Weyerhaeuser Young Scholar Diana Cater (’13) On Story and Science

Diana Cater (’13) is a senior, majoring in Biology and English, and hails from the wilds of the Willamette Valley, Oregon. This year, she has been doing independent research as a Weyerhaeuser Young Scholar on Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On, and her paper has been accepted at the Northwest Undergraduate Conference on Literature (NUCL) and the St. Francis Literature Conference. After graduation, she isn’t sure if she wants to do science or write about it, but will likely find some sort of hybrid of the two. What she really aspires for is a pantry large enough to contain and organize the twelve-odd types of flour currently housed in a plastic bag on the floor of her broom closet.

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I’ve always been captivated by science. By age five, I was wearing out tape recordings of National Geographic specials, had a detailed understanding of poisonous rainforest snakes, and was wiping out vast populations of My Little Ponies with unremitting waves of cholera. Science stories enthralled me—in fact I credit fast-paced, nonfiction science narratives with giving me a love of reading in the first place, even though they’re unfailingly hokey. The scientists in the books I had read were as dogged as detectives, and I, the reader, had complete confidence and trust in their conclusions.

But when I tried my own hand at science, I found a completely different story. The unfailing confidence of SCIENCE! disappeared. I doubted everything, not because I didn’t trust myself (well, maybe a little), but because there were so many things that could go wrong, so many variables that couldn’t be accounted for, or that I didn’t even think of. And I found this to be true not only for me, but for professional scientists I spoke to about their own research. They qualified all concluding statements with clauses like “most likely” or “it’s reasonable to assume.”

What happens when we transform the slow, painstaking, and speculative practices of science into plot-driven narratives? Do we lose something essential? Or are we just highlighting the best parts of reality?

This is what I wanted to answer through my research in two ways: first, by understanding the typical patterns and themes inherent in nonfiction science narratives, and second, by examining a text that undermined those patterns. I chose Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On, a thorough, 600-page nonfiction account of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Here, the confident scientist-hero disappears. Instead, Shilts’ book is inundated with fear, greed, and, most importantly, doubt. The book doesn’t follow a plotline; it follows a timeline. It doesn’t focus on a central character; it drifts from the perspectives of over 30 witnesses. It is not fun to read; it is more often painful and enraging. But I came to the conclusion that it is the narrative itself that creates confidence, not science. Narratives promise to answer the questions they raise. By stripping science of its story, Shilts sends the message that closure is never guaranteed.

That sounds like a bit of a downer, but as someone who hopes to write about science in the future, I am grateful to realize the power narrative has to sculpt our perceptions of what is certain. Science stories need to be told—even the hokey, plot-driven ones—because they make scientific knowledge interesting and accessible to just about anyone. Narrative is a beautiful equalizer. But especially when it comes to nonfiction, I think there’s value in remembering that science is not perfect, and providing a little room for doubt.

At least, it’s reasonable to assume.

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