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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Narrative

It has always seemed strange to me... the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second. - John Steinbeck

The goal of the politician is to communicate convincingly that s/he operates with the quality of the first to achieve the produce of the second. Science is no different. Our leaders are in powerful positions. They get to tell the story of how they are a part of the productive world of science. How honest are they really?


When you live a life like Frank Sinatra you leave behind plenty of information about who you were. Movies, records, interviews, books, and photographs are there for anyone to tell Franks story. There is one piece film footage that I've seen on two separate documentaries. In the first documentary you see Sinatra surrounded by ten burly men. They are rehearsing for a scene for a movie while Frank was taking a break from recording music in a Capital Records studio. The gist of this scene in the documentary is that Frank is a consumate workaholic. In the next documentary you have the same film footage. It starts just when the rehearsing begins, giving the idea that this is not acting but a moment in his actual life. The scene Frank and friends are going over is one where Frank is playing a tough guy. He calls one of the other men out while the rest stand back in deference to the boss. The gist is that Frank really is a tough guy.

Compare a couple of harmless Sinatra retrospectives to the narrative of a scientists work. In spite of the seemingly objective structure of scientific publications, the fact remains that a publication is merely a narrative. How many hours of work are being represented? How many months? Years? Who did what and how many times did they do it? A carefully edited bit of reality will quickly turn the truth to bullshit. Thus, the narrative is worthy of study as well as the thesis being supported.


1. a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious.
2. a book, literary work, etc., containing such a story.
3. the art, technique, or process of narrating, or of telling a story:

What scientists want everyone to believe is that we follow a superior set of rules that guide each and every one of us to a superior understanding of our world. What a study of "the narrative" put forth by scientists might uncover are, as Steinbeck called the concomitants of failure and the traits of our success.

Is it possible that "The Narrative" lies at the heart of our problems? Could a change in how we communicate deliver a blow to the cargo cult careerists among us? Can we design a better way, a solution, to share the experience of our work and what we think it means?

Once again, ladies and gentlemen, Betrayers of the Truth - William Broad and Nicholas Wade

Considered as a literary form, a scientific paper is as stylized as a sonnet; if it fails to obey rigid rules of composition, it will simply not be published. In essence, the rules require that an experiment be reported as if every aspect of the procedure had been performed according to the philosophers' prescriptions. The conventions of scientific reporting require the writer to be totally impersonal, so as to give the appearance of objectivity.

One solution is to replace the peer review system with a system where data and notebooks are actually reviewed by scientists trained in dissecting "The Narrative". This would create a new career path for scientists. Imagine also a private firm that performs due diligence for investors and/or charities. Is it possible to propose such an affront to the status quo of peer reviewed narratives?

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