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Storied Theory

American Scientist (USA) , July-August 2005


Science seems to be afraid of storytelling, perhaps because it associates narrative with long, untestable yarns. Stories are perceived as "just" literature. Worse, stories are not reducible to mathematics, so they are unlikely to impress our peers.

This fear is misplaced for two reasons. First, in paradigmatic science, hypotheses have to be crafted. What are alternative hypotheses but competing narratives?

The second reason not to fear a story is that human beings do science. Yes, there are facts to begin with, facts to build on. But facts are mute. And actions, small or large, are taken at a certain time by human beings—who are living out a story.

One might think that experiments are more sympathetic than theories to storytelling, because an experiment has a natural chronology and an overcoming of obstacles (see my article, "Narrative," in the July-August 2000 American Scientist). However, I think that narrative is indivisibly fused with the theoretical enterprise.

Science and stories are not only compatible, they're inseparable, as shown by Einstein's classic 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect.

A young man of 25, Einstein had mastered the old stories. In this paper he combined the ways others looked at the world, and trusting analogy as much as mathematics, made something new. Science is an inspired account of the struggle by human beings to understand the world. Changing it in the process. How could this be anything but a story?

Subjects Covered: education

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