeing science in a new light, but such a
Linda M. Phillips, “A Theoretical Framework for Narrative Explanation in Science,”
Science Education 89:4 (2005): 535–563, at p. 535.
5. Dahlstrom, “Using Narratives” (above, n. 3); Julie S. Downs, “Prescriptive Scientiﬁc
Narratives for Communicating Usable Science,” PNAS 111:S4 (2014): 13627–13633;
Baruch Fischhoff and Dietram Scheufele, “The Science of Science Communication II,”
PNAS 111:S4 (2014): 13583–13584.
6. Randy Olson, Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story (Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. 6.
7. Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” Critical
Inquiry 7:1 (1980): 5–27, at p. 6.
8. H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2002), pp. 12–13.
9. Marie-Laure Ryan, Avatars of Story: Narrative Modes in Old and New Media (Minneapo-
lis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), p. 11.
10. Hans U. Fuchs, “From Stories to Scientiﬁc Models and Back: Narrative Framing in
Modern Macroscopic Physics,” International Journal of Science Education 37:5–6 (2015):
934–957, at p. 948.
perspectival shift should not be especially difﬁcult or even counter-
intuitive. After all, as Kirk Junker writes, scientiﬁc explanation shares
basic structural features with narrative: “two of the major features of
narratives—a temporal perception and a causal perception—are also
prominent features of scientiﬁc practice.”11
Scientists interested in using narrative would do well to attend
more to these “intrinsic” narratives than to importing canonical
forms such as the quest and the “three-act structure” from literature.
Because narrative inheres in so much of what scientists already do,
those seeking to exploit its power should not have to reinvent the
wheel; they need not think of narrative as a foreign importation
from the arts—even as they use a theoretical framework from the arts
(narrative theory) to exploit what is already in their ﬁeld of study.
Narratologists working in literary studies, philosophy, and other
ﬁelds have already done some of this crucial work, identifying how
narrative functions in scientiﬁc theories, protocols, and communi-
cations: “as argument,”12 as an “explanation” and a “scaffold” for
new hypotheses,13 as an “integrative device” linking discrete “math-
ematical components of theories,”14 as the underlying structure of
experiments,15 and as a rhetorical tool. In other words, scientists
could beneﬁt from literary studies insofar as it could provide them
with a better grasp of the narrative logic inherent in their own area
of study and in their own ways of conducting and disseminating re-
search. The beneﬁts of narrative in science could thus be gained not
only in science communication with nonexpert audience but also in
11. Kirk Junker, “Law and Science Serving One Master . . . Narrative,” in Communicating
Science: Professional Contexts: Reader 1, ed. Eileen Scanlon, Roger Hill, and Kirk Junker
(New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 249–269, at p. 253. See also Lucy Avraamidou and
Jonathan Osborne, “The Role of Narrative in Communicating Science,” International
Journal of Science Education 31:12 (2009): 1683–1707.
12. Paula Olmos, “On Thought Experiments and Other Narratives in Scientiﬁc Argu-
ment,” in Narration as Argument, ed. Paula Olmos (Berlin: Springer, 2017), pp. 193–213.
13. Adrian Currie and Kim Sterelny, “In Defence of Story-Telling,” in “Narrative in Sci-
ence,” ed. Mary Morgan and M. Norton Wise, special issue, Studies in the History and
Philosophy of Science Part A 62 (2017): 14–21, at p. 14.
14. Alirio Rosales, “Theories That Narrate the World: Ronald A. Fisher’s Mass Selection
and Sewell Wright’s Shifting Balance,” in “Narrative in Science,” ed. Mary Morgan and
M. Norton Wise, special issue, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science Part A 62
(2017): 22–30, at p. 22.
15. Catherine Z. Elgin, “Fiction as Thought Experiment,” Perspectives in Science 22:2
(2014): 221–241, at p. 225.
Newman / Common Ground for Literature and Science? 281
Doing so would require closer engagement with narratology than
we ﬁnd in recent arguments for how to use stories in science. It
demands some theoretical sophistication, not the casual and dilet-
tantish approach to literary theory that has characterized many at-
tempts to date. A telling example is a recent essay advocating the
use of “plot not story”—a notoriously muddled distinction intro-
duced ninety years ago by E. M. Forster—as the basis for good science
writing.16 A more informed and rigorous engagement with narrative
theory might be much more productive in helping scientists do their
work. This would involve attending to the ways in which scientiﬁc
discourse “narrates” rather than “narrativizes,”17 since narrative ele-
ments participate in scientiﬁc texts without necessarily determining
their global form.
Here literary scholars could help even as they pursue their own
interests in the cultural and literary aspects of science. In a recent
issue of Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science devoted to nar-
rative, Mary Morgan argues that literary studies could ﬁll the void
in our understanding of scientiﬁc narratives. “The role of narratives
in the sciences has been neglected for too long,” Morgan concludes,
and “we cannot study narratives by ignoring rhetorical and liter-
ary matters.”18 Scientists and literary critics approach narratives with
different ends in mind, but their means might overlap. A physicist
may wish to understand the narrative structure of Feynman Dia-
grams in order better to teach them or use them in her research,
while a narratologist may be intrigued by parallels between the “un-
natural” temporalities and causalities depicted in these diagrams
and the strategies of postmodernist ﬁction. Perhaps a physicist and
narratologist could best meet their goals together. Each could keep
the other honest in the responsible use of the other’s ﬁeld; each,
more importantly, could give the other new insights about their
own area of expertise. Such collaborations, argue Anne Dalke and
Elizabeth McCormack, are how interdisciplinarity “maximizes ser-
endipity,” through a process in which “disciplinary presumptions
16. Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik, “Finding the Plot in Science Sto-
rytelling in Hopes of Enhancing Science Communication,” PNAS 114:31 (2017): 8127–
8129, at p. 8128.
17. White, “Value of Narrativity” (above, n. 7), pp. 6–7.
18. Mary Morgan, “Narrative Science and Narrative Knowing: Introduction to Special
Issue on Narrative Science,” in “Narrative in Science,” ed. Mary Morgan and M. Norton
Wise, special issue, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science Part A, Studies in History
and Philosophy of Science Part A 62 (2017): 1–5, at p. 1.
interrogate and unsettle one another to produce novel questions and
Narrative may interest scientists and literary critics differently,
but there is ample overlap to explore. What interests a narratolo-
gist could, furthermore, be shown to be useful to a scientist. It may
bear repeating Stephen Prickett’s caution that scientists are inter-
ested in narrative not through a “love of literature,” but because “it
might solve problems of their own.”20 Together, scientists and liter-
ary scholars could enlarge the scope of narrative theory while ﬁnd-
ing strategies for better expressing scientiﬁc knowledge. Scientiﬁc
models and texts offer a wealth of narrative structures and devices
that could help inform ﬁelds such as postclassical narratology and
offer new insights into the study of literary history. Meanwhile, the
tools provided by narrative theory might help clarify or generate
new perspectives on scientiﬁc models and supply better means of
expressing them to various audiences, including nonexperts but also
Beyond these professional advantages, the common ground of
narrative might serve some broader, more urgent needs. In the cur-
rent political (and literal) climate, humanists and scientists can’t af-
ford to work in isolation, let alone at cross-purposes. Some of the
scientiﬁc and social issues of particular concern today—climate-
change denial and resurgent nationalism among them—have gained
signiﬁcant traction largely because their narratives are so satisfyingly
simple. Countering them will be easier if we can combine the literary
tools of narrative theory and analysis with the scientiﬁc facts. Narra-
tive is no panacea, either in Literature and Science or beyond it. Still,
its presence and relevance are something on which literary scholars
and scientists increasingly agree, even as our goals and anxieties be-
come more closely aligned.
19. Anne Dalke and Elizabeth F. McCormack, “Synecdoche and Surprise: Transdisci-
plinary Knowledge Production,” Journal of Research Practice 3:2 (2007), http://jrp.icaap
20. Stephen Prickett, Narrative, Religion and Science: Fundamentalism versus Irony, 1700–
1999 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 3.