Oracles, Big Answers, & Pop Sci’s Neglect of Mystery

Georges Simenon

Ta-Nahesi Coates, pondering the downfall of Jonah Lehrer, writes:

[W]e now live in a world where counter-intuitive bullshitting is valorized, where the pose of argument is more important than the actual pursuit of truth, where clever answers take precedence over profound questions. We have no patience for mystery. We want the deciphering of gods. We want oracles. And we want them right now.

I’m not here to either pile onto or defend Jonah. But Coates here nails a huge problem in much writing about science that stands aside from any question of shortcuts or fabrication*: a pressure from writers, readers, editors, and the entire bookselling and meme-making and talk-fest machine to have the answers. And not just answers, but Big New Answers To Vexing Eternal Questions.

Science, of course, is rarely like that — rarely indeed. A fortunate scientist, a truly important scientist, is one whose work is foundational or heavily influential for a decade. A few researchers do work that proves indispensable for 25 to 50 years. An extremely select number do work that remains foundation or impetus for a century. And no one, not even Newton, Darwin, or Einstein, have their work go a hundred years without significant revision.

Yet from our writers and speakers we howl for final answers — how we do this, the key to that, everything you wanted to know about this other thing. And the book industry relentlessly presses for writers and agents to offer those things, and in a flash. As Coates says, right now.

The sad part is that that’s not even the good stuff. It tastes good going down, but it doesn’t ride with you. I was thinking about this over the last month as I read —  slowly, savoring every scene, every sentence, every bit of nuance, detail, caveat, wrinkle, and complication — an advance copy of David Quammen’s Spillover, which will be published this October. Spillover is about how human epidemics rise from diseases that spill over from the animal kingdom. Think HIV, SARS, bird flu, and other nasties. The book is riveting, terrifying, and inspiring, and it matches and possibly excels Quammen’s Song of the Dodo, which I consider one of the best science books of the 20th century.

Spillover by David Quammen

I’ll write more later about Spillover when it’s published. For now, though, pertinent to Coates’ observation, it’s enough to note that  Spillover generates its delicious deep power partly because Quammen doesn’t try, with every chapter or anecdote, to resolve a mystery or question. He constantly sheds light — which, lo and behold, reveals more boxes and doors and caves holding darkness. He is true to the real state of progress, the ‘growing island’ model: the more we expand our knowledge, the bigger is the border between what we know and what we don’t understand. He embraces constantly the mystery of where these diseases come from and how they spill into and spread through humanity. He mines the perplexity of the scientists trying to crack these mysteries in a way that reminds me of the way Georges Simenon mines the confusion of his French detective Jules Maigret. Maigret usually gets his man (or woman). Yet he’s mystified all the way through almost every novel, and the stories draw meaning at least as much from Maigret’s mystification as from the arrests at the end. When it’s over we see that Maigret has solved one mystery — whodunnit? — but remains confounded by the deeper, far more important questions of human nature, cause, chance, and epistemology.

Likewise Quammen in Spillover. Likewise all the science books with long legs: Song of the Dodo; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; The Eighth Day of Creation; Love at Goon Park; The Voyage of the Beagle;  Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table;  The Making of the Atomic Bomb; even, in its infinite weirdness, and despite sometimes the intentions of its author, The Double Helix.

We need more of this.

*Changes: About an hour after posting, I added underlined phrase in 3d paragraph, lest anyone think this post seeks to brush aside or excuse issues of fabrication etc. The problems I’m writing of here exist alongside and independent of any problems of journalistic misconduct and don’t cause such, nor should they serve as an excuse for journalistic misconduct. They have their own bad effects, as noted.

Photo of Simenon via Wikipedia

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