Field of Science

The Importance of Fairy Stories

I was reading around the posts at ScienceBlogs, when I came across this one by Bioephemera which, while talking about a recent google-doodle took a quick jokey look at the respective merits of Hans Christian Ørsted and Hans Christian Andersen. The following quote from The Guardian about the issue was produced: "while there's nothing wrong with fairy stories, they haven't contributed much to the development of electric motors."

I couldn't resist it. Put "Discuss" on the end and it's practically an HPS (history and philosophy of science) essay. (I won't answer it in essay form, because I haven't got the time to plan out a nice long essay right now, but I will damn well be discussing it)

"While there's nothing wrong with fairy stories, they haven't contributed much to the development of electric motors." Discuss.

My main problem with this statement is that it seems to see science (and technological development, which I am lumping in the same field here) as an isolated process, remote and aloof from the rest of human life and development. Science, according to the guardian, progresses by scientific-minded people doing scientifically relating things and coming up with greater and better ways of achieving useful things, such as the electric motor. These scientists would be important and serious men (well...lets face it they probably were thinking of men) working away through detailed experimentation on serious topics, a far distance away from the whimsical and childish world of little stories.

Scientists, whatever Hollywood tries to insist, are people too. They grow up as children, hearing the same stories and tales and getting the same cultural and emotional baggage from the society around them. And science itself develops within that society, affected by it, changed by it and to a certain extent controlled by it as well. Ørsted grew up listening to the same kind of stories as Anderson, the only difference was that he didn't write them down.

In fact Hans Christian Andersen and fairy stories is a particularly bad example of things-that-do-not-affect-science, because Anderson wasn't just making these stories up. He was taking stories that were already being told. Folk-tales rather than fairy-tales, and folk-tales are crucial to human development. In a way, they are cultural development, especially in small communities where not very much writing occurs. They're how you teach your children, how you pass messages across, how you define what is acceptable and what isn't. How, in fact, you lay down the very rules and laws by which your society develops by, rules from which science is not exempt.

A few hundred years ago we had the Magician's Apprentice, adapted from a fairy-tale that makes it clear what happens if you mess with things you don't understand. The Victorian era brought forth the gothic novel Frankenstein, with a fairly similar message (among others). And now, in England, people protest against GM crops, for pretty much the same reason. I'm pretty sure there was at least one headline with the words "Frankenstein Fruit" in it. People have the stories in their heads, and stories are very powerful things to get rid of.

They told me when I was writing up my presentation for my project "make it a story". People understand stories, they understand things through stories. They develop, change, and form cultures, mostly based around stories. And science cannot be separated from the culture that surrounds it. Nor can it even remain strictly "scientific". Kekulé 'discovered' the ring structure of benzene after falling asleep and dreaming about a snake eating it's own tail. Science progresses through humans and humans progress through stories.

And, well, there's a reason the 'geeky-scientist' exists as a stereotype. We *like* fantasy, and science fiction, and other stories of other worlds. If you bring a child up telling them stories of fantastic places, and then bring them up slightly further by showing them the inside of a cell, they'll be hooked. It's a magical place, with magical rules, where everything moves and acts differently and, best of all, it really exists and you can get paid for exploring it.

On the face of it science may seem a long way from 'The Princess and the Pea' (although maybe not too far away from 'The Emperor's New Clothes'...) But these are the stories that western scientists and western science have grown up on, taking them, using them, being influenced by them. Without the stories, without the cultural background and development, the electric motor would have been a lot longer in arriving, and the rest of science would have been far, far slower. You cannot separate development into "that achieved by surrounding culture" and "that achieved by scientific and technological development", they're all far too tangled up in each other for that too be possible.

[There's even a book about physics and philosophy called 'The Emperor's New Mind'. You can't take the stories out of people.]


Anonymous said...

I completely agree. The same curiosity and imagination that drives us to invent fantastical tales drives us to dream of the impossible and ways to make it real. As with your project presentation, we teach science through stories that are more or less fictional; similes and allegories establish a framework to which people can then plug in the details.

I don't think you could be an actual scientist and make such a gross mistake as that starting statement. Fairy tales ARE research and development.

Anonymous said...

Yeah beautiful analogies! I think the term 'fairy tale' has an unfortunate definition in popular culture as being 'whimsical'. But it doesn't take much to see the parallels between the points made in fairy tales and the real world! I will keep reading your blog!