The real problem with Curtis White's The Science Delusion

So, here's a new writing nightmare. What do you do if, after your book is published, and the reviews start to come in, it slowly dawns on you that you've accidentally written the wrong book ... a book which you would not actually agree with?

That's how I felt after interviewing Curtis White, author of The Science Delusion — a book that has been widely reviewed as containing some good points, buried under a lot of angry rants and straw men. According to White, however, those reviews have all completely missed what he was trying to do and trying to say.

All the invective? White thought he was just being funny and satirical, like Jonathan Swift. The over-generalizing about what all scientists believe and what the culture of science is like? He thought it was clear that he just meant the subset of scientists who don't think there's any value other than entertainment in art, that philosophy is dead, and that culture has no affect on how we interpret science or what we do with it. The weird, pseudo-Deism? He thought he was explaining that science is part of culture, that the questions being asked and the way answers are interpreted are culturally bound and and we have to take that into account. The humanities triumphalism and points where he totally dismisses science and acts like he doesn't understand why somebody would find meaning in being curious about how the mind works? Not what he meant at all, apparently. He just wants to make the case for us needing both science and the humanities to properly understand the world. And White is deeply confused about why reviews of his book keep getting all of this wrong.

I recently had a chance to interview White — both live and in some email follow-up after the live event — and I've come to the conclusion that I can't properly review this book without including that information. There's just too big a gap, from my perspective, between how the book reads and what White wanted you to take away from it.

Reading The Science Delusion was an intensely frustrating experience for me. Much in the same way that reading some of the commentary written by White's least-favorite people, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, has always been frustrating for me. With all these authors, I see an undercurrent of an argument I'm happy to agree with. But that reasonable position is bogged down with layer upon layer of cheap jokes, "gotcha" quotes removed from their context, critiques of cultures and communities they clearly haven't taken the time to understand, caricatures, and the sort of comic rant style that looks very good on Lewis Black and fits sort of awkwardly (at best) on most other people. In this case, the result is a book that carries a message it clearly believes science needs to hear, but which is written in such a way as to nearly ensure that it will quickly alienate anybody who identifies with science as their community, their career, or their passion.

And that's a shame, because, as I say, White makes some good points in the book and he makes those points somewhat better when he's just talking to you.

For instance, nearly half the book is dedicated to a critique of pop-culture, self-help neuroscience — the sort of stuff that is the once and future bread-and-butter of Jonah Lehrer. It is absolutely ridiculous, as White says, to look at an fMRI scan and declare that we are seeing a thought, let alone an emotion. It is problematic when we extrapolate the findings of fMRI studies to suggest that they can help fix your marriage, give you a leg up in business, or really do much at all beyond supplying a rudimentary understanding of what happens in certain parts of the brain in response to certain stimuli. We are learning the basics of brain function here, not discovering the secrets that will help you make yourself more creative. (Unfortunately, in the book, much of White's argument against this hinges on framing pop-neurobollocks as a problem created by and supported by scientists, and a problem that very few people have spoken out about. Neither of which is true. If you want to read more about why this type of neuroscience is wrong and how it distorts our understanding of ourselves, I'd recommend reading Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience , instead. Or just spend some quality time with The Neurobollocks blog.)

White also has something important to say about the way cultural context influences science. Science is a tool for understanding the world. But while that tool can produce very good data, it can't really tell us exactly what we should do with that data, or how we should think about it. More importantly, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that culture helps decide which questions about the world we investigate, to begin with.

Culture explains why anthropology was once a field pretty much dedicated to proving the superiority of white, Western colonial powers over their brown subjects. The societal context shaped the questions those early anthropologists were asking, it shaped how they chose to study the world, and it shaped how they chose to interpret the data they came back with. The fact that, by the time I got to anthropology school in 1999, the field had been drastically realigned as a challenge to its former self also says something about the influence of culture and the importance of questioning ourselves and our values in ways that are not purely scientific.

Another example: There's not technically any reason, from a simplified rational perspective, why it should bother a woman to be invited back to a man's room late at night while the two are riding alone in a hotel elevator. But if you take into account the metric crap-ton of cultural context and subjective experience at play, that same scenario becomes something entirely different and more threatening. One of Richard Dawkins' biggest problems (as far as I have seen) is his tendency to look at situations like this and refuse to see the cultural context.

That's not to say most people aren't aware of the way culture influences science (and vice versa). But it is something we could stand to have more conversations about. Ultimately, that's what made The Science Delusion disappointing for me. It feels like a wasted opportunity. Wasted, in that White's book seemed more concerned with scorning scientists and painting a picture of science as a would-be philosophy for cheerfully bourgeois, materialistic robots (and the people who aspire to be them) than with actually engaging anybody in a conversation about why we can't ignore the cultural context that science floats in.

Even more disappointingly, that was kind of White's intention.

Not that he was actually trying to say "Science sucks!" (although, the book does come across as saying that), but that he was specifically not trying to communicate with the scientific community or science fans. He was, instead, intending to really only talk to other people outside the sciences who already share his frustrations with the place science holds in our popular culture and who think that comes at the expense of the humanities. If you read the book and don't like it, chances are good that you weren't intended to read it, anyway. Despite the equally strong chance that the book was about you and things you feel strongly about.

And that brings me to the more interactive portion of this book review. I interviewed Curtis White on June 12, in a live event at Minneapolis' Magers & Quinn Bookstore. It was a great chat. Not at all what I expected from just having read the book. And it revealed White as somebody who does love science, who isn't particularly angry, and who could actually make me think past the tone of his book to talk about the stuff that needed talking about. You can listen to the whole thing via Soundcloud. (Quick note: There was an audience Q&A session that I cut out of this recording, on account of the fact that my microphone didn't pick up any of the questions, making White's answers kind of confusing, to say the least.)

After that interview, I sent White a few more questions via email, trying to better understand the apparent disconnect between the style of The Science Delusion (and its' apparent message) and the style of White's speaking presence (and his apparent message). You can read that exchange below.

Maggie Koerth-Baker: When we were talking before the interview, you mentioned that you don't really write your essays to convince anyone of anything, that you're instead writing to provide aid and comfort to people who already agree with you. Why do you think that's useful/important? How do you think it affects the way you write?

Curtis White: Writing to change your opponent’s position is a mostly hopeless task. I have written for Harper’s. Does anyone read that magazine who is not already convinced by its left/liberal point of view? Not many. Culture War is a permanent state of affairs. (Some neuroscientists have actually suggested that this is so because the liberal and conservative brains are structurally different!) I try to show those who are skeptical of radical materialism and mechanism and technophilia why they feel that way. Romanticism is not dead, it’s not even the past. Contemporary art countercultures, just like the counterculture of the ‘60s, are part of the living spirit of that epochal moment in Western history that we call Romanticism. But do the mostly young people who vote with their feet and move to Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, New York understand this old connection? It wouldn’t seem so. I try to aid in their self-understanding.

MKB: When we spoke, you talked about being really surprised by the response you're getting from critics. In particular, you said that you didn't mean to write an angry book, but a satirical one. And you also said that you meant to critique specific people in the sciences, rather than critiquing science and scientists in a more generalized way. I'm curious, now that you've had more time to think about it, what you think went wrong here. Honestly, as a writer, the idea of having accidentally written a book I didn't mean to write seems like a kind of nightmare, and I'm curious about how you're processing these reviews now and thinking about your own writing.

CW: I hope you won’t be entirely surprised if I say that I don’t think anything went wrong. The Science Delusion is much like my earlier work, especially The Middle Mind. One person’s “angry screed” is another person’s “passionate defense.” My native audience tends to be among artists, lefty intellectuals, humanists, and other species of the socially dispossessed. This particular book has generated a broader audience, much of which is sensitive to criticism of the sciences. I just received a review by Mark Kingwell, a Canadian philosopher, for the Globe and Mail. It’s a sympathetic review although he complains of the “bad jokes.” (At least he noticed there were jokes!) But the on-line comments about his review hacked him to pieces in the name of the superiority of the scientific worldview. Utter disdain. Baseless contempt. I have to say, the comments made me feel a little better about some of the treatment I’ve received.

MKB: I was really surprised that you came into this not very aware of the popular science writing being done by scientists and journalists online. To me, that makes up a huge part of the representation of science, and a huge force behind the culture of science. It felt a bit like you were writing a book about what/how scientists think while completely skipping over a major source of them telling you what/how they think. Do you feel like you missed something in your research by not looking at that? Or was this really just meant to be about Dawkins and Hitchens and Lehrer and wasn't intended to reflect on what is happening in science culture, as a whole?

CW: As a science journalist and blogger, you are no doubt rightly disappointed that I didn’t go there. I’ve read your work and I appreciate what it does and I don’t think there is anything in it that is socially suspect. What I am more concerned with is the broadest and most public representations of science, and for me that means these books. They are symptomatic of what I take to be a serious social and political problem. But then I’m old enough to still believe that books and not the Web are what is important. That may be a delusion on my part. But then most of the books that I cite, and a good many more that I don’t cite, are really good books. I love John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, but I don’t mention it. But McPhee is not in the business of using science to produce pernicious ideology.

MKB: Talking about this book with my husband, he brought up something I thought was kind of interesting. Back in high school, he used to be an Objectivist. And one of the big revelations for him, coming out of that, was the realization that a philosophy could be logically consistent and could make total sense, on paper, but could also be 100% wrong about people and wrong about the way the world actually works. For him, science is incredibly valuable because it focuses on “how this works” rather than well-constructed, logical arguments about how somebody thinks things ought to work. What do you think the limits of philosophy are when it comes to that dichotomy between what makes sense with internal, consistent logic and what makes sense when you study people?

CW: I’m not clear on how your husband has ceased to be an objectivist. As Friedrich Schelling (whom I discuss in the book) observed, empiricism has a fundamental dogma: there are objects. But in order to make this claim, empiricism must presuppose that there are subjects/selves to observe these objects. Empiricism tends to ignore the difficulty in saying what in the world a self is. Another way of putting this is that empiricism is insufficiently interested in the fact that all access to objects and all access to “how this works” is mediated by one kind of model or symbolic construct or another, whether that means language or math or instrumental experimentation. As Immanuel Kant argued, we have no access to the “thing itself,” it is forever unknowable. Our knowledge is never the thing. We are modelers, not knowers. We are condemned to life in the analogue, a glorious thing if it is looked at properly.

The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers