Fourth Narrative Science Seminar: How plague narratives made a science of epidemiology, and exploration and discovery narratives in Big Pharma
Author: Dominic Berry
We thoroughly enjoyed this seminar, which was the last of the Narrative Science seminars for 2018, and one which also had a particular slant towards the history and philosophy of medicine. The Narrative Science seminar series will continue throughout 2019, and the programme of future speakers and their titles is already available online. The following post offers a short summary of the talks from Lukas Engelmann and Sabine Baier and some of the discussion from the question period. As ever, these blog posts are not meant to offer a complete account of everything discussed!
Audio recordings of all of our first seminars are available to those who wish to write to us directly for copies. These will be deleted in the next few weeks, so get in touch soon if you are interested.
Lukas Engelmann (University of Edinburgh)
Epidemiology as Narrative Science: Outbreak reports of the third plague pandemic from 1894 to 1952
The first speaker, Lukas Engelmann, addressed the history of epidemiology with a particular emphasis on how practitioners made a science of epidemiology. Where in another line of research he had concentrated on mapping practices in public health, with a focus on AIDS, he here turned to a different period and global epidemic, the third plague pandemic from the nineteenth to the early twentieth century, and also to a different scientific medium, the written report. Collecting together the hundreds of written reports written by a range of different actors on the ground in the Indian states, Engelmann argued that narrative was an essential feature for making the third plague pandemic the first example of a global epidemiological investigation. In examining these kinds of report he acknowledged debts to the analyses of John Forrester, Olga Amsterdamska, Volker Hess, and Andrew Mendelsohn.
One reason that narrative mattered epistemically, is that it tracked the features of the phenomena, which was inherently processual and historical. In this respect epidemiology can be located amongst the sciences of the archive, and lends itself to future cross-comparative work with examples from geology, natural history, paleontology, and so on. A second reason that narrative mattered, is that it allowed epidemiologists to align very disparate and diverse forms of data. Finally, these narrative reports mattered for the development of standard epidemiological models, which became a subject of interest in their own right. Such models were often even of more interest to epidemiologists than the reports of cases from the pandemic, and were only made to work thanks to the incorporation of narratives. A strong revisionist component was also present in Engelmann’s talk. Where typically the history of epidemiology becoming a science has stressed the arrival of abstracting methods, particularly its mathematization and the growth of statistics in the field throughout the nineteenth century, Engelmann argued these were only one part of the process of scientization. Practices of evidence collection and recording that were grounded in narrative were equally important for the professionalisation and scientisation of the field.
It is unfortunate that we cannot cover the primary material that Engelmann then went on to discuss, which was very rich and varied. In the discussion period we wondered whether these reports change in their composition over time, whether something more standardised begins to emerge, the role of style in them, and so on. Engelmann responded that some of the first reports have a different kind of urgency in their writing style, and in their implication that a pandemic is imminent. These are often characterized by some over-exaggeration, but an over-exaggeration that does track the severity of the pandemic in those regions of India where the pandemic was severe. Over time repetition of earlier reports were recapitulated so as to align them with newer reports in this lineage. Then around 1910, as the notion that fleas on rats are the primary carriers of disease, the overwhelming emphasis that had once been given to human living conditions faded out and global attention seemed to focus on rats. Others pointed out how much understanding an epidemic is really an exercise in sociology, or geography, which was much better represented by attending to the narrative features of epidemiological reporting than to the statistics and tables. Engelmann agreed with this suggestion, but also emphasised that epidemiologists themselves did not typically see it this way, but rather understood themselves to be doing something very distinct. How and why they thought this is part of his fascination with the area.
Sabine Baier (LSE and ETH Zürich)
How Many Molecules Does It Take To Tell A Story?- Managing Epistemic Distances In Medicinal Chemistry
It was great to be able to host a talk from our collaborator Sabine Baier, who has been working with us for the past 6 months, and with whom we are co-organising a workshop to take place in 2019 on the topic of narrative’s role in navigating experimental space, particularly in the making of novel materials. In her talk we had a chance to glimpse where this research is taking narrative in/of/for science, with a particular emphasis on the planning and motivation of experiment in drug discovery.
The process of drug discovery is a long and tedious one. How do chemists make sense of work that more commonly than not produces compounds of no value or particular interest? In pursuing laboratory ethnography Baier saw first-hand precisely how repetitive this manner of research is, and also why narrative is playing a particularly important role for managing ‘epistemic distance’. The latter is her coinage and refers to the distance between the work one is doing right now, and the potential valuable finding that may occur down the line. Very few of the chemists that she was able to speak with had ever had a compound get close to clinical trialling, let alone marketing, and those that did were often treated with considerable reverence. When your experiments are largely producing negative after negative results, how can one make decisions in research? For Baier this is where narrative came in.
Researchers, who are constantly rationally reconstructing the trajectory and outcomes of their past work, place signposts in these trajectories that can later be activated as points of excitement (though experienced as anything other than exciting at the time). These presented themselves to Baier within the stories she witnessed being told by chemists to other chemists, explaining their work and findings. For example one chemist she worked with considered themselves an artist, looking at compounds and wanting to make more beautiful ones, telling her they would never pursue an ugly one. Another chemist thought of themselves as something more like a historian, aiming to contextualise any target given to them, finding as many similar and already investigated examples as possible. The enormity of the experimental space requires these kinds of positioning, one that chemists tend to set aside in preference for possible narrativized worlds.
In the question period we first wondered whether there would be similarities here between other scientific areas, such as in oceanography or geography, where people have to spend very many years mapping places that by and large have nothing particularly significant or interesting about them, maybe making the odd discovery here and there. Would these actors be worth looking at, to see if they are managing epistemic distance in a similar manner? Baier thought this was an interesting suggestion, but also worried that if it weren’t for her sitting alongside the scientists in this case, hearing them speaking to one another through these stories, there might not be any other record of them. From here the discussion moved to notions of chemical space, and whether chemists display similar behaviours to artists who pride themselves on working in particular media (oil, clay, lard, etc.). Baier responded that indeed on the the key points of storytelling is to achieve this kind of closing down of options, a creative restriction.
Thank you to everyone who has contributed to the seminar series so far, either as a speaker or an audience member. We look forward to seeing you at the 2019 seminars! Short reports for all the first seminars can be found in the links below.
SYNTHETIC BIOLOGICAL BEINGS AND THE NARRATIVE FUTURES OF CLIMATE SCIENCE
TIDAL NARRATIVE ORDERING FOR WHEWELL AND SAN FRANCISCO, AND INDEPENDENT DISCOVERY OF UTILITY NARRATIVES IN ECONOMICS
THE FUNCTIONS OF FAILURE NARRATIVES IN ENGINEERING, AND NARRATING CAUSALITY WITHIN EXPERIMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY