Science is messy, full of plot twists and competing interpretations—and the way we talk about it should reflect that truth.
Science is about storytelling, expectations and plot reversal, as much as it is about any particular facts. One group of geneticists identified the “narrative potential” of human genomes, suggesting that stories lie in virtually every dark nook of its helical coils. Since symptoms or traits are often only similar, or share family resemblances, the stories that scientists tell are rarely the same, but rather are limited windows into genetics that are relatable.
“Coupling this with the reality that all human genomes carry many deleterious mutations, in many different genes, it is clear that all human genomes have a high level of ‘narrative potential’ to provide compelling but statistically poorly justified connections,” those scientists wrote. To say the least, genetic stories are potent, but rarely definitive.
If stories are about belief, scientific stories are supposed to have an integrity that is important in the “post-truth” age as people seek science, facts and a basis for decisions. The post-truth age is another way to describe postmodernism, which has less to do with facts being relative as it does with pervasive cynicism, irony, changing levels of enthusiasm and commitment, and the framing of facts and the lens of stories. The trouble is science has never itself been entirely free of these literary trends.
Scientists have their own selective histories and facts, and molecules such as genes often find new uses in different contexts or niches. “Timeless truths” do not exist in literature, Stanford literature professor Robert Pogue Harrison points out, and perhaps they do not even exist in science. Science does indeed progress, but scientific stories may always be fractured and heterogeneous. If so, the dichotomy of opinion/scientific fact is superficial since science is troubled from within; classifications depend on how we structure and frame our data, which is why, for instance, taking about race is controversial, but it is also why cancer or disorders continue to be reclassified.
The future of science writing will not be free of tensions or contradictions, as compared to popular writing that is often based on a mythos of progressing to a complete picture of nature. It should therefore dispense with the idealism that permeates much of popular science writing—a belief that human nature is perfectible, a fashionable idea seeded by the Zuckerberg Chan Foundation when it says it will “cure all disease” in this century or when Microsoft says it will “solve” cancer within 10 years.
Instead writers should work to conceive of biology as it actually is, ridden with genetic trade-offs that find use in various contexts or niches. If we sequence the human genome or map the brain, it does not lead to a single schematic, but rather to an ecology of competing systems and histories that are progressing and regressing to nowhere in particular—and so science perhaps is leading us only to more competing stories.
Physics may also dispense with ideals such as theories of everything, or at least perfectible concepts that describe a mathematical double for the universe. If trope nominalism is the correct metaphysics, there are no universals but only particulars that have typical or tropic properties. The states of nature evolve through accidental interactions, rather than being contained or entailed in any logic. Thus, while physics someday may be unified, the more important thing is that it may not be moving toward or away from any ideal state, with a result of open-ended time, of none of its states being necessary. If science writing has been excited by idealism, it may be increasingly troubled if nature fails to live up to any ideals.
The future of science writing may put an end to much of the explanatory optimism of current writing, and reveal a starker outlook, one gripped with tension. Science writing during the times of Galileo and Darwin was heretical and difficult to talk about, but at least since the 1990s it has held a positive valence. I believe that it will take a turn again to greater sobriety.
In recent years, science writing has become too ideal and naïve as people look to data science, machine learning and big data to explain life and resolve tensions, without conceding that tension is inherent to science and indeed the process of thought. If science is not thought of as part of an open-ended conversation with enduring tensions, and if readers of science writing are too naïve, it can set us up to fall into traps of false optimism, and even enable what William James called scientific absolutism, or expressions of power.
Science narratives reveal some truth, but most research turns out to be just one more set of facts that can turn problematic when used as narratives for positional power. For instance, a new class of high-priced biologic medicines and a patent battle for the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing tool are narratives that have devolved from belief in the power of what science can do into a cynicism for how its narratives can be exploited for positional advantages. Beyond Bioethics: Toward a New Biopolitics, a new collection of essays, describes how the life sciences are consumed with excessive marketization of values, suggesting the need for a new “biopolitics” based on principles of social justice as much as market value. In short, since the onset of modernity, we are still struggling with a vital problem of where authority comes from.
I am interested in how science percolates into culture, or more precisely, how science is used as solution to the enduring problem of the modernist break—the 19th-century rupture between personal motives and meaning, and history and heritage. Modernity could be said to have brought an end to dialectics since it grounded truth in some objective realities independent of class and social position. In recent decades science has been explicated in a naïve form of pop-science storytelling that asserted some self-help mythos with clarity, resolution and snappy surefire explanations.
Readers, including me, often turn to popular science writing for meaning in their lives. But this sort of writing was never that satisfying to me, for a few reasons. The first is that science is troubled by fallibilism—the principle that, as bioethicist Jonathan Moreno told me, “with the possible exceptions of logic and mathematics, no scientific account of the world of experience can achieve absolute precision.”
The second is that the struggle of novels and literature, ridden with contradictions, double binds and disorder, seem more vital to the problem of modernity than rummaging through scientific insights. A third is that scientists are increasingly connected to financial apparatus, patents, and means of social positioning, hence a need to put science into dialectic, a questing not only of truth but of the motives and purpose of scientists.
Modernity is identified with rationalism and industrialization, on the one hand, and the countertrend of Romanticism, which set people into the backdrop of the grandeur of nature and emphasized the irrational or that existence perhaps has no fundamental explanation. Therefore, it is troubled with the tension of self-consciousness, between seeking meaning and order, often in the service of industry, and then again, by getting trapped up in that order.
When I wrote Modern Prometheus: Editing the Human Genome with Crispr-Cas9 it was a play on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, in part because we are living in a new age of the “industrial revolution of the human genome” and also because we live in a time when people are increasingly turning to science to solve problems and guide their lives, perhaps too naïvely, as in Shelley’s novella, to the extent that devotion to scientific work results in a loss of agency, and the scientist begins losing a sense of reality.
Modernism implies an essential tension that struggles with what to believe in seriously, and how these beliefs change or evolve through time, but many people argued that the cynicism of postmodernism diminished this tension. So it was revived in post-postmodernism, or meta-modernism, identified as a correction to the unsatisfying cynicism and irony of postmodernism and the hyper-conscious distrust of facts as tools of corporate advertising of the 1980s and early 1990s, and which by turns, seeks to reaffirm ethics in the New Sincerity movement, or the belief in some heartfelt values.
One part of this trend, no doubt, was popular science writing, which sought to reassert belief or faith in something. Who among us cannot believe and love the authentic stories of science? But the important point of meta-modernism is that it involves tension between belief and cynicism, drawing its prefix from the idea of metaxy, which involves a movement between these two poles. Science writing should also benefit from association with the literary trend of meta-modernism to the extent that narration is less about a one-way flow of information from a scientific priesthood communicating to a non-ordained general public, as it is about tension.
That tension derives from science stories’ struggle between the authentic and the emergence of cynicism, which is due to financial power in science, but also due to the fact that readers are hit with so many conflicting opinions or research they are becoming rightly jaded. The future of writing thus involves less novelty and more of a focus on how facts are being framed, or accountability journalism.
As a writer, I am interested the oscillating belief and cynicism in science, and in the way large institutions in science are taking over an authority that the church had more of an exclusive claim upon, and how scientific institutions provide order and meaning in life. But science is flawed from within, and not pure or free of antagonisms, cynicism or a threat of Romantic sensibilities, which are best described as nature, time and expanse being primordial to science and industry. Scientists and many of us, knowing it or not, often suppress the tension of what it means to define ethics—the tension of modernity—but the process of science will never bring an end to that tension; indeed it is a part of it.