Fiction invents, science discovers – right?
But fiction can make you see the real world differently, through examining how humans react to it. For example, Hamlet is torn between two impossible choices, and cannot act because he sees the disadvantages in both. He analyses and rejects the modes of behaviour that his peers would have chosen (as articulated in other Elizabethan revenge tragedies). As a result, we cannot look at how humans think of themselves and their place in the world, without thinking of Hamlet. The play extended humans’ self-consciousness by showing the limitations of actions and the consequential inevitability of self-analysis.
More practically, a fictional depiction of real-life social issues can profoundly affect the way we react to those issues. When the film ‘Cathy Come Home’ was first shown in the Sixties, it exposed the way that homeless people were treated by the authorities and started a national debate. The charity Shelter was formed as a result, and homeless people now have legal rights to housing.
Fictional depictions are sometimes the only way that we can ‘see’ big problems. Poverty in India can seem vast and overwhelming, until the novels of Rohinton Mistry bring it within our understanding, and our empathy. Similarly ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie probably works as a better introduction to the Biafran war than many factual texts, because it uses interesting and sympathetic characters (including a child soldier who is forced to take part in a mass rape) through which the reader can see the effects of that war.
A recent academic paper (http://www.bwpi.manchester.ac.uk/resources/Working-Papers/bwpi-wp-2008.pdf) examines the use of fact and fiction in understanding developmental issues and argues that fiction is a credible way of spreading knowledge. It can reach a wider audience than more factual approaches, and provide a richer illustration of how people react to their surroundings, because it’s at liberty to investigate the inner lives of those people in a way that factual narratives are simply not able to do.
Conversely, discovery is not just a passive intake of external data. It’s also a framework to put the data into, in order to make sense of it. Constructing this framework necessarily involves invention. When you carry out an experiment, and measure some variables, you have to have an idea of what these variables are; you have to conceptualise them. For example, if you decide to measure the temperature of a box of gas, you have to have an idea of what temperature actually is, and how it might be related to the gas’s energy. How is the gas’s confinement to a box going to affect the result? What if you pump in more gas and increase its pressure? Or heat it up? Which of the variables are important and will affect the results? And which can be ignored? Will the colour or shape of the box holding the gas affect the results?
Straightaway the process of doing experiments becomes recursive; you carry out an experiment to get a better understanding of the external world, but you already need some sort of narrative of it in order to do the experiment in the first place.
Sometimes this narrative is drawn from places outside science. The importance of Galileo’s observations of four moons orbiting around Jupiter stems partly from the religious dogma which stated that everything orbited the Earth.
Modern science likes to think it makes its models exclusively from within science and that nothing else taints it. But models are made from language, and this can give the lie to this belief of purity. For example, in the fifties James Watson came up with ‘the central dogma of biology’ to express the idea that the flow of information from DNA to RNA and then onto proteins is one-way. (This excludes Lamarckian models of evolution in which DNA can be changed by changes to the proteins during the lifetime of the host organism.) He confessed afterwards that he didn’t really know what dogma meant, but he wanted a word to stress the importance of the idea. There’s no doubt that it’s important, but calling it a dogma implies that any criticism of it is heretical. Maybe Watson was being tongue-in-cheek when he used this word, but it’s hardly an incitement to open debate.
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