Third Narrative Science Seminar: The functions of failure narratives in engineering, and narrating causality within experimental psychology
Author: Dominic Berry
So far our seminar series has guided us through cases of narrative science in synthetic biology, climate policy, philosophy of modelling, and economics. The speakers in our third seminar, Caitlin Donahue Wylie and Sigrid Leyssen introduced two additional areas, respectively engineering and psychology. As with all of the blog posts following these seminars, they are designed to capture some central elements of the presentations and audience interaction, and are not by any means a complete record of the event.
Caitlin Donahue Wylie (University of Virginia)
Narrating Disaster: A Method of Socialization in Engineering Laboratories
At the outset Wylie explained how this paper concerns a new project, one that builds on her previous work investigating the knowledge-making of laboratory technicians. Where once she had investigated lab technicians, recovering and unpacking their contributions to cultures of science and to knowledge, she is now instead interested in STEM students, though very much with the same kinds of question in mind. Narrative enters her picture thanks to extended periods of laboratory ethnography, in which she finds engineering educators, tutors, and lab assistants, making habitual use of narrative for diverse ends. Some of these are pedagogical, but others are equally about engineering identity: what does it mean to be a good engineer? The instances in which narrative manifests are often motivated by epistemic uncertainty, how to understand uncertainty, handle it, be prepared for it, and so on. In recognising the uses of these kinds of narrative she is reminded of Sharon Traweek’s Beamtimes and Lifetimes which includes, amongst many other things, an in depth analysis of ‘male tales’: the kinds of story told and shared ritualistically amongst male physicists that are intended to solidify a common understanding of what scientific excellence is, and who are the kinds of people that can be expected to attain it. Wylie certainly found partial evidence of male tales in her labs, but more importantly, most of the narratives being told and retold in engineering education spilled over these categories.
Through her examples Wylie then established and argued for the importance of ‘vicarious learning’, a form of instruction that involves a teller and a listener, or listeners. This relationship asks the teller and the listener(s) to enter into a moment of learning that is not simply an exchange of knowledge, or an instruction, but makes use of the tellers’ having once been in the listeners’ shoes. These moments are intended either to show the listener ‘what has always happened before’ or, ‘the mistake I always make is’, or ‘you have to watch out for’, and so on. In particular she finds failure or ‘disaster’ narratives particularly common in instances of vicarious learning, and here it matters that narratives are able to carry or build sympathies and normative assumptions along with shared understandings. Vicarious learning is fundamentally constituted by narrative because it recognises all of the participant’s auto-histories, how they have come to reach this moment, without stating those terms explicitly, precisely as we on the Narrative Science project have come to expect in the making of ‘tellable’ narratives.
In the question period the audience asked about the aspect of this kind of narrative that works to build a team rather than individuals, and also the extent to which narratives of disaster and failure might actually be quite different. It might be, for instance, that a disaster narrative builds a foundation for later greatness, overcoming something so terrible. Whereas failure narratives might just be a let down. Other participants asked whether the sharing of failure narratives actually had some downsides. Wylie could not think of any immediate negative effects, and could instead point to how in one of the labs where she has been conducting an ethnography, on hearing about her research, the students spontaneously decided to make a ‘disaster story shelf’, which showcases the results of their mistakes (broken beakers etc.). Another person wondered whether or not failure narratives were also inuring students to failure in large technological disasters, as something that engineers have particular authority over and are expected to master, rather than something that might require humility. This would be a case where engineering epistemology meets identity.
Sigrid Leyssen (Bauhaus Universität Weimar)
On the Experimental Phenomenology of Causality
Leyssen’s talk likewise took some of her previous work as a jumping off point in order to launch her brand new project on the history of the scientific experiments of the filmology movement, and experimental phenomenology, narrative providing a persistent feature of interest throughout. She began by looking at cases in the history of science where the fact of narrativity itself was the research object for scientists, in particular for experimental psychologists. Several psychological experiments could be read as studying narrativity in some of its most basic forms, for example, as merely causal relations between events. Nevertheless, the diverse terms on which someone might choose to understand something so apparently simple soon demonstrated the complexities of narrative knowing. Her primary case study was the work of Albert Michotte, which, starting in 1939, sought to find evidence of causal understanding directly in the perception of events, rather than as the result of a higher order cognitive process: narrative, or causation, as something that one just knows from witnessing it. For these purposes Michotte created a range of different experimental apparatus intended to prove his point, which he would travel with and demonstrate at international conferences. Some of the most charismatic include spinning wheels with different patterns, the motion of which seemed to imply a causal relation between the elements of the patterning. For an example of this kind of effect, see the following video.
Other contemporary examples of psychological experiments that could be interpreted as working on the narrativity question as a psychological problem are the investigations of Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel into how and why people read anthropomorphic narratives into abstract moving objects and shapes. For an example of the kind of movie they created for these purposes, see:
She also mentioned the earlier work of Frederic Bartlett – a good friend of Michotte – on memory. Bartlett worked with stories as his experimental material, studying where stories changed when people were asked to recount them.
In the second part of her talk Leyssen focussed on how Michotte’s work was taken to matter for scientists, philosophers, and filmmakers more broadly. Only able to bring his work to an international audience after the end of the Second World War, by this point Michotte had also become interested and active in the ‘filmology’ movement. Research questions in this emerging field included ‘how can people see events in fragments? What are the minimum number of gaps, or the maximum number, that enable or interrupt the perception of relations of temporality, spatiality, causality?’. These results mattered for psychology but also for those experimenting with film making and art, so we here have a history of narrative scientised and literised at once.
In the question period we focused on the kinds of controversy that surrounded Michotte’s arguments, whether, for instance, the argument that narrative works by compulsion was disagreed with. Leyssen explained that many of Michotte’s views on the perception of causation were heavily criticised, and that debate as to whether causation is based in recognition or perception continues today. Meanwhile Michotte is having a renaissance, many researchers in the past ten years taking up his assumptions and research programme. Another participant wanted to hear more about the context of the growth of phenomenology at this time, and if there are further examples of people investigating perception on these terms. While referring to the vibrant surge in philosophical phenomenology at the time, also at Michotte’s home institution, the philosophy institute in Louvain (where the Husserl archives had just moved), Leyssen could also point to the earlier work of Max Wertheimer, and the broader legacy of Gestaltist researchers in the parallel tradition of experimental phenomenology in the scientific psychology. This had its own impact throughout the sciences and arts. Attending film festivals, and attending to the structure of narrative there, was something that Michotte and others like him gave increasing attention to over the course of the century.
The final seminar of Term 1 took place on the 4th of December, and featured Lukas Engelmann on ‘Epidemiology as Narrative Science: Outbreak reports of the third plague pandemic from 1894 to 1952’ and Sabine Baier ‘How Many Molecules Does It Take To Tell A Story?- Managing Epistemic Distances In Medicinal Chemistry’. A blog post will follow soon!
We also hosted our latest workshop on the 10th of December on ‘Expert Narratives: Systems, policies, and practices’ organised by Dr. Mat Paskins and Prof. Mary S. Morgan. We are sorry to all those of you who applied to attend but missed out this time, numbers were necessarily limited. We have further workshops and conferences planned for 2019 so as ever, join the mailing list to keep up to date. A blog post following the Expert workshop will also be published here soon. Our considerable thanks to all the speakers and contributors to discussion!