What’s Your Major, Mr. Hippocampus?

A discussion of Steven Pinker in the comments for my last post brought up a memory from grad school, and I thought I’d post it here.

I was sitting in the little coffee shop/diner place across from the Second Cup on du Parc, up in the McGill Ghetto in Montreal. It was basically my favorite place for a light meal, and I always had a samosa and a calzone — usually chicken, sometimes beef or veg. This time, I’d met up with my friend Chiraz and we were having coffee and talking. Somehow, I got onto the subject of the book I’d just read, which I think was The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard Cytowic, or maybe something by Steven Pinker.

(Pinker drifts into my mind because it was the same week I saw him give a lecture at McGill. Those were the days, man. I saw physics students tearing down Roger Penrose’s most “highly speculative” theories about the role of microtubules and quantum processes in the brain — and he did seem a little off his rocker during his presentation — and attended all kinds of other lectures there as well. My school brought in good poets and novelists, but McGill was the place to see good or interesting science lectures. Steven Pinker’s was quite riveting.)

Anyway, there I was, explain to Chiraz some obscure function that the hippocampus served (I think in some area of sensory — olfactory? — processing, but it’s been a decade or more), when some med student at the next table stopped me in mid-conversation to correct me and tell me I was wrong. I told him that no, I wasn’t, and told him to look it up. He happened to be studying neurology, but that didn’t cow me. I’d just read it a day or two before and remembered it clearly. So he looked it up in the very book he was studying from, and lo and behold, I was right. He gave me a look of shock that only deepened when he asked whether I was in med school and I laughed.

“Uh no. I’m a Creative Writing major. But I do write science fiction, if that makes you feel any better. Some of us SF writers actually read about science sometimes.”

(Hmmm, would that more of us did so, and more often.)

Of course, given the standards of respect that science got in the humanities, I’m not surprised at the med student’s surprise. I always found it quite off-putting when literary types bashed science, or decided to write “science-inspired” texts, which repudiated or distorted science, without even a shred of research put into understanding what they were slamming.

It felt at the time to me as if it was really part of an enormous, juvenile turf war that was being conducted, with the humanities fighting dirty because those nasty science people had things like the internet and cures for various diseases in their roster, unfairly gained tricks which people ought to squint and ignore so they could affirm claptrap, flat-out wrong folk remedies and health-myths, and poetical rants as “other ways of knowing.”

It was this awful anti-science penchant which seemed so dominant in the humanities which finally made me feel there was no point in pursuing a PhD. I’m not sure I still think so, but at the time, I couldn’t imagine listening to such petulant whining and snideness from people so ignorant as to take Freud seriously as anything but a mildly interesting kook (and rather a data-falsifying asshole besides).

8 thoughts on “What’s Your Major, Mr. Hippocampus?

  1. In all honesty, I find that explaining why things happen really gets in the way of what’s happening in SF.

    In other words: Shut the hell up with the technobable, La Forge.

    It’s the worst aspect of modern SF

  2. William,

    Well, in Star Trek, it’s painful because it’s mostly just technobabble with little or no real science behind it.

    However, I think it’s profoundly unfair to use Star Trek as a meter-stick for SF in general, and have to shriek and cry out, “No! No!” when you suggest that Trek is representative of modern SF. Sorry, but it isn’t. If you don’t believe me, take it from someone with more clout. Like most media SF, Trek seems to me rather trapped in some older incarnation of the genre, while the written form of SF moved on decades ago.

    (And in fact, that thing you’re berating, the infodump? That’s someone we routinely criticize one another for doing, especially as novice SF authors. There are skillful and well-executed infodumps, but there’s also a reason why the Turkey City Lexicon includes the stock quip, “As you know, Bob.” (The fact that almost every speculative fiction writer I know both gets that quip, and uses it to critique others’ slopppy infodumps, suggests how far we’ve actually moved on… though it also suggests how dominant the crit-group model for writerly development has become.))

    Among those aforementioned written works, you can find many brilliant and wonderful works where the science is relatively rigorous, and is explored without being boring. Many of my favorite contemporary authors make an effort to be scientifically and technically plausible: Greg Egan, Peter Watts, Charlie Stross, Bruce Sterling, and many others.

    (And while some of my favorite authors write more what I might call “social SF,” I still prefer those whose work at least pays some respect to scientific thinking or the scientific worldview, or even just to plausibility!)


    It explains a lot about… me? Or is this a response to William? Expand on your response, please? :)

  3. Coming to the defense of Trek somewhat here, (though I agree that their science is inaccruate a lot of times to say the least), in the 1960s, the original Trek was one of the more scientifically plausible shows. Looking back on some of the records of the time, it was often mentioned that the show tried to approach problems from a scientific standpoint. Issac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke had favorable views of the show. However, in the later incarnations, the technobabble did go overboard, and (especially in the Next Generation and Voyager), miracle technology served as deus ex machina just too many times. (My second favorite Trek – Deep Space Nine had relatively less of that, IMO, though that was partially because the writers basically decided they couldn’t be scientifically accurate so they decided to ignore it and concentrate on character-based stories). But one of the problems with Trek is that they are stuck with science as developed in 1960s (and not even accurate science at that) and the fans care more about internal consistency (“canon”) than scientific accuracy. So whatever decisions they made back then, they are stuck with it now. (On the other hand, with the slew of more recent SF shows, how many are indeed more accurate than Trek?) Quite a few SF writers have commented that media SF lags behind print SF by 20-30 years.

    As for the main point of the post, I was going to go on a long rant here about how humanities people are proud of being scientifically illiterate, and how being an “intellectual” means that you know minutaes about irrevelent philosophy or literature, without basic understanding of math or science, (Most scientists I know have basic understanding of literature and history – very few humanists have basic knowledge of science) but I figured that it isn’t worth the bother.

    I just want to refer you to two books: “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre, which laments the scientific and statistical illiteracy of the general public which allows them to be led by the nose by con artists and sensationalistic journalists (for those of you in Korea, the politicians as well. Remember the Mad Cow Beef Import scare?); and “Fashionable Nonsense” by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmart. Sokal was a physicist who was sick and tired of seeing literary critics appropriate terms and ideas from the natural sciences and using them inaccruately or badly. He wrote a paper of literary criticism using scientific jargon (making sure that there was actually no real content in the paper – just jargon), and submitted it to a top-ranked academic literary journal. The paper was accepted, and apparently it caused quite a stir before Sokal announced that the paper was nothing but bullsh*t. (A short version of what he did is described here: http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/lingua_franca_v4/lingua_franca_v4.html). Apparently no one including the editor and the referees of the journal understood what the paper meant, and thus it deserved publication.

    I do economics, and economics does have its share of BS and jargon filled content free material as well (you’d be surprised at how much economic theory is actually something blatantly obvious dressed up in technical terms) – but I’d like to think that we’re better than these people. We at least try to explain what we mean, and to match it with real-world statistics. (Well, except for Wall Street financial economists…)

    I think education would be better served by including basic courses in scientific literacy (as opposed to memorizing a bunch of facts about physics, chemistry and biology) and how to read statistics instead of some other courses I can name.

  4. “As you know, Bob.”

    “Good news, everyone!” :D

    Let’s be honest, TV SF *is* modern SF. Only a dedicated minority read the magazines… Kind of like comics that way. And the Star Trek info dump is pretty standard practice since it was such a popular show.

    I guess, to be clear on my point, the science in the SF should be there to serve the story, not the other way around. For me, Arthur C Clarke explaining the monolith and the space baby really weakened the grandness of the 2001 series for me. (IMO: Clarke was like Asimov in that both were better idea men than compelling writers)

    I guess for me it falls under the “Show. Don’t tell” heading. I don’t need to know how the laser gun works. Just that it goes “ZAP!”

  5. Regarding William George’s second comment, in the book “The Making of Star Trek”, the author quotes one of the original Trek producers (probably Gene Roddenberry, but maybe Gene L. Coon) as saying that you don’t need a scientist to explain how the phaser works. You only need to point and shoot. As an example, in one submitted script, there apparently was a two-page technically correct dialogue on steering the Enterprise. The producer changed the whole thing into “Reverse Course!”. Obviously, this was a lesson the latter Treks forgot. Relating this to an earlier thread, it’s amusing that modern viewers require more pseudo-scientific explanation for how SF tech works, when the public in general seems to be becoming more scientifically illiterate.

  6. I’m not going to respond to everything, as the consensus sounds good to me, but yeah, I remember the Sokal hoax. Personally, I was very amused by it and it confirmed for me the suspicion I was nurturing at the time I heard of it (early on in grad school in a lit department) that the “theory” being bandied about — big long words without apparently explicable meaning in many cases — was a BS smokescreen for the aching sense of irrelevance that literary studies seemed to present to the hearts of so many.

    I was therefore appalled by the response I saw from academics — including Edward Said — which was primarily not, “Gee, we are a bloody mess and out to sort that out,” but rather, approximately, “Aw, that was mean-spirited and vindictive, how nasty scientists are!”

    Then again, I have a physicist friend who says that crap science papers get published by the shovelful as well…

    And William: no, TV SF is no more modern SF than Garfield is modern comics. Just because most people think it is all there is, doesn’t mean the genre hasn’t moved on to bigger and more interesting things.

    (Which is to say, while it might be entertaining — I like some of it too, sometimes — even the best of it really hasn’t moved very far forward intellectually the way the best of literary SF has done.)

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