Scientific storytelling

It’s said that every social scientist must, at some point, write a sentence that begins: “Man is the only animal that _____.” Some popular completions of the sentence have been: uses tools, uses language, laughs, contemplates death, commits atrocities. In his new book Jonathan Gottschall offers another variation on the theme: storytelling is the defining human trait. For better and worse we are wired for narrative. A powerful story that captures our attention can help us make sense of the world. Or it can lead us astray.

A story we’ve been told about Easter Island goes like this. The inhabitants cut down all the trees in order to roll the island’s iconic 70-ton statues to their resting places. The ecosystem crashed, and they died off. This story is told most notably by Jared Diamond in Collapse and (earlier) in this 1995 Discover Magazine article:

In just a few centuries, the people of Easter Island wiped out their forest, drove their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their complex society spiral into chaos and cannibalism.

As we try to imagine the decline of Easter’s civilization, we ask ourselves, “Why didn’t they look around, realize what they were doing, and stop before it was too late? What were they thinking when they cut down the last palm tree?”

This is a cautionary tale of reckless ecocide. But according to recent work by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, Jared Diamond got the story completely wrong. A new and very different story emerged from their study of the archeological record. Here are some of the points of contrast:

old story new story
Collapse resulted from the islanders’ reckless destruction of their environment (ecocide). Collapse resulted from European-borne diseases and European-inflicted slave trading (genocide).
The trees were cut down to move the statues. Trees weren’t used to move the statues. They were ingeniously designed to be walked along in a rocking motion using only ropes. The trees were destroyed mostly by rats. Which wasn’t a problem anyway because the islanders used the cleared land for agriculture.
Fallen and broken statues resulted from intertribal warfare. Fallen and broken statues resulted from earthquakes.
It must have taken a population of 25,000 or more to make and move all those statues. A population decline to around 4000 at the moment of European contact was evidence of massive collapse. The mode of locomotion for which the statues were designed is highly efficient. There’s no need to suppose a much larger work force than was known to exist.
The people of Easter Island were warlike. The people of Easter Island were peaceful. Because they had to be. Lacking hardwood trees for making new canoes, they were committed once the canoes that brought them were gone. There was no escape. And it’s a hard place to make a living. No fresh water, poor soil, meager fishing. To survive for the hundreds of years that they did, the society had to be “optimized for stability.”

Hunt and Lipo tell this new story in compelling Long Now talk. After the talk Stewart Brand asks how Jared Diamond has responded to their interpretation. Not well, apparently. Once we’re in the grip of a powerful narrative we don’t want to be released from it.

Hunt and Lipo didn’t go to Easter Island with a plan to overturn the old story. They went as scientists with open eyes and open minds, looked at all the evidence, realized it didn’t support the old story, and came up with a new one that better fits the facts. And it happens to be an uplifting one. These weren’t reckless destroyers of an ecosystem. They were careful stewards of limited resources whose artistic output reflects the ingenuity and collaboration that enabled them to survive as long as they did in that hard place.

We’re all invested in stories, and in the assumptions that flow from them. Check your assumptions. It’s a hard thing to do. But it can lead you to better stories.

Posted in .

5 thoughts on “Scientific storytelling

  1. This is why the freedom doubt and question is so important. As Richard Feynman put it, “Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.”

    We are working against our human nature that wants to cling tightly to what we “know” is true. We tell stories to understand our world but, sometimes they are wrong or are poor metaphors for what is going on so we have to adjust. Not an easy thing to do.

  2. I love this story of a story. It might get overwhelming to realize many of the bricks in our foundation of knowledge, ones we hear often enough to become ones we repeat, are open to crumbling.

    This was an aspect I was drawn to when I studied Geology- a field that had to re-write core field knowledge with the discoveries of continental drift.

    I’m not sure if you saw this Jon, but a year ago I went on a vain chase to track down the often reported but never documented assertion that humans process images 60,000 times faster than text:

    I’ve not picked it up, but if you have any ideas how to find this info from 3M I’d be game to chase again. The closest hunch is that there was some internal or sponsored research that one or more of their executives paraphrased in a presentation, and by repetition, it enters the lore of truthiness.

    1. Yeah, it seems tantalizingly easy to track such things down nowadays, and yet the source can often lie outside what the web can see clearly.

      A related intriguing question is, never mind what that elusive source said, how would you evaluate the 60x assertion given the web resources available to you?

      1. it would seem more than doable to build some testing scheme, use the web itself as laboratory.

        The question itself is ambiguous- is it pattern recognition? Is it understanding of meaning?

Leave a Reply