CNS — Events — SNSF Workshop — Program & Abstracts

July 3, 2015


Exploratory Workshop on Narrative in Science


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Monday, July 6, 2015


Dinner (19.00)

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Session 1 (9.00-12.30)

Chair: Elisabeth Dumont

The relationship between narrative and science has many facets and can take many forms. We are interested in whether or not narrative (storytelling) can have an intrinsic role in the making of science. We believe that this could not be the case if it were not for the fundamental role narrative takes in human understanding. In this first session, we would like to explore what this fundamental role might be, how old it is (from the viewpoint of the history of human culture), and what forms of under standing it provides humans with. In particular, we are interested in questions regarding the roles of mythic (oral) and modern (literate) cultures and the question of the ubiquity of the sense of agency in human thought.


Contini: Metaphors, stories, and knowledge of the world

Fuchs: On Myth, Science, and Narrative — with some thoughts on emotion, abstraction, time, agency, and forces

Session 2 (14.30-17.30)

Chair: Hans Fuchs

Intrinsic forms of narrative in science have lately been explored—it is important to know if narrative is constitutive of science proper. We know from research in the history and philosophy of economics and from computational (natural) science that important elements of scientific work and method are closely related to narrative. We are particularly interested in the relationship between models, simulations, narratives and mental models (storyworlds). We ask if much of (classical, macroscopic) science—its concepts, models, and theories—has a narrative core.


Morgan: Narrative ordering

Wise: Understanding in Time: Simulation Narratives

Perrin: Doing narratives: Why we cannot but tell into our stories

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Session 3 (9.00-12.30)

Chair: Federico Corni

Cognitive science has made important progress in recent decades; we are interested in what we can learn from it. We are particularly interested in how all of this relates to learning. Here are some questions. How is human understanding shaped, how does it develop, and how can it be explored? What do the modern sciences of mind tell us about understanding of the world around us and inside us? How are emotion and reason related? Is it true that young children start life as abstract “thinkers” and if so, how do we learn formal science later in life? And again, what is the role of narrative—of a narrative mind—in all of this? Will the exploration of narrative in science help us understand the human mind better?


Amin/Haglund: What do the modern sciences of the mind tell us about how we come to understand scientific concepts?

Cervi: Emotion and narrative in understanding

Brendel/Dumont P.: A narrative approach to teaching and learning

Session 4 (14.30-17.30)

Chair: Elisabeth Dumont

Here is a dilemma: Can narrative contribute intrinsically only to sciences without laws (aspects of biology and medicine, psychology, anthropology, natural history such as cosmology and earth science, economics)? Extrinsic contributions—telling stories about science—are well known and accepted in science learning both for formal and less formal fields. Stories with which we can do science seem to be restricted to the less mathematically formalized fields.

[Note: We believe that it has been shown that the conceptual structures of some of the very formal sciences (physical sciences) are fundamentally narrative. We are interested in learning how narrative contributes to the understanding of the sciences without laws and how this reflects back upon sciences with laws. In the end we would like to learn how narrative studies illuminate sciences in general.]


Morgan/Wise: Science without laws

Zabel/Altiero: The role of narrative in teaching evolution, and what makes biology unique

Hurwitz: Should clinical cases be linked to 'myths, fairy tales, parables, and anectotes'?

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Final Session (8.30-12.00)


Chair: Hans Fuchs

Our own research has revolved largely around science learning and the training of teachers involved in primary education. We will briefly discuss the role we believe story construction and storytelling on the one hand and narrative thinking in model construction can have in this realm.


Corni: Narrative in Science Education

Dumont: From forces of nature to physics of dynamical systems


What questions will lead to a productive research agenda for a Center of Narrative Studies in Science?

12.00 Lunch



Annamaria Contini

Metaphors, stories, and knowledge of the world

Session 1

In recent years, metaphors and stories have been the subject of much analysis by scholars of cognitive science. Research has shown that metaphors and stories can be viewed as tools for thinking—both are expressions of imaginative rationality that plays a crucial role in the theory of embodied cognition. This paper starts right from the relationship between metaphors and stories, in the belief that, in a narrative, a metaphor is not only in context but also takes a meaning not reducible to what we might associate with it in isolation. I will argue that narrative is a kind of “connective tissue”: the story organizes image schemas, metaphoric projections, conceptual and linguistic metaphors in terms of a network. I then ask what this process of integration is. To this end, I will discuss some arguments put forth by narratology, comparing them with a thesis developed as part of the narrative theory of the philosopher Paul Ricoeur. On the one hand, we will see the important function that is performed in the narrative by the categories of time, agent, agency, process, and the resulting continuity between stories and scientific forms of thought. On the other hand, we see that narrative does not just characterize (set) the world, giving order and consistency, but also helps to refigure the world, to offer a different image of it. This aspect of narrative also seems important to extend the reach of narrative in science.


Hans Fuchs

On Myth, Science, and Narrative — with some thoughts on emotion,
abstraction, time, agency, and forces

Session 1

A part of the argument tying conceptual structures in science to narrative understanding is related to the notion of a mythic, oral language based cultural phase during the development of the human species (Donald, Gebser) and early in childhood when individuals acquire a spoken language (Egan). In oral societies, story seems to be the proper vehicle for carrying and transporting understanding of the world as has been demonstrated in research on mythologies of peoples 'without writing' (Levi-Strauss). If we can show that the origins of the human mind are present in today’s formal sciences, we can create a (further) link between science and narrative.

Myth is related to some deep structures of the human mind. Concepts and cognitive tools found in mythic culture suggest the existence of (1) emotional ties between self and the world and (2) abstract thought. Abstractions resulting from the interaction of organisms with their surroundings are used to give expression to conscious perception (feeling) of our emotional encounters with the world (part of which is constituted by encounters with our psyche such as in dreams or trance). On this count, abstraction is a basic human capacity and not something created late in the history of the species or late in education.

In this contribution, I will sketch some ideas relating to oral mythic cultures and the role of myth as narrative, and demonstrate forms of reasoning found in myth which are present in today’s science.


Mary Morgan

Narrative ordering

Session 2

Narratives function in the sciences to create order, or organise, the diverse elements and materials that scientists work with.  Such orderings may serve to: connect events in time, reveal what does and does not relate together, show how things change from start to finish, or join things together that previous lacked causal connections.  This fundamental ordering function of narratives may be found in different ways in different parts of science and with different methods.  Considered more broadly, the ordering function of narrative is a way of making sense of things for scientists: narrative functions as a mode of understanding or explanation.

In economics, for example, experiments and simulations with mathematical models in economics are usually (in informal presentations such as seminars) accompanied by narratives that reveal the connections between events depicted in the model experiments.  Such narratives function to define the scope and identity of their theoretical models, but these experiment-narratives are also a way of testing or matching their models to economies of the world.  Narratives here serve to mediate between the models as theory devices and as accounts of the world.


Norton Wise

Understanding in Time: Simulation Narratives

Session 2

Many simulations in the physical sciences aim to provide an explanation of a process as a development or “unfolding” in time, and this unfolding takes the form of a narrative. Using a very particular example from physical chemistry—simulation of Diehls-Alder reactions, represented as movies—I will explore the significance for explanation of several aspects of these temporal narratives, drawing on their relation to well-known characteristics of historical narratives: 1) “following the story,” from W. B. Gallie; 2) “grasping together” or “configuring,” from Louis Mink; 3) how plot integrates these two “dimensions” of time, from Paul Ricoeur; and 4) “locating the actual in a space of possibles,” from Geoffrey Hawthorn. These aspects of simulations tend to highlight their function in the sciences of complexity, but they are not restricted to sciences without laws.


Daniel Perrin

Doing narratives: Why we cannot but tell into our stories

Session 2

Despite the mantra to “think story,” (i.e. to think of public discourse in terms of telling stories) most of the narrative accounts in science, media, and society-at-large are far away from sheer storytelling. It is more about simplicity than suspense, more about fragments of information than complete storylines, and more about story selling than telling. Researchers, journalists, and corporate communication officers tend not to tell stories as such; instead, they have their own narrative routines and forms. By blending practices of narration, description, argumentation, and explanation, they trigger mental stories and evoke the emergence of collaborative stories in follow-up discourses by their addressees. By doing so, they cater to a story, they tell into a story – but not the story as a whole. In line with such recent insights into narrative practices, this presentation scrutinizes the storytelling approaches that are taught across curricula and disciplines – and offers fresh and more focused insights into narrative conceptualization and communication practices.


Tamer Amin and Jesper Haglund

What do the modern sciences of the mind tell us about how we come to
understand scientific concepts?

Session 3

Our contribution to this session will be to outline some “big ideas” from the fields of science education, developmental psychology and cognitive science that are particularly relevant to characterizing how scientific concepts are understood and how this understanding develops. In science education, we have learned that the process of coming to an understanding of a scientific concept needs to be described in terms of the conceptual repertoire available to the layperson before instruction. We have learned how elements of this repertoire can both hinder and support learning. Research in developmental psychology has deepened our understanding of the concept learning process. This field has taught us that concept learning is initially constrained by abstract (and possibly innate) core concepts in basic domains (e.g. object, agent, number), but also grows out of early sensorimotor experiences. It has also taught us that the development of metacognitive knowledge and language can interact with the growth of conceptual understanding. In cognitive science, research on the acquisition of expertise shows that novices and experts differ in how they (ontologically) categorize scientific concepts, but researchers have debated how the differences should be described. Based on our work on conceptual metaphor in scientific thinking and learning, we favor a more fluid and systemic perspective on the role of ontological categorization of concepts at different levels of expertise. We are convinced of the claim made by cognitive linguists and other cognitive scientists that our understanding of abstract concepts is metaphorically grounded in sensorimotor experience. In our view, it is this phenomenon that explains why narrative often figures in abstract scientific thought. Overall, the picture that emerges is that both lay and scientific concepts are complex knowledge systems and that developing an understanding of a scientific concept involves incorporating new knowledge elements in a variety of representational formats and reorganizing these elements. This reorganization can at times be gradual and at others involve substantial conceptual leaps.


Manuela Cervi

Emotion and narrative in understanding

Session 3

Emotional dynamics has three components: a somatic component, an expressive and behavioral component, and – what is most important for our present aim – a cognitive component. This is why – at a cognitive level  – emotions can develop the same informational content that they express at a somatic level. Thus emotions are the initial manner in which we process information or the first way of thinking. This way of thinking and knowing has specific characteristics. At the same time, it grounds our rational and formal thinking that emerges at around 12 months, goes on developing, and then gains priority over the emotional one at around 11 years of age. Therefore, knowledge processes always have two different interacting dynamics: an emotive one and a cognitive one. The first one is dominant in the preadolescent period.

In their development, knowledge processes create and make use of a succession of tools ranging from gesture to music, binary opposites, sense of mystery, empathy, etc.. Language develops from early spoken to full-fledged orality to early literacy. Knowledge processes begin to abstract, passing from a sensory level to initial categorical forms. They continue through metaphors that allow progressive abstraction starting from concrete domains to more abstract domains on the basis of a large image-schematic repertoire. They favor the use of storytelling which can summarize all emotional forms. And finally, they lay the foundation for the first cognitive forms of investigating the world through observation of details and perception of the limits of reality.


Michelle Brendel and Paul Dumont

A narrative approach to teaching and learning

Session 3

In our presentation we will elaborate on how a narrative approach to teaching and learning may show what a child knows, and how activities in Science Education fit best into a child’s universe of knowledge. Cultural Historical Activity Theory, connecting Vygotsky’s ideas to those of Bakhtin, serves as a framework. Developing on examples from collaborative research projects we conduct in two different preschools and primary schools, we will explore how, in shared, socioculturally situated activities, the mental function of the individual is linked to cultural, historical and institutional settings, with dialogue as a central concept. A special focus will lie on the use of speech genres, and how they mirror classroom discourse. Furthermore, we will elaborate on the potential of such a research approach, investigating children’s, teachers’ and researchers’ learning processes, to transform teacher directed Science Education towards inclusive co-construction of Science in the classroom and beyond.


Brian Hurwitz

Should clinical cases be linked to 'myths, fairy tales, parables, and anectotes'?

Session 4

Clinical case reports are one of the chief means by which the findings and experiences of health care practitioners are shared with others, and this year The Lancet set out plans to publish longer, more detailed case reports, together with expert commentaries on them. Although Ian Hacking has cautioned that ‘[f]airy tales create fairy causes’, The Lancet announced: ‘Throughout history people have interpreted the world around them and passed on lessons learned through myths, fairy tales, parables, and anecdotes. Medicine is no different... ’.

This talk will discuss the shape, features and hindsight through which modern cases are organised as second order narratives of medical encounters, observations and reasoning. It will also consider the narrative implications of putting case reports together in case series.

Ian Hacking, Rewriting the soul. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Philippa Berman, Richard Horton, Case reports in The Lancet: a new narrative. Lancet 2015; 385:1277


Jörg Zabel, Tiziana Altiero

The role of narrative in teaching evolution, and what makes biology unique

Session 4

In contrast to most domains in physics, biology is a historical science. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution defies reduction to physics and chemistry because of its meta-physical components, at the same time that it introduces a cause-mechanic agent for evolutionary change (Mayr 2004). Narrative explanation (Norris et al. 2005, 16) is frequent in natural history. In this sense, it is inherent to many biology lessons. Evolution has an aspect of contingency, but Darwin’s Theory of selection also features law-like logical conclusions that are to some extent ‘timeless’.

Our presentation will explore some of these particular characteristics of biological science, and then go beyond science history and look at what narrative can do for understanding biology in the classroom, particularly the topic of selection theory (Darwin 1872). We will present data from a group discussion with primary school kids (grade 4, age 9-10 ys.), as well as text and interview data from secondary school (grade 7, age 12-13 ys.). We apply the perspective of narrative and cultural psychology (Bruner 1990, 1996; Echterhoff & Straub 2003) to student reasoning on adaptation phenomena (Zabel 2015 on this website). From a constructivist perspective, narratives represent far more than just a ‘format’ or an outer shell for scientific content. Bruner (1990) stresses the importance of story for meaningful understanding and the special characteristics of paradigmatic and narrative thinking, and advocates including narrative realities into science education.

With reference to Hans Fuchs’ categories of the role of narrative in science ( on this website), we will present an example for the use of narrative about science as well as narrative for science. The story was modified for primary school according to Kieran Egan’s (1997) stages of evolution of the human mind. We will use student data to illustrate narrative meaning making processes in the classroom and make a case for the use of student narratives as a stepping-stone to understanding biology

Bruner, J.S. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Darwin, C. (1872). On the origin of species by means of natural selection. 6th ed. London: John Murray.

Echterhoff, G. & J. Straub (2003, 2004). Narrative Psychologie: Facetten eines Forschungsprogramms. In: Handlung–Kultur–Interpretation, 12 (2) and 13 (1).

Egan K., 1997. The educated mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding, Chicago, Ill., University of Chicago Press

Mayr, E. (2004). What Makes Biology Unique? Considerations on the Autonomy of a Scientific Discipline. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2004.

Norris, S. P., Guilbert, S., Smith, M. L., Hakimelahi, S., & Phillips, L. M. (2005). A theoretical framework for narrative explanation in science. Science Education 89 (4), 535-563.


Federico Corni

Narrative in Science Education for Teacher Training

Session 5

A narrative approach to science that considers narrative to be intrinsic rather than external to science requires the discipline to be rethought or reordered. In the last five years, I have developed a physics course for students of the master degree in Primary Education at the Department of Education and Humanities of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. The course has recently been taught at the universities of Verona and Bolzano, as well. It makes use of figures of mind that are found in both everyday and scientific conceptualizations of natural processes. The approach to science is informed by what we have learned from cognitive linguistics. Specifically, it is a rendering of the concept of force of nature as (1) a metaphoric network and (2) an element of stories (Fuchs).

Over the years, the course has changed, but stories have always been present as a topic in lectures and as a challenge for students in preparation of the final exam or as products of a story-writing laboratory activity. After an introduction to the theory of stories, students perform linguistic analyses—during class discussion—of some existing stories in terms of embedded metaphors that are elements of the concept of force of nature. After this, teams of students have to create an original story (of forces of nature); analyze, review and correct the story helped by discussions with their colleagues and with the teacher; design a didactical pathway centered upon the story (with guidelines for the user and activities to be proposed to children such games, plays, drawings, experiences, simple experiments, discussions, etc.). Students react positively to this kind of activity and, in general, produce stories of high quality.

In my contribution, I will discuss the issue of narrative in science by using an example of a story developed by a student.


Elisabeth Dumont

From forces of nature to physics of dynamical systems

Session 5

We will present our natural science course which we teach at the School of Engineering in Winterthur. We will show how the concept of forces of nature is transformed into an integrated science course on dynamical systems theory in physics, chemistry, biology, and technology. The course employs a well-defined form of analogical reasoning. It uses analogical mappings suggested by the conceptual integration network we have identified for fluids, electricity, heat, chemistry, and motion. We will discuss briefly in what sense modeling and simulation employed in this course may be related to narrative.