Science — stories or pure data?

Writing a scientific paper

In his recent post, Petter Holme presents an entertaining inner dialogue about whether one should market one’s scientific output or not. Much of this centers around the concept of stories — and the discussion on whether we should publish papers that have storylike narratives or just plain data has been going on for a while.

Being an advocate of papers-as-stories, let me add another point of view to the mix.

I feel that there are two dimensions here. The first one is the axis from facts to fiction, and being scientists, we all know where we should place ourselves here. The second dimension is about pure data versus understanding/insight, and it is this dimension that in my view necessitates some storytelling.

Let me explain my reasoning by starting from pure data. Suppose I have carried out an experiment/done some simulations/analyzed a bunch of data I found on the Internet. Now, if I wanted my output to be pure data, I could just release the numbers as tables or graphs or whatever, and maybe an explanation on how the experiments or simulations were carried out. Pure data — no story.

However, my pure data would probably not make sense to many people, if any. To take a step in the direction of meaning, I should at least explain what the research question is that the experiment/simulations/analysis project was designed to answer. I might also feel compelled to tell how the data answer this question, i.e., to give the numbers some meaning.

Notice the elements of a story sneaking in? There is a question, there is an answer.

But even after these additions, only an expert reader would be able to see the meaning in what I have done. For anyone else, more would be needed — why should this question be asked? What is the context for the question? And why should one care about the results?

Add these elements, and we have arrived at the typical structure of a scientific paper that begins with an introduction and ends with a discussion. We have also strayed pretty far from pure data, and are now firmly in the realm of stories. First, we introduce the world and the characters that inhabit it, then we create tension with an open question, and release this tension with an answer.

But such stories of science are not works of fiction; they are told with facts. This, to me, is why papers should be stories — stories provide clarity, understanding, and meaning. They help the reader to connect the dots. Of course, one can and should release pure data too: numbers, results, code, everything. But these only get their meaning through stories.

4 thoughts on “Science — stories or pure data?

  1. You made your point well, and I agree!

    By your definition of “storytelling,” there is simply no opposite, just raw data. But I think that some people use the term to mean “in the universe of ways to report the results accurately, how can we choose the one that is most compelling and captivating for readers.” Also in that case, I think “storytelling” can be good, but it is more difficult since then there is a continuum all the way to fraud. It becomes challenging for a mentor to draw the line. On the other hand, how can you teach anything else than writing something in a captivating way? Etc. (See, this question always triggers an inner dialogue in me.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • To continue on this (an inner dialogue/monologue/something emerged here, too), I think that my position might eventually be formulated as “one cannot really avoid having a story, so use that for good and write a story that brings with it clarity and why not some excitement too, but avoid the dark side you must.” So maybe this is what I think (“maybe” because the inner dialogue doesn’t want to stop 🙂

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  2. Thanks! Maybe one also could add “most clear and easy-to-follow” after “how can we choose the one that is most compelling and captivating for readers” — this clarity is a major motivation for me; one cannot write a random data dump of a paper that follows a story (at least not easily). And yes, I do agree, we are dealing with something where there is a clear path to the dark side: maybe the story is more compelling if we omit all results that are even slightly contradictory to our point?

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