The critically acclaimed novelist and writer Siri Hustvedt understands science. She has written about it frequently, and in 2010, she published a memoir of her search for a cure for an unusual seizure disorder. So it comes as a surprise and a disappointment that she needlessly complicates a discussion of science and fiction in a review of Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks in the Dec. 30 New York Times Book Review.
In an email interview for the book review's Up Front section, she writes:
The third-person or "objective," static, reductive models used in most science are important and yield significant results, but they have their limitations. Even when they employ scrupulous methods, scientists do not escape their own minds.
She continues, arguing that "our great cultural error is to assume that 'truth' arrives only through reductive theories." The novel "delivers 'truths' of its own."
I doubt that many thoughtful readers would disagree with that. I don't think we've made that great cultural error. And I don't know what it means to say that scientists do not escape their own minds. But whatever it means, novelists don't do it either. How does this clarify the distinction between reductionism and narrative?
In the review of the Sacks book, she begins by noting that Sacks produces an unusual kind of medical literature:
His detailed explications of a single patient’s symptoms, his emphasis on the subjective experience of illness, his willingness to share stories from his own life and his references to medical texts from earlier centuries are not only atypical of how most neurologists work today, they defy the status quo.
There is a reason why most neurologists don't work that way, and it's not because they are blinkered by reductionist thinking. They are not producing literature; they are treating patients who do not want to hear about their neurologist's life, nor do they want their neurologist to draw on textbooks from earlier centuries. Patients want treatment that will make them better. The comparison between Sacks and "most neurologists" does not say anything about the difference between science and fiction. Most neurologists are not gifted writers; Sacks is.
I agree with Hustvedt to a point. Shakespeare displayed a brilliant understanding of human character that science cannot confirm with its reductionist approach. But there is no conflict here, no cultural error. We can learn from Sacks, we can learn from Shakespeare, and we can learn from neurologists. We shouldn't ask writers to practice neurology, nor should we expect neurologists to produce great literature. They are doing different jobs.