Science beats fiction. Again.

Over at The American Scholar, William Deresiewicz is angry at science for getting a few things right. Most of his piece is a screed against the supposed sin or cult of scientism, wherein people supposedly think that science is the only source of knowledge. I don’t know in fact if that many people suffer from  scientism or whether there is in fact a distrust of science and a corresponding  surge of confidence in alternative medicine, Biblical fundamentalism, New Age spirituality, and Oprah brand feelgoodism.

And even if people do trust the pronouncements of scientists more than, say, literary theorists, theologians or bar room pundits, that might just be because science, for all its follies and omissions, has been spectacularly successful at some enterprises highly valued by most people: science takes us to the moon, underpins our electronic devices, cures our diseases, preserves our food and so on. In these and many other areas of human interest, it simply has no competitors worthy of the name. So mild scientism might not be so bad after all.

But Deresiewicz slips in this nugget about some recent neuroscientific findings of the effects of literature on the human brain:

Me, I thought, Here we go again. Reading fiction increases our ability to empathize with others? Did we really need science to tell us that? Apparently, we need science to tell us everything. I remember a big story in Time magazine about 20 years ago: scientists show that urban life is stressful. Really, scientists show? Writers showed us that 150 years ago and more. Balzac, Dickens, Gaskell, Zola. But that’s not good enough, at least for Time.

Well, if novelists can show us stuff, then who needs these bombastic scientists who arrive late to the party anyway? Deresiewicz’s resentment of the lab coat crowd couldn’t  be more obvious. and perhaps forgiveable. After all, inter-disciplinary rivalries are commonplace in academia

Deresiewicz’s blunder, however, goes deeper than this.  I think he conflates two very different senses of “show”:

show(1): to prove or demonstrate something to be true by offering convincing evidence.

show(2): to present a captivating narrative about a real or imagined experience.

Science typically shows(1). You can show(1) that HIV causes AIDS, that the temperature is below zero, that two samples of DNA are identical. But often show(1) involves laborious efforts to acquire the data.

But fiction can only show(2) some aspect of human experience. Thus, you can show(2) that Danish princes will be driven to madness as they avenge the death of their fathers, that London urchins can retain their saintly virtue in appalling conditions, that female white plantation owners were the real victims of the US Civil War (but they never gave up hope!), that hobbits are more trustworthy than gollums, and so on. This too may involve hard work but for a very different sort of reason: it’s the story, not the evidence, that is at stake.

But don’t ever think you’re doing show(1) in these cases. Because, obviously, hobbits don’t exist so it’s impossible to prove anything at all about their psychology.

The fact that Balzac and Dickens may have stumbled on truths about urban life before the social scientists is hardly to the point. This doesn’t give them priority. Consider as an example the nature of physical matter. Now either matter is infinitely divisible (cutting up gold will always give you smaller pieces of gold) or it’s not, in which case, some version of atomism is true. Democritus (5th c BCE) opted for the latter. But it’s incoherent to say that he showed(1) that it was true. That wasn’t possible until the nineteenth century. All Democritus could do was show(2). After all, one of the hypotheses had to be true, and it could as easily be settled by a coin toss in the absence of compelling evidence.

I don’t think this shortcoming is rare. Too many people – not all of them English majors – confuse a compelling story for actual evidence about the way things really are or were or an insight into human psychology. But this resonance is more frequently caused by striking our emotional chords: I don’t think our sense of compelling evidence is so responsive. That’s why it needs to be trained.

Anyway, all this is by way of a preamble to a forthcoming review of Terry Eagleton’s book on evil, so watch this space.

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1 Comment

  1. A breath of fresh air in the midst of the US political season! Science has no competitors, but we still must listen to conspiracy theorists and other storytellers.

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