Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Science and storytelling

While catching up on the latest issue of Atlantic, I stumbled upon this article about a massive longitudinal study about what makes us happy. Expecting an article full of wonderful statistical analysis, I eagerly began reading.

The article was not what I expected.

The study described in the article, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, is the longest running longitudinal study of adult development ever conducted. The study has followed 268 Harvard graduates over a period of 68 years, with the goal of discovering the factors involved in normal adult development. However, for a true data connoisseur like me, what was fascinating about this study was the type of data collected.

The data ranged from Rorschach inkblots, to the evaluations of Freudian psychoanalysts, to what struck me as bodily version phrenology. It seems that the research milieu of the 1940s, when the study was originally began, left an indelible mark on the sort of data collected over the 68 years of the study's current lifespan. Thus, although the study does include its fair share of statistics, the emphasis of the study is instead on storytelling.

For a self-proclaimed statistics-lover, a story-based methodology was at first a little hard for me to swallow. How could we know whether the conclusions of the study were generalizable? What should we take from a collection of stories?

But, as the Atlantic article makes clear, I was missing the point.

Take the following excerpt from a description of one of the study's participants:
An attractive, amiable boy from a working-class background, you struck the study staff as happy, stable, and sociable. “My general impression is that this boy will be normal and well-adjusted—rather dynamic and positive,” the psychiatrist reported.
After college, you got an advanced degree and began to climb the rungs in your profession. You married a terrific girl, and you two played piano together for fun. You eventually had five kids. Asked about your work in education, you said, “What I am doing is not work; it is fun. I know what real work is like.” Asked at age 25 whether you had “any personal problems or emotional conflicts (including sexual),” you answered, “No … As Plato or some of your psychiatrists might say, I am at present just ‘riding the wave.’”
You come across in your files as smart, sensible, and hard-working. “This man has always kept a pleasant face turned toward the world,” Dr. Heath noted after a visit from you in 1949. From your questionnaire that year, he got “a hint … that everything has not been satisfactory” at your job. But you had no complaints. After interviewing you at your 25th reunion, Dr. Vaillant described you as a “solid guy.”
Two years later, at 49, you were running a major institution. The strain showed immediately. Asked for a brief job description, you wrote: “RESPONSIBLE (BLAMED) FOR EVERYTHING.” You added, “No matter what I do … I am wrong … We are just ducks in a shooting gallery. Any duck will do.” On top of your job troubles, your mother had a stroke, and your wife developed cancer.
Three years after you started the job, you resigned before you could be fired. You were 52, and you never worked again. (You kept afloat with income from stock in a company you’d done work for, and a pension.)
Seven years later, Dr. Vaillant spoke with you: “He continued to obsess … about his resignation,” he wrote. Four years later, you returned to the subject “in an obsessional way.” Four years later still: “It seemed as if all time had stopped” for you when you resigned. “At times I wondered if there was anybody home,” Dr. Vaillant wrote. Your first wife had died, and you treated your second wife “like a familiar old shoe,” he said.
But you called yourself happy. When you were 74, the questionnaire asked: “Have you ever felt so down in the dumps that nothing could cheer you up?” and gave the options “All of the time, some of the time, none of the time.” You circled “None of the time.” “Have you felt calm and peaceful?” You circled “All of the time.”
Two years later, the study asked: “Many people hope to become wiser as they grow older. Would you give an example of a bit of wisdom you acquired and how you came by it?” You wrote that, after having polio and diphtheria in childhood, “I never gave up hope that I could compete again. Never expect you will fail. Don’t cry, if you do.
It's simply impossible to get this rich an understanding of a person's life without the careful editing and selective embellishment enabled by storytelling. While the Harvard study might not produce results that one could easily generalize to a larger population, it does provide a handy scaffold on which to hang the results of other, more statistically-driven studies. In other words, while other studies might provide the hard data, qualitative studies provide another commodity that is just as valuable - meaning.

Thoughts such as these got me to thinking about the larger role of storytelling in scientific research. A good scientific article tells a story about the data it presents. First, it sets out the conflict - the question the study is trying to answer or the problem it is trying to solve. Next, the article establishes the main characters of the study, which are the main constructs and operational variables of the study. These main characters participate in the drama of the method used in the study, culminating in the climax of results and statistical analysis. The denouement of the discussion section wraps up the loose ends of the study and sets the stage for future drama in the broader tapestry of scientific research.

The best science popularizers also tell stories about the arguments they present. Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond - these scientists all have something in common beyond awesome hair, and that is their ability to tell a good story. Take this passage about the evolution of the word spam from Stephen Pinker's The Stuff of Thought:
Spam is not, as some people believe, an acronym for Short, Pointless, and Annoying Messages. the word is related to the name of the lunceon meat sold by Hormel since 1937, a portmanteau from SPiced hAM. But how did it come to refer to e-mailed invitations to enlarge the male member and share the ill-gotted gains of deposed African despots? Many people assume that the route was metaphor. Like the lunceon meat, the e-mail is cheap, plentiful, and unwanted, and in one variant of this folk etymology, spamming is what happens when you dump Spam in a fan. Though these intuitions may have helped make the word contagious, its origin is very different. It was inspired by a sketch from Monty Pyython's Flying Circus in which a couple enter a cafe and ask the waitress (a Python in drag) what is available. She answers:

[Stephen Pinker quoted the entire sketch, but he didn't have the benefit of the interwebs]

You are probably thinking, "This sketch must be stopped - it's too silly." But it did change the English language. The mindless repetition of the word spam inspired late-1980s hackers to use it as a verb for flooding newsgroups with identical messages, and a decade later it spread from their subculture to the populace at large.
As you can see, much of what makes Steven Pinker's writing compelling is his ability to spin a good yarn.

Of course, there's much more to good science writing, both in popular and academic contexts, than simply telling a good story. However, it seems that storytelling is an incredibly effective way of providing a mental scaffold for understanding an idea.


Schenk, J. (2009). What makes us happy? Atlantic, retrieved 7/1/2009 from

Pinker, S. (2007). The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. Penguin Books: London.

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