Michael Shermer at Scientific American has a platform for a belief I’ve had for years regarding “hard” v. “soft” sciences and “technical” v. “popular” writing. I just wish, as a “soft” academic social scientist for years before my present lapse of judgment, I’d had as few variables and as easily obtained as “hard” scientists had to deal with. And having published way too many scholarly articles to be proud of, I always found it more difficult to write for the general audience than for my academic peers (whether they consider me a “peer,” I don’t really know). Shermer says it all much better than I can. Here’s his major statement:
Data and theory are not enough. As primates, humans seek patterns and establish concepts to understand the world around us, and then we describe it. We are storytellers. If you cannot tell a good story about your data and theory—that is, if you cannot explain your observations, what view they are for or against and what service your efforts provide—then your science is incomplete. The view of science as primary research published in the peer-reviewed sections of journals only, with everything else relegated to “mere popularization,” is breathtakingly narrow and naive. Were this restricted view of science true, it would obviate many of the greatest works in the history of science, from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, the evolutionary biologist’s environmental theory about the differential rates of development of civilizations around the world for the past 13,000 years.
Well-crafted narratives by such researchers as Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, the late Stephen Jay Gould and many others are higher-order works of science that synthesize and coalesce primary sources into a unifying whole toward the purpose of testing a general theory or answering a grand question. Integrative science is hard science.
“Integrative science” is exactly what’s needed in corrections sentencing. Data and theory do not support the policies we pursue for the most part, so why do we pursue them? Because we have failed at the last part: If you cannot tell a good story about your data and theory—that is, if you cannot explain your observations, what view they are for or against and what service your efforts provide—then your science is incomplete. On a planet with real humans, good storytellers, absent confirming data and theory, will still hold their own and usually win against only good data and theory. Writing up a couple of dozen reports or holding conference after conference on “good practice” or “what works” will go no further than those efforts have in the last few decades as long as the stories we tell ignore “what service your efforts provide.” As long as we accept the underlying premises of the counterproductive stories at play in our policies—that prison protects people best, that drugs take over minds immediately and lead to inevitable death, that all sex offenders are the same, so on, so on, so on—then our data and theory, which do not blend with those demonstrably wrong stories can never prevail. We have the data and theory, we don’t need more reports or workshops. Let’s get our stories better written and told. Then we might have a chance.