Narrative is increasingly promoted for improving science communication and thus combatting misinformation and facilitating fact-based education and policy (Dahlstrom 2014; ElShafie 2018). This instrumental use of narrative is laudable, but current approaches tend to be reductive and therefore potentially counterproductive. Most proponents of narrative science view narrative as a mere formula, often derived from entertainment (Luna 2013; Olson 2015; Loverd et al. 2018). Sceptics rightly worry that using narrative formats in this way oversimplifies and distorts scientific information. Given the social, medical, and environmental urgency of effective and accurate scientific communication, the shortcomings and promise of narrativizing science represent a limit-case for the applicability and scope of narrative theory and practice.
In the context of narrative science, this essay begins by examining two valences of the term “limits of narrative.” First, it criticizes the current project of narrativizing science for failing to recognize narrative’s limited capacity to handle complex scientific models and phenomena, which H. Porter Abbott has upheld as exemplary cases of the “unnarratable” (2008: 227). The second valence of “limits” emerges as a response to the first. Although scientific information often eludes narrativity, what is unnarratable now may become narratable tomorrow. As Robyn Warhol suggests, attempts to render the unnarratable can create newly narratable ground, which she calls “neonarrative” (2005: 221). That is, new narrative forms arise at the limits of the narratable. This is a territory where scientists, like experimental novelists, struggle to express new, counterintuitive models, theories or results. What biologist Lewis Wolpert calls “the unnatural nature of science” (1998)—its resistance to commonsense notions of causality and ontology—could just as well be called the unnarratable nature of science.
The essay argues that an effective use of narrative in science would need to accept the limits of narrative, probing for neonarrative footholds at those limits; those neonarrative forms would likely be challenge or violate the narrative templates audiences bring to texts of various kinds. By way of illustration, the article analyzes willfully artificial elements in diagrams depicting coevolution between pollinators and plants (Nilsson 1988; Pauw et al. 2009), a narrative whose agents and events are relative statistical values rather than discrete entities. By foregrounding the “synthetic aspect” of their characters (Phelan 1989), these diagrams showcase how scientific texts use the communicative efficacy of narrative without sacrificing accuracy or complexity.
February 2022: Daniel Aureliano Newman is Assistant Professor (Teaching Stream) at the University of Toronto. Holding a PhD in literature and a Master’s of Science in Evolutionary Ecology, he is the author of Modernist Life Histories: Biological Theory and the Experimental Bildungsroman (Edinburgh UP, 2019) and of several essays in journals including Style, Journal of Narrative Theory, Frontiers of Narrative Studies, American Journal of Botany, and Configurations.