American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 47

The Humanities and The Sciences

The session on "The Humanities and The Sciences"
was presented on May 1, 1999, in Philadelphia, PA,
as part of the ACLS Annual Meeting.

by Billy E. Frye, Moderator

Creativity in Science
by Jerome Friedman

Objectivity is Romantic
by Peter Galison


by Susan Haack

with opening remarks by James Gustafson
and closing remarks by John H. D'Arms

copyright © Susan Haack

Science, Literature,
and the "Literature of Science"

Susan Haack
Cooper Senior Scholar in Arts and Sciences,
Professor of Philosophy, and Professor of Law,
University of Miami

The scientist addresses an infinitesimal audience of fellow composers. His message is not devoid of universality but its universality is disembodied and anonymous. While the artist's communication is linked forever with its original form, that of the scientist is modified, amplified, fused with the ideas and results of others, and melts into the stream of knowledge . . .

—Max Delbrück1

As they investigate how the world is, scientists create an enormously complex labyrinth of signs—of words, chemical formulae, mathematical symbols, computer images, and so forth. Noticing that writing plays a significant role in the scientific enterprise, literary scholars and rhetoricians have turned their attention to the "literature of science." But some, unfortunately, have treated science as like imaginative literature, and scientific texts as like literary texts, in ways in which they are unlike; and this assimilation has tempted some into the kinds of relativist and irrealist extravagances that prompt Max Perutz to protest the whole project of rhetoric of science as "a piece of humbug masquerading as a academic discipline."2 Perhaps, however, if we were clearer about the differences between science and literature and between scientific and literary texts, we might begin to see what a reasonable rhetoric of science would be, and do.3

Scientists engage in writing, and novelists, playwrights, etc., engage in inquiry. But the word "science" picks out a loose federation of kinds of inquiry, while the word "literature" picks out a loose federation of kinds of writing. In its broadest usage, "literature" refers to writing of just about any kind, as when we speak of "keeping up with the literature" on our subject; and the word is also used honorifically, to refer to aesthetically admirable writing on whatever topic. But when in what follows I write of "imaginative literature," I shall focus rather on its fictional character than on its literary merits.

The inquiry in which writers of imaginative literature engage (whether informal observation and pondering over the quirks of human nature, or systematic research into a place or time) is essential to their enterprise—but as a means to the end of writing edifying, entertaining, provocative, expressive, moving, illuminating . . . novels, plays, etc.. And the writing in which scientists engage is essential to their enterprise too—but as a means to the end of finding out significant, explanatory truths, well-warranted by evidence, about the world and how it works.

Science, like literature, requires imagination. A scientist imagines structures, classifications, etc., which, if he is successful, are real, and explanations, laws, and theories which, if he is successful, are true. Imagination, and imaginative exploration of imagined potential explanations, are necessary. But to go beyond mere speculation, appraisal of the likely reality or truth of his imaginative creation—itself often requiring imagination in the design of experiments and instruments—is necessary too. "Scientific reasoning," as Peter Medawar once put it, "is a kind of dialogue between the possible and the actual, what might be and what is in fact the case."4

A writer of imaginative literature, by contrast, imagines people, events, stories which, if he is successful, are illuminating about real human beings, real human doings, and real human and moral possibilities. Imagination, and imaginative exploration of imagined scenarios and characters, comes first; and—though an author may imaginatively explore linguistic means and modes, and imaginatively "test" his imagined characters and events for believability—also last. Think of the fix a novelist would be in if he were to discover that characters or events he thought he had imagined were, actually, real—almost as disconcerting as it would be for a scientist to discover that the stuff or phenomenon he had been investigating isn't real.

Novels, plays, etc., are often set in real places, and sometimes include real events as well as imaginary ones. Irving Wallace writes in the afterword to The Prize that his descriptions of Stockholm and the Nobel ceremonies are factual; however, he continues, "the characters who people these pages . . . are make-believe; and the entire plot [is] purest fabrication. . . . If the characters or situations have . . . any counterparts in real life, the resemblance must be accepted as surprising coincidence."5 True, a novel may also involve real people (whether overtly acknowledged or more or less thinly disguised). But the fictional characters a novelist creates—except in such an unlikely and disconcerting eventuality as Wallace worries about—are not only imaginative but also imaginary. By contrast, the imaginative constructions of science, when they are successful, are precisely not imaginary or fictional, but real.

Scientists, like writers, use metaphors. Sometimes a literary metaphor—the Red and the Black, say—is the thread that ties a novel together; and sometimes a scientific metaphor—the chaperone molecule, parental investment, the Invisible Hand—is an intellectual tool a scientist uses as he works towards an account of a physical or social structure or kind. Once again, however, it is a case of "both . . ., but ___ ." A subtle literary metaphor will be extended, expanded, explored, but remain a metaphor as an author finds new ways to play on it. (Hermia insults Helena: "Thou painted maypole!", and Helena replies in kind: "Get you gone, you dwarf; you minimus, of hindr'ing knot-grass made; you bead, you acorn.")6 But a sturdy scientific metaphor will be extended, expanded, explored with the ultimate goal of enabling a literally true account of cellular processes, mating behavior, markets, or whatever.

Scientific texts differ from literary texts in ways that reflect the differences between science and imaginative literature. But rather than a single, simple distinction of two kinds of text, there are umpteen distinct but related dimensions on which a text can be located, with scientific texts tending to cluster in one area of the grid, and literary texts in another. A paradigmatic scientific text is putatively truth-stating; putatively referential; about stuff, things, and events in the natural world or, quite often, artifacts created by scientific activity; evidence-presenting; aimed at an audience of other scientists; and written in a direct, explicit, dry, closed style. A paradigmatic literary text is unlike a paradigmatic scientific text in just about all these ways. Other kinds of text, from fax-machine activity reports to the Book of Common Prayer, are like the paradigmatic scientific text in some ways, unlike it in others; like the paradigmatic literary text in some ways, unlike it in others; like each other in some ways, unlike each other in other ways.

I say "putatively truth-stating," rather than simply "truth-stating," to include texts which state what the author takes to be truths, but are in fact falsehoods. But I mean to exclude fraudulent scientific texts, where, feigning a truth-stating intention, the author presents as true what he knows or believes to be false. Crick and Watson's famous paper describing the structure of DNA is, I take it, truth-stating, while Benveniste's notorious paper describing the effect of high-dilution homeopathic remedies is falsehood-stating;7 whether Benveniste's paper is really putatively truth-stating, or only faking it, depends on whether he is sincerely self-deceived or knowingly deceptive.

But don't works of imaginative literature teach us truths? Among other things, of course, yes; novels, plays, etc., can convey truths, or sometimes falsehoods, about what makes real human beings tick. And doesn't that mean that they too must be putatively truth-stating? No: a novel doesn't convey the truths (or falsehoods) it conveys by stating them, but by making statements which, being about fictional characters, are not true.

Though it would take a whole other paper to unpack that "conveys," an example will illustrate the idea. Alison's Lurie's novel, Imaginary Friends, conveys without stating some of the same truths that Leon Festinger's textbook, Cognitive Dissonance, conveys by stating.8 Festinger describes experiments and social-scientific studies of people's reactions to inconsistency or "dissonance" in their beliefs, or between their beliefs and their attitudes; predicting, inter alia, that if their prophesies are falsified, members of millennial sects won't give them up, but will reinterpret them, and/or start proselytizing more energetically. Lurie tells the story of two sociologists who pretend to join the spiritualist sect they are studying, and, with the others, wait for Ro of Varna to come to earth in his spaceship as the Message promised. When, apparently, nothing happens, the real members of the sect don't lose faith; Ro has come, his spirit has entered one of them. Which one?The senior sociologist, who soon starts to believe it himself, and by the time the novel ends is off his head entirely.

A novelist, I shall say (using "pretending," as distinct from "feigning," to mark the difference between fiction and fraud), pretends to refer, pretends to state truths; but with no intent to deceive his readers. As this reveals, the possibility of fictional pretended-reference is parasitic on the practice of regular reference to real people, events, etc., and the practice of truth-conveying on the practice of truth-stating.

The truths that works of literature convey aren't peculiar literary truths, but regular truths, sometimes as startlingly familiar as the truths about homo academicus that Malcolm Bradbury conveys in his story of James Walker and his colleagues at Benedict Arnold College, or David Lodge in his story of Morris Zapp and his colleagues at the University of Rummidge.9 Perhaps there are moods that can only be evoked, emotions that can only be expressed, by obliquely literary means; but there are no truths that can be fictionally conveyed but cannot, even in principle, even at clumsy length, be stated. (Here I am with Ramsey: "if you can't say it, you can't say it, and you can't whistle it, either"; which, however, is by no means to say that all truths fall within the scope of the sciences to discover.)

As everyone knows whose first chemistry lesson, like mine, was devoted to the use of the passive voice, a studiedly neutral "style of no style" has become the norm in scientific writing. Insofar as the goal is to inform other inquirers as efficiently as possible, it is appropriate to give the highest priority to the explicit, the literal, the cognitive, the direct. Fancy literary forms would get in the way; imagine how much harder it would have been if Crick and Watson had tried to explain the structure of DNA in iambic pentameters. (No, I haven't forgotten Lucretius' scientific poem, De Rerum Natura—recently in a new English translation in iambic pentameters, yet!10 But I stick to my guns: the science Lucretius presents simply isn't comparable in complexity or sophistication; and if it had been, the literary form would have been a serious obstacle to communication.)

A series of experiments in mutagenesis were known in the trade as the "Uncles-and-Aunts" experiments—the relation involved was one up and sideways; though they also had an official, less jokey, and more informative description: tests of the triplet code by means of frame-shift mutants in bacteriophage T4.11 There is a large element of convention in the stiff style and toneless tone of much official scientific writing, which serves in part as a badge of respectability, and can sometimes be a substitute for genuine rigor—a ubiquitous problem where social-scientific writing is concerned, and perhaps not entirely insignificant even in the natural sciences.

Sometimes there is a mismatch between the purpose of a text and its style. When a work of imaginative literature conveys the truths it wants to get across a bit too obtrusively directly, we may criticize it as "didactic." In The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists,12 Robert Tressell has his hero make chapter-long socialist speeches; names his fictional employers "Sweater," "Grinder," and "Didlum"; and makes one of his ministers a Mr. Bosher, while the other, Mr. Belcher, dies when his internal gases finally explode!

Similarly, when we describe a scientific article as "rhetorical," it is usually a criticism of a different but related kind of mismatch. We expect a scientist, in his professional writings, to tell us what he takes to be the truth of the matter he has been investigating, and to present the evidence that this is how things are. But, though a dubious or lazy scientist wanting to persuade others of the bona fides of his work may occasionally succeed by means of rhetorical flourishes, another and perhaps more effective strategy is to hide behind that blandly neutral official style. If it weren't for one line about how a "solution" so dilute that it contains not a single molecule of the supposed "solute" works because the water remembers that it once contained bee-venom, a careless or inexpert reader would hardly notice anything untoward about that article of Benveniste's . . .

What, then, might a reasonable rhetoric of science be? A very different enterprise, certainly, from John Limon's study of "The Double Helix as Literature,"13 playing with the conceit of Crick and Watson as a "base pair" and searching the text for evidence of a sexual relationship between them; or S. Michael Halloran's efforts to show that Crick and Watson kicked off a Kuhnian revolution in molecular biology because of their rhetorical daring in using "we" instead of the passive voice and describing their structure for DNA as "of considerable biological interest";14 or Alan Gross's suggestion that the idea that there is such a molecule as DNA is just an illusion created by the words, pictures, and diagrams in Crick and Watson's papers.15 A reasonable rhetoric of science, sensitive to the differences between different kinds of text, the relativity of style to purpose and audience, the evolution of scientific language with the growth of scientific knowledge, and to scientific communication as pooling of evidence, could make a contribution—a smallish contribution, but useful nonetheless—to our understanding of the scientific enterprise.

As articles, presentations, textbooks, etc., aim to communicate results, the ideal is that the degree of credence given a claim in the relevant sub-community depend on the quality of the evidence it has, for transmission of information within the community to maximize epistemological efficiency. (However, successful transmission of results depends on the audience as well as on the presenter: think of Nirenberg's paper on the coding problem, making almost no impression on the small, sleepy audience at its first reading, but electrifying a large audience when Crick arranged for it to be read a second time, on the last day of the same conference.)16

There is a real distinction between modes of communication that promote the epistemically desirable correlation, and those that impede it, illustrated by the contrast between these scenarios: (1) a scientific claim comes to be accepted within the relevant sub-community because strong evidence is clearly communicated in a journal article or conference presentation; (2) a scientific claim comes to be accepted in the absence of good evidence because it is promoted by means of emotive language, snazzy metaphors (and/or glossy photographs, melodramatic press conferences, etc.). But in practice there is rarely such a clean division of cases; and the usual way of drawing the distinction—"mere rhetoric," on the one hand, versus "logic," on the other—leaves a lot to be desired.

For example, casting aspersions on one's opponents' competence, which at first sounds definitely in the epistemically-inefficient category, can't automatically be classified with mere name-calling; for warrant depends in part on each scientist's grounds for assuming the competence of the others on whose work he depends (a thought that puts me in mind of the trouble I sometimes get myself into when I take up an airline magazine crossword where the passenger before me left off). Nor is clear presentation of evidence very aptly described as "logic," for formal-logical cogency, though necessary, is not sufficient. Not only does evidence ramify in all directions in a structure more like a crossword puzzle than a logical proof, but—the point that will most interest the serious student of scientific language—supportiveness of evidence is vocabulary-sensitive.

Scientific inquiry is hampered without good terminology, and good scientific terminology is itself an achievement of inquiry, dense with theory: a non-proteinaceous substance in the nucleus of cells is dubbed "nuclein," and later comes to be known as "nucleic acid"; then "desoxyribose nucleic acid," later called "deoxyribose nucleic acid," then "deoxyribonucleic acid," or just plain "DNA," is identified; then "pentose nucleic acid" is specified as "ribose nucleic acid," then "ribonucleic acid," subsequently acknowledged to be acids, in the plural (and to be found mostly not in the nucleus but in the cytoplasm); and then—almost a century after "nuclein" was coined—we have "transfer RNA," "messenger RNA," and so on.17

Figure 1
The Linguistic Archeology of "Messenger RNA"

messenger RNA (1961): an RNA that carries the code for a particular protein from the nuclear DNA to a ribosome in the cytoplasm and acts as a template for the formation of that protein.

ribosome (c. 1958): any of the RNA-rich cytoplasmic granules that are sites of protein synthesis.

RNA (1948): any of various nucleic acids that contain ribose and uracil as structural components and are associated with the control of cellular activities.

DNA (1944): any of various nucleic acids that are localized esp. in cell nuclei, are the molecular basis of heredity in many organisms, and are constructed of a double helix held together by hydrogen bonds between purine and pyrimidine bases which project inward from two chains containing alternate links of deoxyribose and phosphate.

cytoplasm (1874): the protoplasm of a cell external to the nuclear membrane.

protein (c.1844): any of numerous naturally occurring extremely complex combinations of amino acids that contain the elements carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, usu. sulfur and occas. other elements . . .

nucleus (1704): a cellular organelle that is essential to cell functions . . . , is composed of nuclear sap and a nucleoprotein-rich network from which chromosomes and nucleoli arise, and is enclosed in a definite membrane.
Every symbol is a living thing, its meaning inevitably grows, incorporates new elements and throws off old ones. Science is continually gaining new conceptions. . . . How much more the word electricity means now than it did in the days of Franklin; how much more the term planet means now than it did in the time of Hipparchus. These words have acquired information.

—C.S. Peirce

You must remember, at that time even suitable terms were hard to find. I was trying to say that there was something else besides genes; later I began to call them controlling elements.

—Barbara McClintock, recalling the work on genetic control systems she began in 1944-45

Definitions and dates are taken from Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary.

Since theory is fallible, scientific terminology may be bad as well as good, and sometimes fails to pick out anything real. As theories are modified, meanings will shift, and translation of a later theory into the vocabulary of an earlier may be possible only by way of clumsy circumlocution. (This argues in favor of a modest form of what philosophers of scientific language call the "meaning-variance thesis"; but offers no encouragement to the idea that supposedly rival theories are invariably incommensurable.)

Scientific metaphors run the gamut from merely picturesque speech to serious speculative instrument. The cognitive usefulness of those serious metaphors, in scientific inquiry as elsewhere, is to direct speculation into new avenues; their worth, therefore, depends on the fruitfulness of the intellectual territory to which those avenues lead.18 Some scientific metaphors call on familiar social phenomena; but my reasonable rhetorician will resist the temptation to judge their worth by reference to the desirability or otherwise of the social phenomenon in question. If, for example, he takes an interest in Hamilton's metaphor of parental investment—described by Trivers as "the most important advance in evolutionary theory since the work of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel"19 —he will be less interested in the merits of capitalism than in how the metaphor is cashed out (sorry!) in literal terms, and how well the resulting account stands up.

"How well" implies, as it is meant to, that a metaphor may be a good guide, or a poor one. Unlike the radical rhetoric of science that Perutz protests, a reasonable rhetoric of science would acknowledge that rationality can work through epistemically-efficient transmission of information, or be hampered by epistemically-inefficient transmission; that scientific terms may take on information, or misinformation, and sometimes—most often in the social sciences, but perhaps not only there—evaluative coloration; and so on. For science is neither sacred nor a confidence trick, but a thoroughly human enterprise: ragged and uneven, fallible and imperfect—but for all that, remarkably successful, as human enterprises go.


* My thanks to David Ellison, Mark Migotti, and Paul Gross for helpful comments on various drafts of this paper.

1 The quotation is from Delbrück's speech accepting the Nobel Prize in 1969; my source is Horace Freeland Judson, The Eighth Day of Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Biology (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979) 614. [Back to text.]

2 Max Perutz, "The Pioneer Defended," rev. of The Private Science of Louis Pasteur, by Gerald Geison, The New York Review of Books 21 December 1995: 54-8, 54. [Back to text.]

3 See also Susan Haack, "As for that phrase ‘studying in a literary spirit’..." (1996) in Haack, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate. Unfashionable Essays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998) 46-68; and "Misinterpretation and the `Rhetoric of Science': or, What Was the Color of the Horse?", American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly (1999). [Back to text.]

4 Peter Medawar, Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1969) 48; my source is Judson, The Eighth Day of Creation, 226, 640. [Back to text.]

5 Irving Wallace, The Prize (London: New English Library, 1975) 702. [Back to text.]

6 William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 3, Scene 2. [Back to text.]

7 Francis Crick and James D. Watson, "Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid," Nature 171 (25 April 1953): 964-7; Jacques Benveniste et. al., "Human Basophil Degranulation Triggered by Very Dilute Antiserum Against IgE," Nature 334 (28 July 1988): 816-8. [Back to text.]

8 Alison Lurie, Imaginary Friends (New York: Coward-McCann, 1967); Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Evanston: Row, Peterson, 1957). [Back to text.]

9 Malcolm Bradbury, Stepping Westward (London: Secker and Warburg, 1965); David Lodge, Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978). [Back to text.]

10 Titus Lucretius Carus ("the Roman poet of science"), De Rerum Natura, English translation into iambic pentameters by Ronald Melville, On the Nature of the Universe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). [Back to text.]

11 Francis Crick, "The Genetic Code," Scientific American October 1962: 66-74; in The Molecular Basis of Life, eds. R.H. Haynes and P.C. Hanawalt (San Francisco: Freeman, 1968). See also Judson, The Eighth Day of Creation, 462, 482, 485. [Back to text.]

12 Robert Tressell, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. 1914. (St. Albans, Herts: Granada Publishing, Panther Books, 1965). [Back to text.]

13 John Limon, "The Double Helix as Literature," Raritan 5.3 (Winter 1986): 26-47. [Back to text.]

14 S. Michael Halloran, "Towards a Rhetoric of Scientific Revolution," Proceedings of the Thirty-First Conference on College Composition and Communication (1980): 229-36. [Back to text.]

15 Alan R. Gross, The Rhetoric of Science, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996). [Back to text.]

16 Judson, The Eighth Day of Creation, 481. [Back to text.]

17 Robert Olby, The Path to the Double Helix (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1974); Franklin H. Portugal and Jack S. Cohen, A Century of DNA: A History of the Discovery of the Structure and Function of the Genetic Substance (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977). [Back to text.]

18 See also Haack, "Dry Truth and Real Knowledge: Epistemologies of Metaphor and Metaphors of Epistemology" (1995) in Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate, 69-89. [Back to text.]

19 Robert Trivers, Social Evolution (Menlo Park: Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company, 1985) 47. [Back to text.]

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