Science has great tales to tell, but we mustn’t let a good story get in the way of the facts

Once upon a time, an inquisitive young researcher had a bright idea to solve one of the puzzles of science. After many years of hard work, sacrifice and heartache, it turned out to be a bit more complicated than that. The End.

Not much of a story. But a reality that’s no doubt familiar to anyone who’s spent much time in research. Yet a glance through our protagonist’s publication record is likely to present a different, more satisfying story – each paper another chapter in a tale of inexorable triumph and knowledge gained.

Storytelling and narrative are part of the very fabric of human culture – some of the first information we receive and our earliest memories are stories. And while science itself is objective and dispassionate, the scientists who conduct it are anything but. So when it comes to sharing science – the scientific paper – our narrative instinct inevitably influences what and how we write.

However, there is perhaps a disappointing, even concerning, lack of variety in these narratives. There may be only a finite number of plots for any story, but the authors of scientific papers adhere resolutely to just one: the quest; the object obtained; the MacGuffin, in the parlance of Hollywood screenwriters, or positive bias as scientists would have it.

As François-Xavier Coudert has discussed, the pressure to publish new discoveries can make it seem that this is the only story the audience (peers, funders, employers) wants to hear. Moreover, the accounts are historical – written after the event, once the dust has settled, bringing the temptation to omit the unimportant detail, or the inconvenient result, or to blur fact and fiction to better fit that story.

The history of science shares a similar vice – we can’t help retrospectively crafting narratives from the facts. Philip Ball has previously voiced concern at this ‘scientific triumphalism’. Errors and negative results are now part of the story, but here they are villains overcome: phlogiston’s falsehood is cast upon the pyre to burn in purifying oxygen; the luminiferous ether vanishes, flushed from its hiding places by dogged, meticulous pursuit.

Of course science is full of great stories. Roald Hoffmann recently made an excellent case, writing in American Scientist, for the overlooked narrative potential of research. Indeed, he celebrates the scientist-as-author tension between faithful expositor and artful storyteller. And the late Carl Djerassi spent his last decades explicitly using narrative to explore how ego, competition and priority motivate scientists.

But if the act itself, the research, serves narrative first, then we subvert its purpose. It is the evidence on which the narrative is built that is the currency of research. So while the paper retains an essential role in science, it is at best an imperfect tool for sharing and enabling knowledge. Perhaps science as a reality TV show or warts-and-all documentary is a preferable format to the paper’s post-hoc production process. With the facts free to all, we could each create our own stories. And science can live happily ever after.