Science of Reading

The science of reading

Does reading make us better people?

Gregory Currie began the debate near the beginning of June when he wrote an essay in The New York Times arguing that although reading might make us morally better people, there is little evidence to support this belief.

As Adam Gopnik once remarked in The New Yorker, “if reading a lot of novels gave you exceptional empathy university English departments should be filled with the most compassionate and generous-minded of souls, and, so far, they are not.”

However, in response, Annie Murphy Paul at Time argued that there is, in fact, good evidence to support the belief that reading does make us better people. And then Karen Swallow Prior at The Atlantic contributed by arguing that reading doesn’t just make us better, reading makes us human. 

Prior helpfully avoids the trap that Currie and Paul both fall into — the trap of believing that the only evidence for or against reading is quantifiable evidence. If we are to believe something to be true, so the thinking goes, we must have measurable proof to defend that belief. Without this evidence we are forced to rely on speculation, or even worse, our gut feelings.

Prior does not fall into this trap because she prefers to see reading as a spiritual exercise that goes beyond the mere decoding of words. She calls this “spiritual reading” and believes that reading of any kind (as long as it is sufficiently deep) can be spiritual. She even quotes Eugene Peterson from Eat this Book (which refers to the Bible of course) on reading meditatively through the ancient practice of lectio divina.

However, the problem is that most readers will probably not follow Prior’s lead, and the ones that do are the ones that were following her lead anyway. The reason for this is simple: scientific explanations are more compelling than spiritual explanations. If you wanted to convince the most number of people that reading makes us better people, you would probably look to Paul before Prior. This doesn’t mean that scientific explanations are more true, it just means that they are easier to understand. It is easier to speak of “facts” than it is to speak about “values” when you are talking about something as highly subjective as reading. As a result, scientific explanations have gained a certain amount of cultural currency that inhibits our ability to imagine truth beyond scientifically verifiable evidence.

I remember my first encounter with this kind of thinking. I was in grade 7 or 8 and my science teacher took the better part of one afternoon to teach us that the whole world at its most fundamental level was scientific. He challenged us to think of anything in the world that was not science.

‘Water!’ one student yelled. Nope, water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. ‘Trees!’ said another. Nope, trees require water and make us of photosynthesis in order to grow. ‘Ice cream!’ ‘cars!’ and so went the afternoon until we could no longer think of things that may not be associated with science. I remained silent throughout the questioning because I was unable to think of anything in the world that was not reducible to science.

That day my primary school science teacher taught me an important lesson: everything in the world is related to science. However, given enough time to reflect on this lesson, I have learned that it is as true as it is misleading. It is true because we all experience reality — whether that reality is spiritual or material — through material means. Since we are all embodied creatures, we should expect that science, whose domain is the material world, would touch on all areas of life. But it is also misleading because it makes us believe that the only appropriate way to understand the world is through science.

One problem with this reductionist thinking is that it does not appreciate that science is not altogether a modern “invention” and therefore not wholly unique. Yes, science has shaped the modern world more than any other force, but science relies on certain ways of thinking (logic, reason, experience, etc.) and certain presuppositions (ie. Christian presuppositions) that were present long before the rise of natural science in the 17th century. As Thomas Henry Huxley, Charles Darwin’s “bulldog,” once said, “The scientific method is nothing but the normal working of the human mind.” In many ways, science helps us do what we were already doing, just in a more organized and efficient manner.

The real modern invention is the belief that truth can only be verified by scientific evidence. Scientific evidence is great; it is a powerful tool that can help us combat foolish or careless thinking and help us see the world more clearly, but we should not let science become more than a tool. The moment it becomes more than a tool is the moment it becomes a belief — a belief on the same level of religious belief — and no longer a method.

So yes, reading can be good for us, but it doesn’t have to be. We know from experience that reading alone will not make an English professor or a Bible-reading churchgoer a better person — the current disagreement over scientific research makes this clear. The irony is that we already knew this.

Flickr photo (cc) by  Amelia-Jane