This strategy has long roots. Some of our culture ’s best chroniclers of the human condition have been doctor-narrators who decided to begin telling stories : Anton Chekhov, William Carlos Williams, Walker Percy, Oliver Sacks — and now, talented writers like Atul Gawande, Daniela Lamas (a Times Opinion contributor), Siddhartha Mukherjee and Vincent Lam. It has been a huge loss to the humanities, and to readers in general, that relatively few physicians think of themselves as storytellers. But perhaps that is beginning to change.
It’s worth noting that the most famous doctor in Covid-era America is a committed humanist. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, fell in love with the humanities in high school and majored in classics at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. When he pondered life after college, “there was this tension: Would it be humanities and classics, or would it be science? ” he told The New Yorker this past year. “And as I examined that, it appeared to me that being a physician was the perfect melding of both of these aspirations. ”
As these humanist M.D.s well understand, history, literature and philosophy aren’t just great training grounds for an empathetic bedside manner. They shed light on the big questions of healing and suffering. But it’s difficult to make the pitch that humanists have something meaningful to say about big questions when so many people have fallen prey to ever-narrower research interests and make no time for general exploration of the world.
C.P. Snow, a British novelist and chemist, wrote in his seminal 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures” the humanist intellectuals he knew dismissed scientists “as ignorant specialists” — yet most of them couldn’t define the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Their own ignorance and their own specialty are just as startling, he wrote. The cultural authority of the hard sciences has mushroomed since Dr. Snow’s time — and humanists are paying a much higher price for their own parochialism.
What about the fee partly vindicated, I admit, by the small number of radical postmodernists in our ranks that humanists in academia downplay empiricism and evidence, as The Lancet put it? It’s more accurate to say that humanists take evidence so seriously that they emphasize seeing it from multiple vantage points and recognizing one’s own limited perspective.
This epistemological caution has value for medical professionals too. Like all specialists, they’re captive to their discipline’s present fallible paradigm and hidden assumptions. Such paradigms are crucial to scientific work, but at the exact same time, a paradigm can “insulate the community from these socially important issues that aren’t reducible to the mystery form, because they cannot be stated concerning the conceptual and instrumental tools the paradigm provides,” Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science, wrote at “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. ”
Such an attitude is not well suited to cutthroat classes preparing students for board examinations. What were studying in basic science classes is that this is objective, this is 100 percent correct, this is the only way to see it, Mr. Kessler, the medical student at Washington University, said. “The humanities couldn’t be farther from that. There are many ways to interpret peoples cultural upbringings and interpret their stories and seeing them in multiple lights is important to providing everybody with equitable care. ”