Friday, June 6, 2008

Right-brained epiphanies, Part III: selling science to the masses

So strongly right-brained is modern-day American pop culture that even scientists--perhaps on the insistence of their publishers and publicists--are marketing their field as a predominantly right-brained enterprise.

This past week, we have Brian Greene, in his New York Times Op Ed, marginalizing the view of science as a logical, linear progression of technical problems like solving equations, balancing reactions, and "grasping the discrete parts of a cell." 

"[S]cience is so much more than its technical details," he argues. Indeed, such details are dispensable: "cutting-edge insights and discoveries can be clearly and faithfully communicated to students independent of [them]."

Greene recasts science as artistic, literary, emotional, and holistic, focusing on its "breathtaking vistas," its distinction as "the greatest of all adventure stories," its equivalence to a "language of hope and inspiration," and its capacity to "instill a sense of connection to our lives and our world" and transport us "out beyond the stars."

Then, in today's New York Times, we have a review of Sherwin Nuland's latest book on medicine, suggestively entitled The Uncertain Art, in which we see both author and reviewer zealously dismiss the reliance on technology and the scientific method, and recast medicine as an intuitive, humanistic "art" that extends beyond the logic of "Western" science.

Reviewer Barry Gewen touts Nuland as striving "to undermine smug certainties about modern science," with its "unreflective reliance on technology," and "restore the doctor-patient relationship, the touchy-feely human connection, to the center of medical practice:"

Doctors, he insists, have to be more than technicians. They should be, first of all, humanists, intuitionists, appreciative of each patient’s individuality and particular situation, practitioners of a quirky, unpredictable, uncertain art. True healers understand this. “To become comfortable with uncertainty,” Dr. Nuland writes, “is one of the primary goals in the training of a physician.”

Gewen is most taken with Nuland's discussion of miracles that "can't be explained by current scientific research and perhaps never will be:" acupuncture, electroshock therapy, and the placebo effect.  Here, muses Nuland:

Perhaps philosophies may be required beyond those that have been so successful since the scientific method became a major current of Western thought.

I doubt that any sane scientist, in the privacy of his or her lab, would abandon the scientific method just because there are things he or she doesn't yet understand, or dismiss technical details just because there are larger phenomena that emerge from them, or insist on dichotomies between details and wonder, technology and humanism, and uncertainty and the dogged search for answers. 

It's just that those who wish to sell science--or themselves--to the right-brained public seem to think it best to pretend otherwise.

No comments: