I think it justifiable to say that in the nineteenth century, novelists provided us with most of the powerful metaphors and images of our culture. In the twentieth century, such metaphors and images have largely come from the pens of social historians and researchers.
-Neil Postman, Conscientious Objections, p. 15
In context, Postman is making the case that what has come to be known as ‘social science’ is really a narrative form of myth-building. This has continued on into the twenty-first century to be sure.
Where do you shelve Malcolm Gladwell? Is his work some form of ‘science?’ He deals with facts and statistics, right? Actually, he is a story teller. And he uses facts and statistics in order to support certain narratives. It’s not fiction, but it’s not really non-fiction either. Yet somehow it sells as a form of social science. What is Gladwell doing that fascinates us. I’ve read nearly half-a-dozen of his books, and I don’t think I’ve really learned anything from them. I’ve taken the narratives with me, but I don’t feel that I have a better grasp of real reality for having read him. If I want reality I’ll read Charles Dickens, or The Odyssey, or The Wind in the Willows.
This is not to say that the so-called social sciences have no value. They do. They can certainly have value. I started to say I had learned valuable things from my 15 college hours of psychology. But then I realized I actually haven’t. Bad example. It’s just bad stories for the most part. Especially Freud and Skinner. You remember the one about the kid who stopped breast feeding too early? Or about the mouse that learned to push a lever? Or about the Cat in the Hat with two Things? I’ll take Dr. Seuss. “A person’s a person no matter how small” is better than anything I got from my psychology classes. Anyhow.
Postman argues against the title ‘social science.’ He thinks it is misleading. I agree. But, of course, I think that science itself is pretty much always built on narrative. We won’t go there for the moment. The first important thing I want o note here is that he deems social science as ‘moral theology.’ I think natural mythology (or perhaps personal mythology) might be a better term.
The second important thing to note is that we have to figure out why it is that the symbols once supplied by fiction are now supplied by such down-to-earth mythologizing. We were not content that made up stories should serve as symbols of who we are; we now have to have real stories made up to form some sort of mythological narrative. Forgive the post-modernish me; I don’t have answers, just questions.
My hunch is that Postman was right in Technopoly in his point that Science speaks with the voice of a god in our culture. ‘Thus saith Science’ is the mark of infallibility. If one wants to speak authoritatively about anything, one must use the language of Science to do so. Therefore if one wants to create a convincing narrative, one must at least give the appearance that it is scientific.
Ironically, Amazon lists the Postman book I am quoting from under the categories of ‘Social Science’ and ‘Sociology’ – two of the very categories he is arguing against.