Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Back to the Beginning

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A hundred or so posts ago now, I started this blog by saying that I wanted to talk about a number of things–including harpsichords, which I haven’t gotten around to yet–and that one of them would the tendency of too many people in too many places to assume that “science” is the only posible valid mode of inquiry into anything. 

When Robert sent me an e-mail over night headed “the limits of fiction,” my first impulse was to let it ride and send him a private answer, but then John chimed in with puzzlement about the state of social “science,” and it occurred to me that this might be the place both for the e-mail and the reply.

What Robert said was:


As with you, I feel as though I’m making an easy point poorly.
Let’s try the other way. As a paleoconservative/libertarian, I’m not much impressed by interventionist constitution-stretching government. Could it be that I’m mistaken? That it’s more necessary and useful and less harmful corrupt and corrupting than I asess it to be? Maybe. Will THE WEST WING ever convince me of this? Not a chance.
MASH was dedicated to the proposition that the Korean War was stupid and unnecessary, and that every aggressive line officer was a butcher and everyone right of Harold Stassen an idiot.. Chinese communists, on the other hand, were pretty decent understanding fellows. It failed to convince me–though it did convince me to watch less TV.
Sitting on the Bookcase in Exile is Andrew Greeley’s PATIENCE OF A SAINT. It concerns a man who has a sudden deep religious experience, and turns his life around. He moderates his drinking, becomes faithful to his wife, concerned for his co-workers and interested in his children’s lives. They think he’s having a nervous breakdown, and have him institutionalized. The book stays on the shelves because, by and large, everyone is behaving as I understand people to behave. He also bangs the drums for Bill Clinton as a generally wonderful fellow, and for Chicago for being no more and arguably less corrupt than other major cities. This cuts no ice whatever.
When Snakehead Carville pointed out that at the end of the Clinton administration every division Clinton hadn’t disbanded was at REDCON 1, he had an actual fact in Clinton’s favor. Admitedly it was only one, but that outweighs EVERY piece of fiction on the subject.
My impression of thieves is “lazy, self-centered and (mostly) not very birght.”  Fiction showing them differently, be it OCEAN’S 11 or the BURGLAR WHO series, gets rated as bad fantasy, and mostly doesn’t stay around. If I’m wrong about thieves, the way to convince me is to demonstrate that they work more than 40 hours a week, do volunteer work and score above average on IQ tests. A thief in a novel is not evidence.
But if I AM wrong, then of course I’m sorting for fiction mistaken in the same way–which is my point.
One of my colleagues keeps up a panel from a Dilbert cartoon. Pointyhair is explaining that “Your research disagrees with my intuition.”  The danger of fiction is that we use that intuition to sort and validate it.<<<
What I replied was:
>>>Yes, but completely beside the point.

       None of the things you mentioned has anything to do with what fiction is good for–with what fiction is the ONLY source we have for.

       I’m not talking about “convincing” you of whether the general run of thief is stupid or smart, or if the Korean war was a good or bad thing, or if you should want a “living” or a “static” constitution.

       I’m talking about understanding HOW INDIVIDUAL PEOPLE THINK AND FEEL.

       And you can’t get this from either history or biography–they will tell you what people DO, but not HOW they think and feel.

       And you really can’t get this from the social “sciences,” which are not “sciences,” but ideologies.

       (History, by the way, has traditionally been classified as one of the humanities.)

       But the three social sciences that purpot to tell you how people think and feel are not only not sciences, and not only don’t provide you with facts, but are both outrightly ideological and almost limitlessly destructive.

       The one part of psychology that can be classified as science at all–the genetic and materialist wing, which says things like “when you make the decision to go to the store your postfurtive neurons fire into action one tenth of a second before your machbelarouse neurons do” and “the religious impulse was evolutionarily selected because it provides these benefits to survival”–tells me only one thing that matters about human beings, and it’s the one thing that the rest of psychology simply refuses to accept.

       That is that a lot of our behavior is “hard wired,” and therefore not perfectable.

       The rest of psychology, like sociology and anthropology, declares that this finding is just “fascism” and “racism” and proceeds to ignore it, while producing “data” “proving” that compulsive shopping is an “addiction,” getting sad when the weather is lousy is a “disorder” and ten year old boys who can’t sit still in class need a powerful amphetamine to “treat” their “disorder” because there MUST be a biochemical abnormality to explain their behavior, even though nobody can actually find one.

       Look at that last one.  It should be cut and dried, in “science.”  No data to show a biochemical abnormality, no biochemical explanation for the abnormality–but in spite of the fact that test after test after test, study after study after study, has found no corroboration for a biochemical basis for ADHD, we go on prescribing Ritalin by the bucketful to children.

       Anthropology gave us Margaret Mead and the happy sexy Samaons, and it goes on feeding them to undergraduates as “data” and “fact” twenty years after the “data” were proved to be fraud.  Sociology is so politicized that it’s difficult to know what the “data” is supposed to consist of, but I’ll absolutely guarantee you that it will find that “inequality of economic condition” is bad for us and state-centralized social welfare is good for us, and do it again and again and again even when the ACTUAL data contradicts it on every point.

       Hell, Charles Murray wrote Losing Ground over twenty years ago–it might be closer to thirty now–and he had enough data to bury the idea that the Great Society programs had ever helped much of anybody, but not only has Sociology not accepted this data, it has ignored it while attacking Murray himself as politically beyond the pale.  When The Bell Curve came out, the profession simply labelled Murray a racist and felt free to ignore him.

       Sorry, Robert.  It’s these things that are truly limited, not fiction.

       I like history and biography just fine–but they won’t tell me HOW people think and feel.
       And yes, there is always the danger that somebody writes so well he presents as plausible a kind of thinking or feeling that isn’t true, or that somebody is so mired in his prejudices that he only hear what he wants to hear.

       But as the above will show you, that happens in the social “sciences,” too.  It doesn’t change the fact that fiction (well, the imaginative arts generally, but that’s another story) is still the ONLY place we can go to learn how people think and feel.

       There isn’t another option at the moment, and I think it’s possible that there never will be. 

       Not everything can be investigated by the methods of biology and physics. 

       But those things that cannot be investigated that way are still things we need to know.  In fact, we need to know them far more urgently than we need to know whether the universe is steady state or imploding.

And to answer John’s question–I think that the reason the social sciences are n ot self-correcting in the way that the natural sciences are is that they are not, in fact, sciences.  They’re an attempt to do what the humanities do–to understand the way people think and feel, and the realities of human nature–without the structure, and the brakes, of traditional humanistic study.
Imaginative literature can certainly propose narratives that are factually false in the real world, things that are not the truth even if they didn’t happen, and these narratives can have enormous repercussions in society at large if that society takes them up as true.  But the point of the canon–the point of acquainting students not with some little bit of literature here and another there and a painting or two plus a round of the Emperor’s Concerto, but with a systematic overview of the arts as they have existed throughout time, is to provide a framework for narratives that pits the accumulated experience of being human against any one particular take on it.
And, as I said, the danger of making a mistake here doesn’t relieve us of the necessity of accepting that we can find this information nowhere else and in no other form, and that this information is vitally important to us.
Lymare says that children need to be taught to work hard, and I agree, but my main concern in the last post was not that they hadn’t learned that, but that the therapeutic society had convinced them that  IF the work they were doing was onerous to them, then they must have some kind of “disorder,” that NORMAL people did not find chores and other work a burden. 
That is, as I said, a mistake literature would not make–Shakespeare knew better, Henry  James knew better, even Agatha  Christie knew better. 
We are doing an enormous amount of damage here, in insisting that “science” can tell us all we need to know about ourselves. 

Written by janeh

January 19th, 2009 at 6:14 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Back to the Beginning'

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  1. As I said in my last post, I think that the social sciences are extremely immature. Some of them do provide some useful insights – for example, in digging up evidence that there sometimes actually is a biochemical reason for mental illness – and the biochemicals in question aren’t from the womb.

    Yes, they’re often very politicized and their practitioners often go way, way beyond their data. And in spite of having studied the basics of research methodology, I suspect that although many of the qualitative methods can, as claimed, provide broader truth that quantitative ones, they are all too often subject to all kinds of personal biases in interpretation – and difficulties in presenting enough information for the readers to check what has been done. And let’s not get into action research.


    19 Jan 09 at 7:23 am

  2. Jane wrote ” I like history and biography just fine–but they won’t tell me HOW people think and feel.

    And yes, there is always the danger that somebody writes so well he presents as plausible a kind of thinking or feeling that isn’t true, or that somebody is so mired in his prejudices that he only hear what he wants to hear. ”

    I want to expand that. Consider medieval Europe. Frances and Joesph Gies are historians who have written some well researched books with titles such as “Life in a Medieval Village”, “Life in a Medieval Ciry” or “Life in a Medieval Castle”. They are full of facts and statistics.

    Ellis Peters wrote the Cadfael series of detective novels featuring Brother Cadfael who is a monk in a Medieval monastery. They are fiction but her background details are consistent with the books by the Gies. I don’t read them for facts about medieval life, but I think they give me a feel for what it was like to live in a time when everyone believed in God, a minor cut could cause infection that would kill, and isolated farms could be attacked by brigands,

    The Gies books bring me facts, the Brother Cadfiel books bring me an emotional feel for the times.


    19 Jan 09 at 6:45 pm

  3. Hmmm. Bad fiction writers shouldn’t put you off fiction, It should put you off reading fiction by bad writers. Perhaps the same should be true for non-fiction?
    Nor is literature the only tool we have. When you were describing passivity, you didn’t go the Dostoyevsky, but to Dalrymple–and rightly so: he’s an acute observer. And I would have to say that the late C. Northcote Parkinson has generally been more helpful to me in understanding the workings of my fellow man than ANYTHING I was flogged through by way of Literature.
    Also remember that while we’re talking about “how individuals think” all fiction tells us directly is how Oblamov or Hester Prynne think, and they’re invented characters. I think by “insight” we mean something more general–how types of people think, whether passive students or murderers or saints. And while the novelist can guess at an answer, surely there is a place for the honest and acute non-fiction observer, who notes common clusterings or sequencees of conditions or behaviors.
    But to get back to where I was some posts back. Yes, certainly read for insight into the human condition. Just keep in mind the limitations of the method, and the inherent risk of reinforcing mistakes.

    This brings us back around to the Literary Canon–what’s in it, and who gets to decide–but I am NOT starting that one back up this evening. My hands hurt. I’m going to go put some Tiger Balm on them and call it a night.


    19 Jan 09 at 6:55 pm

  4. Michael.Fisher

    19 Jan 09 at 9:59 pm

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