Thursday, August 4, 2011

Reinforcement from H. Allen Orr

It was comforting to see H. Allen Orr take on the pretentions to scientific thinking in David Brooks’ latest book, The Social Animal:  The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.  After all, in June of 2010, I had accused Brooks of being “occupied with cherry-picking take-away one-liners;”  so I really did not expect that his book would offer anything of substance.  Orr, on the other hand, is always informative and fun to read.  I decided that, even if I had my own reasons for ignoring Brooks’ book as a waste of time, I might still find a useful take-away or two in Orr’s review.

That take-away came sooner than I anticipated.  It was in the opening sentences:

Science has a lot of uses.  It can uncover laws of nature, cure disease, inspire awe, make bombs, and help bridges to stand up.  Indeed science is so good at what it does that there’s a perpetual temptation to drag it into problems where it may add little or even distract from the real issues.

I would like to think that this was a polite way of suggesting that Brooks would not know a real issue if it took a serious bite out of his tush;  but, when one writes for The New York Review (where the quoted sentences appeared), one needs a higher standard of civility than the norms of the blogosphere.

Nevertheless, Orr wastes little time in homing in on just how misguided Brooks’ efforts in this book are.  Furthermore, he makes his case with Brooks’ own words:

The French Enlightenment, which emphasized reason, loses;  the British Enlightenment, which emphasized sentiments, wins.

If this is how Brooks thinks about science, then it may be indicative of more than his own muddled perspective.  Science, after all, is now about winning or losing.  It is about formulating hypotheses and then testing them under controlled experimental conditions.  If a hypothesis is not consistent with the experimental results, it is not a “loser.”  The experiment provides new data that may inform us about the formulation of the hypothesis, the conditions of the experiment, or both.

That, of course, is “science in theory.”  The practice of science is another matter;  and, in the setting of how science has been practiced in this country for at least half a century, there is at least one domain in which there are winners and losers.  That is the domain of competing for the necessary funds without which “science in theory” cannot be practiced.  One wonders what the Enlightenment would have been like had “the republic of letters” been displaced by “the marketplace of ideas.”  Can you imagine Hume and Rousseau both having to go up against a Defense Department project manager, each armed with a massive PowerPoint presentation?  Rousseau would probably have retreated to writing more potboiler fiction, and Hume would probably never have left that merchant’s office in Bristol.

Come to think of it, The Social Animal happens to be structured as a fictional narrative, although I think that Orr is overly generous in comparing it to Rousseau’s Émile.

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