More Art than Science?

by Nelson Harvey

These days, when we wonder whether something is true or not, our first instinct is usually to ask the scientists. But according to a new book by Jonah Lehrer, artists and literary figures often arrive at important truths about human nature long before the science is there to back them up. I saw Lehrer speak tonight on the Upper West Side, and it struck me that a version of his thesis is often true in the environmental realm as well.

The book, titled Proust was a Neuroscientist, contains case studies of 10 famous artists (including writers, chefs, and others) who made discoveries about the human mind through their art that science would come to confirm only years later. So, for example, when Proust famously described eating the madeline cookie in Remembrance of Things Passed, he revealed much about the connection between smell and long term memory that has since been corroborated through modern neuroscience. He was able to do this not because he had scientific training, but because he was intensely focused on the nature of his own experience.

The pattern can be extended to environmental issues by looking through the prism of climate change. Initial public concern about the issue did not build from scientific reports, but from anecdotal evidence. Inuits in the artic or fisherman on the great lakes knew the climate was changing long before the IPCC released its latest report. Observing the land was part of their way of life, even if they lacked the training to quantify the changes they observed. Numbers aren’t always necessary to know that something is wrong.

To further illustrate this, I imagine a case where the science showed that climate change would be benign enough for humans to adapt without major systemic shifts, but it would still practically eliminate Fall as a season by mid-century. There may be few practical reasons why Fall is important to the survival of the human species, and yet, a world without it is not one in which I’d like to live. Crisp autumn air has far too many associations for me to do without it.

Lehrer’s central point was that truth is larger than science; it can be arrived at through myriad other avenues. Science (including the social science of economics) should be a tool in decisionmaking, not the sole basis for our decisions. Particularly where complex environmental decisions are concerned, there is a place for philosophy, ethics, and even art. For us to address global warming, it doens’t necessarily have to be cheap or unambiguously dangerous. If global warming offends our (non-market) values, then we ought to do something about it.


One thought on “More Art than Science?

  1. Annie Nymous says:

    Oops. You forgot one thing: many scientists are artists, good artists.

    Science does not exist for its own sake, but for the same curiosity, creativity, and drive that fuels human expression in all its forms.

    Science is used to prove things and only occasionally does it discover things.

    A scientist without an imagination is not really a scientist.

    Also, those ten examples of “discovery” are not examples of proof of explanation, but the existence of phenomena, which necessarily requires but a witness and not a science.

    An explanation can be true, and yet remain unproved. Proving things is the job of science, not the discovery of things to prove.

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