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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).

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