Last week I was immensely privileged to be a part of a Wellcome Trust initiative called IdeasLab. The idea was, quite literally, to chuck a bunch of filmmakers and a bunch of scientists into a room together with some coffee and muffins, to see what happens. I expect the bods at Wellcome did also have some more specific goals in mind – they are pioneers in understanding the interface between art and science, and in particular fund a lot of work which uses the popularity and accessibility of the arts to engage people with science. However in this case, we were blissfully ignorant of any higher purpose and the first day especially was an opportunity simply to share stories and swap ideas. I don’t know about the others in the room, but it left me feeling enriched and, as ever, grateful for my job which affords me such opportunities for what I tend to call “stroky beardy” meetings.
One of the great pleasures of the meeting was discovering the many overlaps between the career of a scientist and a filmmaker: the desperate eternal quest for funding; the projects derived from a personal passion which take years or decades to complete; the uncontrollable imperative to detect and expose patterns; the importance of narrative – constructing your professional identity and weaving your work into a story everyone can comprehend. I hope that spotting these overlaps – plotting, together, a map of shared territory – will give everyone who was lucky enough to be there an excellent foundation for making partnerships across the art/science divide in the future – even if not necessarily with each other.
But there was one aspect of overlap which didn’t occur to me at the time but has since been percolating (something we all agreed was a necessary part of the writing process, evidently whether you’re working on a screenplay or a journal article). For a long time there has existed a notion that all literature can be boiled down to one of seven basic plots. These are (with examples from among my children’s DVD library):
- Overcoming the Monster: The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force which threatens the protagonist and/or protagonist’s homeland. e.g. How to Train Your Dragon
- Rags to Riches: The poor protagonist acquires things such as power, wealth, and a mate, before losing it all and gaining it back upon growing as a person. e.g. Aladdin
- The Quest: The protagonist and some companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location, facing many obstacles and temptations along the way. e.g. Up
- Voyage and Return: The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to him/her, returns with nothing but experience. e.g. Finding Nemo
- Comedy: Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. e.g. Cinderella (though I found it quite hard to think of one for this so maybe this isn’t a good example…)
- Tragedy: The protagonist is a villain who falls from grace and whose death is a happy ending. e.g. Tangled
- Rebirth: The protagonist is a villain or otherwise unlikable character who redeems him/herself over the course of the story. e.g. Megamind
One of the writers at the event joked that his two previously-screened works for the screen were both versions of The Odyssey and that he planned to write four more. This reminded me strongly of the way in which scientists have a loyalty to a specific method and made me wonder, can we boil all scientific research down to seven basic experiments? Here’s my attempt, with classic or well-known examples:
- All about me: immersion in a group or phenomenon with exploration of the researcher’s own experiences and perspectives during that time. e.g. Harry Collins’ work studying the nature of scientific expertise
- All about you: detailed data collection from a single individual, or small collection of individuals. Although the data might be pooled together, the collection is very much about individual people. e.g. Hans Asperger’s original case studies which led to the diagnostic category of Asperger syndrome (translation available here); Jane Goodall’s observations of chimpanzees in the wild
- All about everyone: an attempt is made to pool information from multiple studies, providing a ‘definitive’ description of a phenomenon, species or group of people. e.g. recent comprehensive meta-analysis showing a clear benefit from prescription of statins to prevent heart disease
- Time after time: following the same people over time, charting how they change and develop. e.g. the Lothian Birth Cohort studies which trace the consequences of childhood IQ and various lifestyle factors on outcome in old age
- Manipulation: one or two identical groups, given something special to do. Charting the effects of the manipulation on resulting behaviour. e.g. (two groups) the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which half the participants were assigned the role of ‘guard’ and half were designated ‘prisoners’. Or (one group) the Stroop testwhich reveals slower processing of word meaning when meaning and visual features conflict (illustrated here).
- Us and them: two different groups given the same things to do. Charting the effects of the group difference on resulting behaviour. e.g. novel word reading by people with and without dyslexia – this classic finding revealed how one of the underlying problems in dyslexia, which is thought to contribute to most surface behaviours, is a difficulty matching a sound with a letter on the page.
- Fix you: a group is identified as well as a problem encountered by that group. The scientist provides a manipulation designed to fix the problem (sometimes for all of them, sometimes for half of them). e.g. any drug trial or intervention study, such as this ground-breaking trial of a behavioural intervention for young children with autism combined with AAC support
Just as in the case of the literary plots listed above, the Seven Classic Experiments can be combined and layered to create more complex designs. But I reckon these are the basic building blocks from which most (human) sciences are constructed. I wonder what you think? Have I missed out some important basic designs? Given my psychology background, I struggle to avoid thinking about the unit of analysis being essentially a person – groups are groups of people. So, do the same seven basic categories apply to studies of animals, amoebas, or planets? Are some experimental types more common to particular disciplines? Are some betterthan others? Let me know what you think, but for the time being, here’s perhaps another way to remind ourselves that the gulf between the arts and the sciences is not as difficult to bridge as may first appear to be the case.