I’ve been a writer for nearly all my adult life. Chemistry texts, books on metaphor in science, the authority of science in society, human influences on global climate, how to create conditions that promote effective interdisciplinary research. Of late, I’ve been writing fiction, and I’ve found myself in different territory.
Much could be said about the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. I’m fascinated, though, by something they have in common: the role of story. In fiction, story is everything. Great dialogue, compelling descriptions, sharp observances and adroit stylistic technique will avail little if there’s not a good story there. It may come as a surprise to those who don’t read much science, by which I mean scientific journal articles or reviews aimed at scientifically knowledgeable readers, that storytelling also lies at the heart of good writing in this domain.
The most cogent way of viewing how stories are made in science is due to the great American Philosopher/Scientist, Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914). Peirce is best known as the earliest proponent of pragmatism, the first truly American gift to philosophy, but that’s another story. To our point, he also formulated what has become known as abductive inference, or simply, abduction. It works this way: The scientist makes an observation or set of observations. She tries to come up with a hypothesis, the simplest and most likely explanation. Her next step is one of logical inference: “If the hypothesis is correct, then when I alter the system in the following way, the following should happen.”
This is interesting, because abduction is grounded in story. A hypothesis is nothing more than a story about what must be going on. The first story the scientist tells about a new set of observations is likely to be pretty skimpy, but it gets her started in making new predictions. If it proves to be a poor predictor of what is learned next, it gets modified in what seems to be the right direction; further experiments are performed, new evidence is produced. The story is changed, or it’s thrown out and the scientist starts with a new story line. This if – then process is often referred to as inference to the best explanation.
Scientific papers that simply report a lot of data on a system, that lack a coherent story connecting those data with other work, other stories, are like fiction that lacks a strong story line. Both science writing and fiction demand good stories the reader will find compelling. This sets me to wondering: how might abduction be used as a writer’s tool for testing or improving fictional stories?