Thursday, July 12, 2007

SCIENCE AND LITERATURE

Doug Wilson, the writer from Idaho, has this to say about the glory of science. Well, a bit about its glory, and a bit more about the shortcomings when the pursuit of truth in scientific ventures takes a turn for the worse. He plays upon one of my pet peeves, the sanctimonious phrase that begins, "We now know..." . It smells of evolutionary pride. Wilson points out that when scientific research devolves into Bad Science, what is missing is....humility.

Elsewhere, Harvey Mansfield (in the very same article, How To Understand Politics, written about in today's earlier post), writes something very bizarre: he compares science, and....literature:

"Let me propose that literature and science have the same aim of finding and telling the truth; but, obviously, literature also seeks to entertain. Although some of the greatest works of science are well written, science finds its elegance in mathematics and not in the charm of a good story well told. The social sciences are in a special difficulty because they cover the same field of human behavior as literature. As sciences, they must claim to improve upon the prejudice and superstition of common sense and are therefore compelled to restate the language of common sense, full of implication and innuendo, in irreproachable, blameless scientific prose innocent of bias or any other subtlety...
"Literature, besides seeking truth, also seeks to entertain--and why is this? The reason is not so much that some people have a base talent for telling stories and cannot keep quiet. The reason, fundamentally, is that literature knows something that science does not: the human resistance to hearing the truth...To overcome the resistance to truth, literature makes use of fictions that are images of truth. To understand the fictions requires interpretation, an operation that literature welcomes and science hates for the same reason--interpreters disagree."

Can science, in other words, use metaphor to convey truth? Or is this solely the province of literature and the arts?

2 comments:

Theodore said...

Science is constantly using metaphors to DESCRIBE truth because people cannot see an atom, a germ, or the vastness of the universe. Good science writers use examples people know to describe the unseeable. "String theory" is a good example of a science metaphor. But it does not tell a story.
Perhaps one can say that evolution is a metaphor, a story line, to describe what scientists have found that seemed to challenge what the Bible states. After all, evolution is truly "science fiction."

Bruce Gee said...

Good examples! Actually, in Thomas Kuhn's book THE STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS, there is some hint that metaphors are used. Actually, they are called paradigms. A scientific paradigm can become so metaphorical as to suck the air out of real scientific research. In that case, not a good metaphor. And one that can outlive its usefulness. I'll hope the Book Club's SM will weigh in on this.