“Just the facts, ma’am”: the private eye and religion

I just read Jerry Coyne’s Faith vs. Fact about the incompatibility of religion and science. The arguments will be familiar to anyone who frequents Coyne’s website Why Evolution Is TrueThe book is a full-throated endorsement of science (broadly construed) as the only way we have of finding out what is true.  That “broadly construed” is important to Coyne’s case; it’s not just “scientists” who do science, in his formulation; a plumber does science when he makes a hypothesis about why a pipe is leaking, tests the hypothesis, and either confirms or rejects it.  That’s the way we achieve truths about plumbing and, Coyne suggests, about anything.  Religion (or listening to Beethoven, or reading Shakespeare) can’t tell you why a pipe is leaking, or how the universe began, or what causes malaria.

It also doesn’t help you solve crimes.  My novel Where All the Ladders Start is, among other things, about the private eye as scientist.  Our hero, Walter Sands, is investigating the disappearance of a cult leader.  There are conventional explanations–the guy was murdered, or kidnapped, or just took off on his own.  But there is also a religious explanation advanced by many cult members: God loved the guy so much that He assumed him into heaven.  Walter is not impressed by the religious explanation, however.  He is relentlessly practical: private eyes aren’t interested in miracles; they’re interested in people — in means, motive, and opportunity.  So he does what private investigators do: he searches for facts, and eventually he uncovers the non-miraculous truth.

That’s all well and good, but there’s a bit of a twist at the end (in a private eye novel, there’s always a twist at the end).  Walter uncovers the truth, but he can’t escape religion’s clutches.  Because, he is told, in everything he has done, he has actually been following God’s plan.  And he finds himself unable to dispute this, because, really, how can he?  How can anyone?  If God has a plan, a private eye is not going to uncover it.

(For those not of a certain age, “Just the facts, ma’am” is a catchphrase associated with no-nonsense Sergeant Joe Friday of the 50’s (and 60’s and 70’s) TV show Dragnet.  Snopes tells us, though, that the character never says exactly that.)


Us lefties earn less because we’re more stupider

This is the finding of a study by some Harvard guy reported here.

In the data, around 11 to 13 percent of the population was left-handed. And when broken down by gender — that is, comparing women to women and men to men — those lefties have annual earnings around 10 to 12 percent lower than those of righties, Goodman writes, which is equal to around a year of schooling. (That gap varied by survey and by gender, however.) Most of this gap can be attributed to “observed differences in cognitive skills and emotional or behavioral problems,” he writes, adding that since lefties tend to do more manual work than right-handers, the gap appears to be due to differences in cognitive abilities, not physical.

These problems only appear when the left-hander is the child of a right-handed mother. Like me.

Another study, reported in Wikipedia, came to a different conclusion:

In a 2006 U.S. study, researchers from Lafayette College and Johns Hopkins University concluded that there was no scientifically significant correlation between handedness and earnings for the general population, but among college-educated people, left-handers earned 10 to 15% more than their right-handed counterparts.

I am not smart enough to figure out why the two studies came up with different results..

The Vox article does throw us this bone:

Data has also shown that lefties, for example, are highly represented among high SAT-scorers and people with high IQs. What it may mean, Orszag notes, is that lefties are overrepresented in the intellectual stratosphere, but that for the population as a whole, it’s better to be a righty.

The “intellectual stratosphere” — I like that. On the other hand, there’s this, from Wikipedia:

There is a general tendency that the more violent a society is, the higher the proportion of left-handers.

There is presumably some advantage to being left-handed in hand-to-hand combat, because your opponent is less likely to have trained against people like you. (There’s a comparable effect in baseball, where left-handed batters are often helpless against left-handed pitchers, because they mostly face righties. This has led to the ultimate in baseball specialization, the southpaw who comes into the game in the late innings to face one critical left-handed batter, get him out, and then head for the showers.)

All in all, it’s a hard world for lefties. Now, in addition to being sinister, turns out we’re also cognitively impaired and doomed to earn less than our right-handed friends. Unless somehow we find ourselves in the intellectual stratosphere.

Where do you get all your bad ideas?

While I was in Albuquerque I had the chance to chat with Rex Jung, a neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico.  One of his research interests is creativity. So, OK, the conversation got a bit off-track, and we ended up talking about foot fetishes.  He brought it up!  Anyway, Rex pointed me to this entertaining blog post about V. S. Ramachandran, the prolific Indian neuroscientist (he came up with the idea of the mirror box for treating phantom limb pain, which was the basis of a particularly bizarre episode of “House”.) Ramachandran had an idea about foot fetishes, based on the work of Penfield and Jasper, who did the amazing “awake craniotomies” that allowed them to map the regions of the brain associated with different kinds of functioning. Jung explains:

Penfield and Jasper wrote a book in 1954 entitled Epilepsy and the Functional Anatomy of the Human Brain in which they describe surgeries performed on some 750 patients undergoing awake craniotomy. Both males and females were studied, although only about 10 percent were female. With respect to the genitals, Penfield and Jasper state (page 69), “The representation of genitalia is only sensory and not motor.” Second, and importantly, they state, “Its relationship to foot is not altogether clear,” although they place the genitalia next to the foot on the sensory map (see above). Well there’s the rub …

Their sensory map looks like this:

On the basis of this evidence, Ramachandran came up with theidea that maybe the proximity of the genital processing right next to the foot and toe processing, plus a little miswiring, would lead to foot fetishes.  Well, OK….

Turns out that Penfield and Jasper’s data wasn’t all that strong about the position of the genital processing, and in reality it’s probably right where it belongs, under the trunk.  So?

So, what does it all mean for 1) genitals, 2) the brain, 3) Penfield, and 4) Ramachandran? With respect to the genitals, they look to be where they are supposed to be in the brain, and the cartoon of the little man should likely be updated so that he is not tripping over his junk. Second, the brain appears to be organized in a somatotopical manner (that means it roughly maps to the body in terms of location and importance of function). Third, Penfield and Jasper (among others) were studying people with epilepsy, tumors, and any number of other brain disorders, and some miswiring might be garbling the data, along with the highly possible reticence on the part of either the good doctors or patients to map or report stimulation regarding the genitalia as compared to ANY other sensory or motor function. And finally, Ramachandran remains a genius. He was likely wrong on this front, but he has brilliantly demonstrated a key feature of highly creative individuals: they put out a lot of ideas. Not all of them are right, but some might lead to a “novel and useful” treatment for phantom limb or a theory of synesthesia (the latter of which is well supported by “miswiring” data). Keep it sexy, Dr. R. …

This seems right to me.  To be creative, you need lots of ideas, but not all of them are going to be good ones.  The trick is to figure out which ones are worth spending your time and energy on.  I have pages and pages of notes about the novel I’m currently working on, and it is entertaining and rather distressing to read through these notes and look at all the bad ideas I’ve come up with.  How do I know if the good ones are ending up in the actual novel?  I’m relying on my friends to tell me.  If I get it wrong, it’s all their fault.

Literature and Empathy

Jerry Coyne has a post on a study published in Science about how reading literary fiction makes people more empathetic.  (He uses the word empathic, which looks to be the same thing, but the WordPress spellchecker objects to it.) Here is the New York Times writeup of the study, which uses empathetic.

[The study] found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.

Coyne finds the study unconvincing, as does Steven Pinker in a tweet. The significance levels aren’t all that high, and the empathy level is measured immediately after reading — there is nothing to suggest that the effect, if real, is permanent.  And one of the tests of empathy used — where you look at pictures of people and guess what emotions they are expressing — seems really unlikely to be affected by the kind of prose you just read.

The study offers the kind of results that English teachers and writers and fiction lovers will like.  Which provides plenty of reason to treat it with a bit of suspicion — it’s easy to be convinced by studies that prove what you already are sure is true.

But in any case, does it matter?  I suppose I’d like to be able to tell my kids that they should read good fiction because it will improve their emotional intelligence or social perception or whatever.  But even if it does no such thing, they ought to read good fiction because it will make their lives better.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Is “The Double Helix” really the seventh greatest English-language nonfiction book of the 20th century?

That’s where it ranks in the Modern Library poll, just behind T.S. Eliot’s Selected Essays and just before Nabokov’s Speak, Memory.  The 60th anniversary of the publication of the Watson-Crick hypothesis has just passed, and Simon & Schuster have published an annotated/illustrated version of Watson’s account of the discover of the genetic code.

How do you judge a work of nonfiction?  I thoroughly enjoyed the book when I read it a couple of weeks ago (the annotations and illustrations really helped).  The events Watson describes were, of course, hugely important for our understanding of how life works.  And the approach Watson takes–showing how science really works, with people worrying about their grants and competing scientists, chasing girls and complaining about the lack of heat in their flats–is refreshing and eye-opening.

On the other hand, the writing, while perfectly competent, isn’t out of the ordinary.  And Watson doesn’t make much of an effort to give the reader any context about the nature of the problem he and Crick were trying to solve, why it was so important, and why it was so amenable to solution at just that point in history.  Turns out that The Double Helix wasn’t the best science book I read that week–The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks worked better for me both as a personal narrative and as an explanation of science.

The Modern Library list seems reasonable, although arbitrary.  It seems clear that they considered the significance of a book to its time (The Silent Spring), its contribution to human thought (A Theory of Justice), as well as its literary quality (A Room of One’s Own).  As usual, there were lots of books on the list that I haven’t read, and a few that I’ve never heard of.  I was pleased to see Samuel Johnson by Walter Jackson Bate come in at number 50.  Bate’s course on Johnson and his contemporaries was one of the best I took in college, and I recall a standing-room-only audience for his lecture on the death of Johnson, which was apparently legendary at Harvard.  I also can’t quarrel with The Education of Henry Adams as number 1.  It made a huge impression on me in college, and I recall that the last paper I wrote there was a comparison of Adams’s third-person narrative style with that of Norman Mailer.  (It’s interesting that Mailer doesn’t appear on either the fiction or the nonfiction list.  History has not treated him kindly, so far.)

In which I review “Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story” using upgoer5

This is the book I’m talking about. And this explains the words I’m using (and not using). Why am I doing this? Because this is my writing place!

Why is the world here? Why is there something instead of nothing? We’ve talked about this before. In this book, a man goes around talking to men (they are all men) who have thought a lot about this question. They all have different ideas.

Some people believe that God made everything. But then who made God? Where did God come from? Is God just “there”? Where is “there”? And why is God the way He is and not some other way?

Some people think that something just pops out of nothing. But if this is possible, why is it possible? Why is the way things are exactly this way and not some other way?

Some people believe there are many, many worlds — many “everythings” — and each one may have a different way that things are. Maybe everything that could be, is. But why? Why isn’t there just nothing, which is the most simple way for things to be?

Some people think this has something to do with us, and the way we can think. Maybe there is something instead of nothing just so we can be here. Some other people think this idea is really stupid.

The man writes about what these people look like and where they live. He eats with many of them and he talks about what they eat. Most of them know each other; none of them agree with each other.

In the book, he also talks about his dog dying and then his mother dying. This makes him sad and it made me sad, but I’m not sure what this has to do with why there is something instead of nothing.

In the end, I don’t think he knows the answer to this question. And we don’t, either. Probably we will never know. Should that make us sad?

Is the paranormal “unconstrained whimsicality”?

Apropos of my discussion of the paranormal and Marlborough Street, here (via Jerry Coyne) is an excerpt from an article by the Oxford chemist Peter Atkins:

One aspect of the paranormal versus real science should not go unremarked. As in other forms of obscurantist pursuit, such as religion, it is so easy to make time-wasting speculations. The paranormal is effectively unconstrained whimsicality. Original suggestions in real science emerge only after detailed study and the lengthy and often subtle process of testing whether current concepts are adequate. Only if all this hard work fails is a scientist justified in edging forward human understanding with a novel and possibly revolutionary idea. Real science is desperately hard work; the paranormal is almost entirely the fruit of armchair fantasizing. Real science is a regal application of the full power of human intellect; the paranormal is a prostitution of the brain. Worst of all, it wastes time and distorts the public’s vision of the scientific endeavour.

(Neither Coyne nor Atkins takes any prisoners.)

This seems perfectly true to me. And this is an aid in writing fiction that involves the paranormal: you get to make up the rules, and no one gets to tell you That’s really not how it works. You are the one doing the “armchair fantasizing”; you’re not advancing human understanding, but you may entertain a few people. The hero in Marlborough Street can find missing persons and occasionally dip into someone else’s mind; the heroine of Summit with great mental effort can force a person to change the way he thinks and acts. The only limitation is the limitation of all fiction: internal consistency.  It’s your fictional universe, but once you’ve set up its rules, you have to live by them.