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3Jan 2013

NY Times Book Review: A flawed notion of science.

Siri Hustvedt

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.

-Paul Raeburn



I think that Hustvedt's commentary reflects more the novelist's penchant for turning a phrase than a "flawed notion of science."  

1. In her reference to scientists not "[escaping] their own minds," Hustvedt means that scientists have biases, too, even if they fein objectivity by speaking scientifically in the 3rd person. As a scientist myself, I certainly don't disagree.

2.  The reference to his sharing stories is about IN THE BOOK, WITH HIS READERS, not with his patients!  C'mon!

3. Hustvedt recognizes, as many of us in neuroscience have, that Sacks makes a significant contribution to our science when he focuses on understanding the behavioral/cognitive manifestations of neurological dysfunction. Others -- perhaps most neurologists-- can focus reductively on the biological underpinnings, but there is much to be learned from observing what the patient does and says. That would be true even if Sacks were not such a gifted writer, so I am in agreement with Paul that this does not place science and fiction in conflict.  We can and should learn from both.

This is pretty simply exposed as dishonest -- how many novelists, philosophers, etc give medical care, design bridges or fly airplanes?

your kid is sick, do you want your doctor to be knowledgeable about Shakespeare of the latest peer-reviewed evidence? duh...

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