First of the Narrative Science Seminars: Synthetic biological beings and the narrative futures of climate science
Author: Dominic Berry
Earlier this month we launched the Narrative Science seminar series. We were very fortunate to host two outstanding researchers, Dr. Sally Atkinson and Dr Elisa Vecchione, working respectively at the intersections of narrative and social anthropology, and narrative and international governance. This post gives a very brief overview of key aspects of their talks, illustrating moments where they directly informed or provided challenges for our project.
Sally Atkinson (University of Exeter)
Fragile cultures and unruly matters: narrating microbial lives in synthetic biology knowledge practices
Atkinson set out to better understand the knowledge and research practices of researchers developing new techniques in the field of synthetic biology for industrial bioproduction. As part of the DETOX project, drawing on interviews and laboratory ethnography she works closely with researchers analysing and developing synthetic microbial strains. Narrative presented itself to her in these settings in a number of different ways, used by different actors. Some of the most explicit are the highly promissory narratives around environment and sustainability, written into research proposals and policy documents. Her attention is directed towards how such narratives play out in practice in emerging sites of knowledge. She suggested that to meet these promises practices of genetic mapping and multi-omics data analysis are used to construct microbes as a form of technology for bioproduction, made meaningful and suitable for travel and modification. Such data journeys, Atkinson suggested, might be best understood and further explored as having a narrative form.
Through her interviews and observations Atkinson finds synthetic biologists talking about their research materials not only as objects, easily moved and re-designed, but as actants, presented as having their own unruly lives and narratives. She was particularly interested in the tension this indicates between stable models of microbes as promissory technology and the challenges involved in working with microbial matter. Building on the work of Wynne and Strathern she suggested such narrative tension between model and practice demonstrate how researchers continually work to hold together projects in the face of uncertainty. In the discussion period we considered whether or not failure narratives, as a genre or type of narrative, allow for and validate how and when things go wrong in experimental spaces, to what extent is was appropriate or useful to describe such narratives through the lens of care, or whether epistemic problems at hand were about a managing and framing experiences of failure and notions of responsibility.
Elisa Vecchione (Group of Pragmatic and Reflexive Sociology, EHESS, Paris)
The political necessity of a more poetic science: the case of climate-economic narratives
Vecchione began by explaining how her work explores and understands the modelling of climate change, and its impacts on (or failure to impact) international governance law and policy. As a matter of contingency, she was introduced to the work of Hayden White, and immediately recognised in his theorisation of narrative in history a new way to understand climate modelling as creating narratives of the future. She is particularly interested in how climate scientists produce their evidence and then organise it for the purposes of, for instance, planning and assessment within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Longer term explanations for global climate change are most visible in at the IPCC through their scenario building and reporting exercises. Vecchione emphasised that models at the IPCC are not built in isolation of everything else, but are rather prepared in concert with particular scenarios that lay out the key storylines within which any given set of models need to make sense or be understood. In her talk Vecchione built upon Jerry Ravetz’s work on models as metaphors for these purposes, but closer to the home of Narrative Science, we also recognised a line of argument developed by Mary Morgan which had helped develop the foundations for our current project.
The primary aim of the paper was to demonstrate the variety of different ways in which narrative is central and essential to climate modelling, obviously not with the intention of thereby undermining the value of these efforts. (The idea that the presence of narrative in science demonstrates that science’s immaturity or falsity is a very old prejudice that our project likewise tackles head on). Rather the intention is to make climate scientists more conscious of the importance of narrative argumentation in the process of model building. In particular Vecchione advocated for the importance of retro-dication as a way to assess the quality and viability of different climate change models.
In the discussion period we wanted to know more about how different potential ‘moments’ are included as admissible into a climate change model, and also the ways in which narrative functions in the consciousness of model making, in the making of projections, and also bringing these to the public in a more deliberative democratic model. This resulted in Vecchione thinking more about the particular audiences served by these different narratives, and how very different kinds of narrative, or what we mean by narrative, can be found in these settings.
The next seminar will take place on the 6th of November, featuring Julia Sánchez-Dorado and Claudia Cristalli on ‘Colligation in model analysis: from Whewell’s tides to the San Francisco Bay Model’ and a second speaker we have yet to confirm. We are very sorry to report that our scheduled speaker, Dr. Veronika Lipphardt, has had to cancel this time for personal reasons, but we are working with her to find a suitable alternative time to host her in the future. Instead Prof. Mary Morgan will present her new paper ‘Simultaneous Discovery or Competing Concepts? Economists's Notions of Utility in the Late 19th Century’.
You can also find many of us contributing to the upcoming meetings of the History of Science Society and the Philosophy of Science Association.
HSS (Seattle, 1-4 November)
Friday 2nd November 12:00-13:15 - Round table - 'When stories are science'
Sunday 4th November 9:00-11:00 - Symposium - 'Scientists' narratives'
PSA (Seattle, 1-4 November)
Poster - 'Developing a philosophy of narrative in science'
Friday 2nd November 18:00–20:00 – Poster Session - 'Developing a philosophy of narrative in science' (poster number 52)