Journal article explanations of how science
works often differ from the actual process
According to 55 percent of 350,000 people from 70 countries who participated online in Richard Wiseman’s Laugh Lab experiment (discussed in last month’s column), this is the world’s funniest joke:
Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing, and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says, “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says, “Okay, now what?”
So say the data, but according to Wiseman’s personal narrative describing how the research was actually conducted (in his new book Quirkology), he believes that “we uncovered the world’s blandest joke — the gag that makes everyone smile but very few laugh out loud. But as with so many quests, the journey was far more important than the destination. Along the way we looked at what makes us laugh, how laughter can make you live longer, how humor should unite different nations, and we discovered the world’s funniest comedy animal.” Chickens notwithstanding, such first-person accounts in popular science books that include the journey and not just the destination afford readers a glimpse into how science is really carried out.
Formal science writing — what I call the “narrative of explanation” — presents a neat and tidy step-by-step process of Introduction- Methods-Results-Discussion, grounded in a nonexistent “scientific method” of Observation- Hypothesis-Prediction- Experiment followed in a linear fashion. This type of science writing is like autobiography, and as the comedian Stephen Wright said, “I’m writing an unauthorized autobiography.” Any other kind is fiction. Formal science writing is like Whiggish history — the conclusion draws the explanation toward it, forcing facts and events to fall neatly into a causal chain where the final outcome is an inevitable result of a logical and inevitable sequence.
Informal science writing — what I call the “narrative of practice” — presents the actual course of science as it is interwoven with periodic insights and subjective intuitions, random guesses and fortuitous findings. Science, like life, is messy and haphazard, full of quirky contingencies, unexpected bifurcations, serendipitous discoveries, unanticipated encounters and unpredictable outcomes. This chaotic process helps to explain, in part, the phenomenal success in recent decades of first-person popular accounts by scientists of how they actually did their research. The effect is especially noteworthy in works exploring the peculiarities of life.
Steven Levitt’s and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics (William Morrow, 2006) illuminates the power of incentives through certain oddities. For instance, that most drug dealers live with their mothers because only the top guys make the big bucks while the rest bide their time and pay their dues or that baby names tell us about the motives of parents. Cornell University professor Robert Frank’s The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas (Basic, 2007) employs the principle of costbenefit analysis to explain such idiosyncrasies as why drive-up ATM keypads have Braille dots (because it is cheaper to make the same machine for both drive-up and walk-up locations), why brown eggs are more expensive than white eggs (because there is less demand and the hens that lay them are larger and consume more food), why it is harder to find a taxi in the rain (because more people use them when it is raining, most cabbies reach their fare goals earlier in the day), and why milk is stored in rectangular cartons but soft drinks come in round cans (because it is handier to drink soda directly from a round can but easier to pour and store milk in a rectangular carton).
In my October column I railed against the artificial (and odious) ranking of technical science writing over popular science writing. I suggested that the latter should be elevated to a more exalted standing of “integrative science,” where good science writing integrates data, theory and narrative into a useful and compelling work. Here I add that exploring the minutiae of life, especially on the quirky borderlands of science, makes the scientific process more accessible to everyone. Where a narrative of explanation might read something like “the data lead me to conclude…,” a narrative of practice reads more like “Huh, that’s weird…”
Weirdness trumps data in the biography of science.