tisdag 4 juni 2019

Narrative science (workshop)


I was invited to give a talk at a two-day workshop that was organised by the European Research Council (ERC-funded) project “Narrative Science”. The principal workshop organisers were Mary S. Morgan (principal investigator) and Andrew Hopkins.

The topic of the workshop was "Does time always pass? Temporalities in scientific narratives" and the research project has apparently organised many such workshop; the previous workshop was "Narratives as navigational tools" (March 2019) and the next two workshops are "Scientific polyphony: How scientific narratives configure many 'voices'" (June 2019) and "Narrative science in techno-environments" (July 2019). From what I understand, Mary has hired a number of post-docs in the project and then help plan but mainly let them organise and run workshops that are in line with their and the project's research interests.

In Andrew's invitation (March), he wrote that "This will be an interdisciplinary event that will include an interesting mix of contributions from fields including philosophy, history of science, geology, biology, cosmology and others, to explore how narratives about and involving time occur in various disciplines." The reason I was invited to give a talk is of course because of our 2017 article "What if there had only been half the oil? Rewriting history to envision the consequences of peak oil".

While the workshop encompassed a broad mix of people and topics, it still felt that I was one of the more exotic additions to the workshop both due to my "odd" background (computer science, social science and sustainability) and the "odd" topic of my talk (allohistorical narratives/counterfactuals). Most people who attended the workshop were philosophers or historians and more specifically people with backgrounds in philosophy of science or history of science. Literature was also very much present in the form of a few participants with such backgrounds, through the theories that participants referred to and of course through the project itself ("narrative science"). A few of the titles of talks that were given at the workshop were "Faraday's Lines of Force and the Temporality of Serial Narration", Do we always need a timeline? The roles of temporal sequence in art narratives and science narratives", "Narratives in scientific argument and explanation" and "When you can't get there from here: The importance of temporal order in evolutionary biology and ecology" If you want to know/learn more, do have a look at the narrative science project website and at the 2017 special issue about "Narrative in Science" in the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science.

My workshop talk was entitled "Using allohistorical narratives to envision alternative energy futures” and here's my abstract:

Everything unsustainable is possible only until it isn’t any longer. Our use of non-renewable fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) is unsustainable but has for centuries increased both in relative and absolute terms and currently constitutes 85% of the global energy supply. We intuitively sense that the consequences of phasing out fossil fuels will be momentous, but it is hard to envision what the transition to alternative energy sources could look like since "prediction is hard, especially about the future”. We suggest that allohistorical (counterfactual) narratives can be used for that purpose and we explore a specific scenario in our 2017 paper "What if there had only been half the oil? Rewriting history to envision the consequences of peak oil”, the first in a planned series of papers about ”Coalworld”. 

At the workshop I felt like I was the "practitioner" who used (counterfactual) narratives for a very specific purpose. Almost everyone else was a "theoretician" and their talks were sprinkled with terms such as "narrative processing", "reason-giving practices", "serial narration", "narrative closure", "discursive practices", "narrative explanation" and many more such terms. Interestingly enough, someone mentioned that my talk was the only talk that concerned (also) the future at this workshop on time and scientific narratives. Most other speakers talked about and analysed historical persons and historical events, including for example competing hypotheses/narratives about "the nature of contemporary theories in evolutionary biology employed to explain the origin of eukaryotic cells" (a very long theory ago). I instead discussed the story in the paper we have written as well as the story of the paper. The latter included both the history of the paper and even further back, the motivation behind the paper as well as the future of the paper - since our paper is the first "instalment" in a planned series of papers.

My talk got a very positive reception and there were many interesting questions from the audience. Some questions were relatively easy to answer and others will leave me pondering for quite some time. It was perhaps a pity that my talk was number 11 out of 14 talks, I think I would have gotten more feedback and more out of the workshop had I presented during the first day. 

An amusing and quite embarrassing event happened when I, during a coffee break the first day, was involved in a conversation with a professor and a post-doc and the post-doc asked me what I thought of "Lewis". It turned out that there's this philosopher, David K. Lewis, who wrote the book about counterfactuals back in 1973. The title of the book is "Counterfactuals". I helped organise a week-long international workshop on counterfactuals earlier this year but none of the 20+ participants mentioned this book at any time during that week... My explanation for how this could be is that it seems that people from many different academic disciplines seems to have thought and written about counterfactuals, but I've never really met or discussed the topic with philosophers before... Also, someone else said the book was actually "boring" and that I should instead settle for reading Lewis' much shorter 1979 text "Counterfactual dependence and time's arrow" (pdf file).

All in all it was a nice workshop and I made a few new contacts that I believe I will be in contact with later! The workshop was organised by The London School of Economics but it was hosted by the Royal Institution. Here's some more background info about the workshop:


The standard view of narrative is inextricably bound up with the passage of time. Narrative scholars are convinced that time is an essential element in any narrative, and it has been thought equally essential, though treated in different ways, by philosophers of history. But exactly how to think about time in the narratives of science is not self-evident. And if we look at the way scientists use time in narratives, we see a number of different ways in which time is taken into account and is deployed. Time may be an element in the way scientists write and tell about their handling of materials, processes, practices and discoveries. Alternatively, it may feature as an element in their accounts of causes, mechanisms, interactions, and developments in their scientific materials. And it may be an important component in their theoretical and conceptual terms and discussions. Thus, there are many different sites and guises in which scientists use time in their own subject-based narratives.

In this workshop, the focus will be on the different temporalities in narratives as they occur in scientific discourses. The obvious loci for such explorations are what are generally referred to as the historical sciences, that is, those that seek to reconstruct the past, which may be very deep, on the basis of what can be observed in the present. These include geology, evolutionary biology, archaeology, cosmology and forensic science. Beyond the obvious disciplines however, time and its narrative expression are to be found in a wide variety of places, from measuring the arrival of seismic waves travelling through the earth, to the account of the lab scientist patiently waiting for a key change to occur in an experiment. Other ways of tracing time in scientific narratives might look to the “what if” questions posed in counterfactual reasoning; the ways time is rethought over a life- time; allegiances and resistances to time-based identities; and the relations of narrative to memory and myth. Throughout the workshop, the question of how essential time is to narrative will remain open for argument.

We suggest three starting points in this wide agenda:

1. Perspectival matters - does a scientist’s narrative look forward to what will happen, or backward over what has happened, or for a dynamics involving time within those materials or do they rather try to get a bird’s eye synoptic view, or look sideways at points in a chain where time just pass by on the other side? And, are the phenomena scientists study reversible, or is time itself only ever uni-directional?

2. Routine matters - does a scientist regularly observe their materials at a specific point in time, observe at the beginning and end of some event, or try to capture the moving process of a phenomena? And equally, do narrative representations of their phenomena repeat certain intervals, or work to different rhythms and rulers.

3. Time matters - Does time really or always matter in a science narrative. Is it instead a place holder for something else that is substantive (such as development, a change process, or a regularity), or else not really very important in terms of the coherence and credibility of a narrative where other ‘rulers’, such as spatial or subject- relations, rule? Does time structure a scientist’s narrative or does the narrative provide the argument, structure or logic in which time appears?