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n = 1: Valuing Literature and Science

Martin Willis



The simple equation above is one of the key reasons that the study of literature, perhaps even research in the humanities more generally, is received with scepticism by scientists. It is to literary scholarship as kryptonite is to Superman. What the equation tells us, if we read it with results in mind, is that our findings relate only to a single instance. What the literary scholar might say about a work of poetry sheds light only on that single work of poetry and not on anything else, whether on poetry or on the social marginalisation of cancer patients. It has no (statistical) significance.

But statistics, as we know from Mark Twain, are never quite as simple as that. Cancer Research UK, in a series of advertisements on the London Underground earlier this year, claimed that “every day, research saves 3 times the number of people that fill this carriage.” That is quite a statistic, especially if you have ever travelled on the tube during rush hour. What they mean by this, however, is not that new advances in scientific research are curing an additional 66 people of cancer every 24 hours. Rather, the advertisement plays on the statistical fact that approximately 24,090 (365 x 66) people living with cancer in Britain remain alive twelve months after diagnosis. If you died a year and a day later, you would still be a statistic contributing to that self-congratulatory tube advert.

But highlighting the gap between scientific publicity and reality is not really the point. It is far more important to understand from statistical fictions like this one that scientific knowledge alone cannot solve our most pressing problems. There must be a place for other ways of examining, and changing, the world. The rest of us should not be sneering at Cancer Research, however grandiose their statistics. We should be helping them.

Microsoft are already elbowing their way in. Lately, they have been claiming that their Cloud is helping to cure cancer. Their expertise in the collection, organisation, and interpretation of big data, they say, has enabled them to support scientific research with much faster analysis of genomic information used in the study of cancer therapies. This is statistics again: lots of them. Surely, though, if my laptop is helping to cure cancer, there must be a space, and a significant one, for literature?

Is it just that literature does not have the corporate muscle, or lack of modesty, to make great claims? Should our leading universities be paying for billboards in tube stations that exclaim that Shakespeare can save your life? This was, after all, the question that leading novelist Ian McEwan asked, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, in his 2005 novel Saturday when a violent criminal’s murderous intent is halted not by the rational pleas of his neurologist but by a young woman’s reading of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”.

McEwan is far from alone in wondering about the relationship between literature and science, and their relative merits and position in the world. Over the last twenty years there has been a huge increase in the writing and publication of poetry, plays, and novels dedicated to understanding something of the interplay between the literary and scientific. From Michael Frayn’s germinal science play Copenhagen (1998) through Allegra Goodman’s Orange prize shortlisted Intuition (2006) to Barbara Kingsolver’s acclaimed Flight Behaviour (2012) and Marianne Boruch’s fascinating new poetry collection Cadaver, Speak (2014) writers have been examining an incredible range of scientific disciplines, controversies, and challenges.

Not coincidentally the last twenty years has also been a period of considerable advancement for the academic study of literature and science, largely as a sub-discipline within literature departments and led by literary scholars, but sometimes, and increasingly, involving scientists, historians, and sociologists. What this academic community has achieved is a hugely enhanced understanding of the role of literature in the promotion and critique of new scientific knowledge and its implications across history.

While that role still remains, it seems that there are moments, such as now, when we need to remind ourselves, scientists, and other opinion-makers, of it. What is it, then, that we should value in literature’s engagement with science and in the academic study of that engagement?

The first task is to remind scientists that while individual works of literature might well be unique and unrepeatable, that n=1, literature and science scholarship uncovers much greater significance from the study of such works: n= a whole lot more than 1. Literature does not, after all, simply reflect the scientific knowledge being generated elsewhere. Nor is the relationship parasitic; literature should not be caricatured as picking barnacles from the great whale of science to allow it to swim freely onwards.

Fictions engaged with science offer much more than an advertising puff. The worlds they imagine act as laboratories for social and cultural exploration, asking difficult questions of the place of new scientific knowledge in the human world. Like the tableaux vivant used to illustrate scientific books in the eighteenth century they place science in real situations and examine the effects on individuals, societies, and politics. Literature enables all of us to orient ourselves in relation to science by humanising its research and the implications of that research. This is not only vital to our present culture, it also allows us to understand our past and to think appropriately and fully about our future.

It is the academic study of the relationships between literature and science that explores how writers have engaged with science, in what forms they have done so, and with what effects. Such scholarship enables us to see that literary knowledge has as much value as scientific knowledge; and also reveals why it is (and why it should not be) that such a claim seems so radical to us now. Scholars of literature and science are also passing on this knowledge, mainly through teaching and writing, and in doing so are creating a new generation that is scientifically literate; not in their understanding of specialist scientific knowledge, of course not, but in understanding the centrality of science to our world and how to ask the right questions as it develops new methods for intervening in that world.

To that extent, literature about science, as well as literature and science, are not just for small groups of writers, readers, and academics. That would only further anatomise knowledge in the very ways that literature and science is trying to counter. Literature engaged with science, and the study of literature and science are essential for all of us who would wish to be ethical, competent, credible and critical citizens. Not n=1, rather n=everyone.

Where, though, does this leave literature and science in relation to where we began—with cures for cancer? Literature about science can certainly show us what it means to live with cancer, or even the complex scientific and human factors involved in seeking cures for it. It is literature and science scholarship, though, that can mobilise these fictions in pursuit of cancer cures. Work with illness narratives has, for some time, revealed the productive thinking that can emerge when cancer is imagined as a lived experience. This data (if you like) has delivered better cancer care and, in turn, better cancer research. Indeed narrative medicine, as this work is now often named, is making strides within bio-labs and elsewhere as one form of evidence-based research. None of this is basic science—the kind of necessary research that we require to tackle diseases like cancer—but it is undoubtedly, and at least, on a par with the claims made for big data. And if even Microsoft thinks it is helping cure cancer then there is every reason to argue that literature and science scholars are doing the same.

Martin Willis [1] is Professor of Science, Literature and Communication at the University of Westminster and Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Cardiff School of Medicine, where he advises on medical education and the history of medicine. His Vision, Science and Literature, 1870-1920: Ocular Horizons (2011) won the BSLS Book Prize in 2011 and the European Society for the Study of English award for ‘Cultural Studies in English’ in 2012. His most recent monograph, Literature and Science: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism is available from Palgrave Macmillan in December 2014.