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Science, Narrative and Metaphor

Narrative & metaphor

Do narrative and metaphor have any place in science?

Sunetra Gupta

Science, imagination and narrative

‘What attracts me to science is the ability, or the opportunity to be imaginative. So, for me, my journey through science has been one of using my imagination to come up with different ideas. Theories are, of course, stories.’



David: Can you tell us what it is you do? Because I know you do quite a number of things.

SG: Well, in the sciences, I’m interested in understanding how diversity emerges in infectious disease systems.

David: You’re not just a scientist though, are you?

SG: No, I write novels as well.

David: And how do those two things sit together in one brain?

SG: This is a question I’ve been asked a lot, and to me they come from very much the same source, which is a desire to understand or come to terms with the world, the universe.

David: So they’re not different kinds of thinking for you? Because people often imagine that scientific thinking is very different to a more literary or artistic thinking.

SG: At one level I think they are the same kind of thinking in that they’re driven by the same sort of desire to make sense of the internal and external universe that I happen to inhabit. But the languages employed are very different, I think.

In science, much of my pleasure in using words is that they adhere very closely to whatever concept I need them to represent. So I’m always seeking there to reduce the distance between the word and what it represents.

David: A sort of exactness?

SG: Yes. So you want them to… When I write, if I’m writing an equation and I use a symbol ‘x’, I really want its meaning to be precise. I feel like I’ve failed if ‘x’ means too many different things. So the closer ‘x’ is to what I want it to represent, the happier I am. Whereas when I’m writing fiction, I like there to be a gap between the word and what it refers to. I think a lot of the energy of fiction lies in that gap.

David: A sort of ambiguity?

SG: It’s a sort of disorder that’s not an arbitrary disorder. It’s somewhere… It’s moving away from order, but not so far as to be so ambiguous.

Ard: In science people often think that it’s all about cold hard facts and there’s no imagination. And then, obviously, writing novels is about imagination. What do you think about that dichotomy?

SG: Well, I think science is all about imagination. And what attracts me to science is the ability, or the opportunity, to be imaginative. So, for me, my journey through science has been one of using my imagination to come up with different ideas.

David: Is there a narrative in science? Does science use narrative, or is that purely…?

SG: I think narrative is a very strong element in science. I think…

David: Really?

SG: To me, narrative is where we’re headed.

David: That’s not obvious to a lot of people. I think in the popularisation of science, it’s a great big museum of facts. There’s a drawer with a fact here and then a drawer with another fact there, and he who had the largest number of drawers with facts in is the best! For you, it’s not like that? I mean, what’s the role…

SG: For me, it’s not like that.

David: …of narrative in science, then? I mean, how does it…?

SG: Because I’m interested in coming up with theories – I am a theoretical biologist at the end of the day – so theories are, of course, stories. So, for me, it’s not very interesting to just have a pile of facts.

There’s a huge synergy between actually arriving at the right narrative structure and the process of science as I experience it, which is recruiting these facts and then trying to think of a way in which they fit together that is coherent.

Ard: So sometimes the scientific facts fit together to tell a story, and the same is happening when you’re writing a novel?

SG: I don’t actually like the word story, myself. I think narrative is a better term.

Ard: Narrative. A real narrative. So would you say that what makes a scientific theory or narrative a good one, is that it’s fruitful? That it somehow goes on its own and does something that you didn’t even think it was going to do when you put it together?

SG: I’ve been searching for a long time for what does make a good narrative because it’s the same in fiction. At some point the book has, for me anyway, the right narrative.

David: It’s interesting what you said, though, because I’ve spent my professional life talking to scientists, and most often scientists will say, ‘In science, you should just stick to the facts.’

How often have you heard that from a scientist? ‘In science, we stick to the facts.’ Which would suggest that if I know these three facts, then I should only talk about them. I shouldn’t generate a story that suggests it might go somewhere, to use your phrase. And yet that is the strength of a theory, isn’t it? That it points to where you might go next?

SG: It points beyond facts. Exactly. I can’t think of any piece of science that’s been done that doesn’t take the facts and then construct from those facts something greater than the sum of the facts. But I was thinking in terms of it being fruitful.

David: What was it? Use and…

Ard: Usefulness and fruitfulness.

David: Tell me the difference.

SG: So, usefulness, I suppose… You know, many models, particularly in physics, have been ridiculously useful. And their validation in some ways is contained within their usefulness. The fact that they can send us to the moon is pretty useful. But then there are also fruitful theories. Fruitful, I think, is better than that. It’s not just useful: it’s creating a universe that will allow us to move forward.

Ard: I think fruitfulness is a hard thing to explain to an outsider, but you know it when you see it. A fruitful theory is something that explains something about the world that you see, so it’s important that it links to truth. But it also often tells you things that you didn’t know before, and then those things end up also being found in nature. And then it’s fruitful: it told you something you didn’t expect.

SG: It offers insights.

Ard: Insights, and often unexpected ones: ones that you wouldn’t have ever come up with had you not written the theory down.

Denis Noble

Narrative and metaphor in science

‘The up and down metaphor, which we’ve been using all morning: the whole body as the top and the molecules down here. Well, my molecules are everywhere; my genes are everywhere. That is obviously a metaphor.’



David: Can I ask about this notion whether knowledge, or truth, to use a more difficult word, in science particularly, is just a big sand heap or facts, or whether you can have a kind of knowledge and kind of truths that are more like writing: more a narrative, a story that you tell. In other words, is all the truth just contained in the individual grains of fact? What do you think?

DN: I think you have to have the story, because I can’t go into the laboratory without an idea. There’s no way in which I can test a hypothesis without there being a hypothesis, and if I can’t test a hypothesis, I don’t think I’m doing science.

David: Can a hypothesis be a metaphor? Like, you can go in to, say, are genes selfish?

DN: Well, except that that one, I’m afraid, is empty.

David: Well, all right!

DN: That one’s not even testable. But, no, much more generally, you’re right. And in fact the first thing you do is to ask, ‘How would I test this hypothesis? Is it a hypothesis that is testable?’ I think that’s the first step in a scientific experiment. Otherwise you’re just chasing after something that you can’t test.

David: So are you saying that knowledge can be more than just the individual grains of fact?

DN: It has to be. Not just that it can be, it has to be, yes. The individual grains of fact are no more than that.

David: So it’s not doing some violence to the facts of the world?

DN: No, because the facts are still there.

David: To put them into a story, to write a book?

DN: Yes, why do you write a book? Yes, exactly.

Ard: You’ve written in your book about the metaphor of the selfish gene, and whether an experiment can adjudicate between that metaphor and other metaphors for looking at life.

DN: Yes. First of all, no experiment could possibly distinguish between that metaphor and, for example, a cooperative gene. The reason for that is very simple.

Ard: Between a selfish gene and a cooperative gene? There’s no difference? You can’t distinguish…?

DN: There’s no difference empirically.

Ard: Empirically. It’s conceptual?

DN: It is a conceptual question, yes, that’s right. And I think we can illustrate this in the following way: the modern definition of a gene, and notice, incidentally, I said ‘modern’, because that was not the original definition.

The modern definition of a gene is a sequence of DNA. A sequence does not have meaning. It’s dependent on the context.

DN: Just as the words in a language… Take ‘but’ in English and make it ‘but’ in French. Exactly the same sequence means something totally different. ‘But’ to us is obvious. ‘But’ in French is a goal.

So the sequence itself cannot possibly tell you what the meaning is. So no possible experiment could tell you whether this sequence is selfish or cooperative other than in the context of the rest of the system. But then the metaphor fails because it isn’t the sequence itself that is selfish or cooperative: it is its interactions with the rest of the system. And once you’ve done that, you’ve taken the power of the metaphor – the selfish gene – away.

David: But, I mean, metaphors… You need them in science. Science seems to be littered…

DN: Absolutely.

David: And they are very useful, aren’t they?

DN: Yes. Yes, absolutely. The up and down metaphor, which…

David: Yes, we’ve been using that all morning.

DN: The body as a whole: the top, as it were, and the molecules down here. Well, my molecules are everywhere. My genes are everywhere. You know, my cells are everywhere. That is obviously a metaphor.

DN: And we wouldn’t be able to do without it. Without the concept of levels, and up and down, how could we manage? We couldn’t even talk about circular causality.

David: So using metaphor is a very powerful tool?

DN: Precisely so.

David: A metaphor isn’t a failed fact?

DN: No, exactly.

David: I mean, you… everyone… all scientists…

Ard: You can’t think without metaphors.

DN: No, that’s right. Exactly. The advice here is essentially, be careful, don’t get trapped by your metaphors.

David: Yes. If you know you’re using a metaphor, then you’re using it. If you don’t, it’s using you.

DN: Then it’s using you and you fall into the conceptual hole that’s waiting for you to go into. Yes.

Ben Okri

How narrative shapes knowledge

‘We have no instrument by which to record the absolute nature of reality, because whatever instrument will, at some point, be filtered through the lens of consciousness, and narrative is a natural part of consciousness and a natural part of the way the mind works.'



David: One of the things that a lot of the scientists and mathematicians that we've talked to over the last few weeks have said is that mathematics is woven into the universe. Do you think something similar can be said about narrative?

BO: I would say narrative is woven into the universe to the degree that the universe is perceived by consciousness.

Narrative is a natural part of consciousness and a natural part of the way the mind works. It’s completely inevitable. It's there in dreams. It's there in unconsciousness. It's there in all the states of living being. We can speak of narrative, even in terms of matter that doesn't have consciousness, the minute something disintegrates: the fall of a rock; the altered movement of a stream; the changing patterns of a wave – they're all elements of narrative.

Ard: One or two people we've interviewed said, ‘Well, you know, these stories mislead us. Narrative is a bad thing because it fools us.’ But I think you're saying something different. Am I hearing that right?

BO: Well, everything fools us, let's be clear about that. For one very simple reason: we have no means of knowing what objective reality is – it's just simply not possible. We have no instrument by which to record the absolute nature of reality. There's no instrument, because whatever instrument that is will at some point be filtered through, or looked through, the lens of consciousness, of us.

So as long as that is happening, we are always constantly limiting reality as we perceive it, because any perception of reality that we can have is limited to our senses and our faculties. So we don't know the absolute nature of reality. So whatever it is we perceive of reality, we're always being deceived. We're always being deceived because we don't have the total picture.

What narrative does… narrative is, I believe, a great neutral power. On the one hand it has this extraordinary power to create patterns, which then become patterns of perception. It bypasses the intelligence. It goes straight to some primal part of us, of our emotion, of our unconscious. It bypasses all of our filters. It's partly because it works through images, through symbols and through the structure by which we perceive reality. It's a very, very powerful thing.

So, on the one hand it does that, but on the other hand it helps us shape reality. It helps us actually grasp what it is that we're experiencing. Without a sense of narrative locked into our DNA, locked into every part of our cells and our minds, reality would be a great mess of nonsense. We have no way of actually… This conversation would be meaningless without a sense of narrative.

David: Do you think science itself has a narrative, which it sometimes thinks it doesn't have? Because scientists like to say, ‘Well, we've got facts.’ They don't so often say, ‘but we also have a narrative, a story of science.’

BO: Oh, I think science has a narrative. It's unavoidable. I'll give you a very simple example: the whole idea of a wave and particle. The minute you have images, you already have the beginning of narrative, because you have the beginning of the shaping of the way something can be perceived.

I think those are actually two great poetic ways of perceiving reality: the wave and the particle. With one we perceive reality in its density and with the other we perceive reality in its immeasurability and its dream-like qualities, so that both those two images, which are poetic and a narrative, also, I think, conform to two great ways of looking at the world which you have in in literature.

Ard: I want to ask a slightly different question about narrative and mathematics because I've heard you speak on this. So how are mathematics and narrative similar and how are they different?

BO: Well, maths and narrative have quite a few things in common and quite a few divergent elements. They have progression, symmetry, a sense of a journey actually. Mathematicians always speak about the journey of a problem, not only the journey of the solving of a problem, but the journey of a problem through other people having worked through it, worked with it.

I think another similarity is there's an intuitive element to both of them. Mathematicians always speak of the intuitive. Sometimes they arrive at the truth intuitively before they have solved it physically. There's an intuitive element.

Where they diverge? There are many areas where they diverge. Narrative allows for imaginative expansion. Mathematics is more crystalline. Narrative always wears the human flesh. It's always embodied. That's how I always think of mathematics as being very pure in that sense.

The truths of maths are absolutely implied in the equations. It has nothing to do with consciousness in that… it has to do with consciousness, in the sense that mathematicians, the human being, is alive, but it is implied in itself, whereas the truth of literature is partly brought by the reader. It's shared. If it's not shared, it does not exist. A story does not exist if there's no one to hear it.

Alex Rosenberg

The problem with stories

‘Stories, for all their emotional value, and for all their artistic beauty, are not to be relied upon in the way science can be relied upon.'



David: You seem to take issue…well you do take issue in your book about narrative – about the stories we tell. Surely the ability to tell ourselves stories is a good thing. It gives people a sense to… It makes sense.

AR: The ability to tell stories, as you just said, is a good thing in that one of the devices that we require in order to – and have since the Pleistocene, since we began to need to cooperate with one another in order just to survive – one of the things… one of the tools that we’ve needed is telling stories.

Telling stories motivates and coordinates actions, and those are the kinds of things that are required when you’re a puny little, relatively weak, slow and short creature operating on the African savanna and having to deal with hyenas and tigers and lions and things like that.

And this device of stories, which coordinates and motivates, and has great adaptive value, continues to persist and become larger and larger in our culture from that time to the present.

David: That’s not a problem though, is it?

AR: Well, let me finish. So you get Homer and you get the stories of the wisdom literature of our religions, for example. But now we reach the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century, and we need guidance about how to cope with global warming, how to cope with fundamentalist Islam, how to cope with the misconduct of investment bankers. And here stories tempt us into thinking that we understand and that we know, on the basis of the stories that we tell, how to deal with these problems ‒ and they never do.

David: Never?

AR: And we now understand why they don’t: because we know about the false assumptions about ourselves and about the world on which these stories are based, and we have a good account of the nature of the processes in human culture, and, otherwise, that drive the evolution of our culture; and those processes have nothing to do with the causal factors that are actually mentioned in these narratives. And so we have to stop thinking about these narratives as having any other function in our society than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: matters that give us pleasure and enjoyment and that move us.

But now we know when we compare those stories with what game theory, for example, tells us about the actual nature of human interactions, we should begin to recognise that, for all their emotional value and for all their artistic beauty, they are not to be relied upon ‒ in the way science can be relied upon ‒ to order and arrange human institutions and cope with the vicissitudes of the future.

David: But a lot of the scientists we have talked to have said, ‘Look, science tells stories. Narrative is central for science.’

AR: There’s a reason why scientists tell stories, and it’s a reason that every science writer knows, as far back as Paul de Kruif and Microbe Hunters, the first of the great popularisations of the history of science. And it’s because people only want stories. Every editor will tell every science writer, ‘If you’re going to tell us about the nature of reality, you have to package it in a story because it’s the only way people will pay attention.’ And that even goes for us scientists.

The great thing about the best books in science is they manage to actually avoid stories and so really communicate the science.

We know that, psychologically, stories are unavoidable, but it doesn’t make them cognitively significant, any more than our conviction that colours are out there in the world.

David: Well it does make them psychologically significant in the sense…

AR: Cognitively significant. I meant significant as a matter of identifying the true causal processes that drive reality. Psychologically significant, of course.

David: Oh, right. But psychologically is reality. Like you said, it’s as much a part of reality as my shoes; it’s made of atoms and things moving around. So if I have a thought, and it drives me psychologically, that is reality.

AR: Yes, but what it tells you about yourself and the world might be quite mistaken, in fact often is.

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