The Subjective Truth

wolf-doveAuthors are often asked what book has influenced them most, and the reply usually gives a nod to Kathleen Woodiwiss, Judith McNaught, or a more recent bestseller. My reply is, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Dr. Thomas Kuhn, Ph.d. Despite its hifalutin’ title, this is a small, very readable history of science book, written by a guy who was interested in the difference between what’s good science, and what’s funded, successful, accepted science. The book came out in 1962 and caused quite a rumpus.

My dad’s a scientist, and like most of his kind, wants to believe that if you come up with a clever, elegant experimental question (how do we cure heart disease, for example), you test it with sound experimental trials, you get results that can be repeated by others, and you can write up what you’ve proven, then no matter how radical your findings, you will be published, supported and your research respected.

flame and the flowerScience is rational–right? Science supports objective truths–right? That’s why we call it science–right?

Wrong. Kuhn looked at the big changes in science throughout history, like when Galileo came up with a version of the solar system that had the planets revolving around the sun, not everything revolving around earth. Galileo was right, the Egyptian system was wrong and also not doing a good job of explaining things any more (comets, for example), but Galileo’s system threatened the version of reality that put earth at the center of the universe. He was given the choice to recant or die. He recanted.

Kuhn drew several conclusions. First, it doesn’t matter how good your science is, how much betteGalileo use quoter it explains observed phenomenon. If your findings fly in the face of established interests, truth takes a back seat until society catches up to the insights you’ve found. He coined the term “paradigm shift” for this. Second, the big breakthroughs tend to come from people who are new to the field, or working outside the fields in which they were educated. Those folks have no vested interested in the status quo, but they also don’t have a lot of preconceived notions.

When I wrote The Heir, I had no idea you can’t get a book of more than 100,000 words published. It’s 113,000 words and was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. I was a debut author, I didn’t know any better. Beginner’s luck, or freedom from accepted limitations?

Structure-of-scientific-revolutions-1st-ed-pbWhat I take from Kuhn’s findings are several conclusions. First, doubt everything that’s handed to me as “we’ve always done it that way,” wisdom. Second, treasure my ignorance–or innocence–as a source of insight and progress. Third, treasure the people at the margins, the ones who are passionate about their silly ideas, who won’t stop talking about solar cars (GM started buying solar car patents in the early 1980s) or green roofs, because from them might come the advancement of us all. (And if you want to reverse your heart disease, you might want to read this.)

What book has stuck with you across the years, made you think, or changed how you view life? To three commenters, I’ll send a copy of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

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28 comments on “The Subjective Truth

  1. I was born in 1944 and grew up in a world that was clearly defined. Good was good and evil was evil and there wasn’t much in between. I was sure those “godless commies” were going to drop “the big one” on us any day. I can smile about that now but I had many a nightmare about the A bomb as a kid.

    When I stepped out into the world at 18 in 1962, my thinking changed rather rapidly. But it had more to do with the life I was actually living in the 1960s than any book I read.

    I’m sure there were many books that contributed to my change in thinking about civil rights, feminism and the anti-war movement. But I cannot think of “one” book that did that. It was just living my life.

    Thank you for reminding me of Kathleen Woodiwiss though. THE WOLF AND THE DOVE was a favorite – I’ll have to put it on my kindle.

    • I much preferred the Wolf and Dove to the Flame and the Flower… W&TD have more horses in it.

      You came of age at a wonderful, interesting time, on a parallel with my brothers. My dad’s generation might be the greatest generation, but I think yours has to be the most interesting.

  2. So many books for so many reasons. I’m sitting here looking at shelves full of books. Some of them I only vaguely remember reading while others stick with me for so many different reasons.

    S.M. Stirling’s “Dies the Fire” sticks because it is amazing and frightening to ponder what would happen if the science we rely on so heavily every day were to just stop working.

    Anything by Sherman Alexie always paints such a desperate picture of life as a Native American today. It was that desperation that filled the air when I drove across a reservation in Wyoming years ago.

    “It will all be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” I swear I read it in a Louis L’Amour book.

    All the history. Fictionalized and non-fiction. Everything from Pompeii to Pilgrims to World War 2 to Vietnam. I’d say “Little House on the Prairie” started it all.

    I will admit to being terrible with recalling the details of a book once I’ve read it But the best ones will always leave an impression, a general feeling about the book or just a love of the story it told, and I’ll read it again (and again and again) because I’ll almost always see something for the first time or in a different light.

  3. Back in 1984, my then-boyfriend was taking a course in safe asbestos removal. The procedures and equipment involved were incredibly complex, and when I asked him why, he gave me one of his required reading books- Outrageous Misconduct: The Asbestos Industry On Trial, by Paul Brodeur. It outlined all of the machinations that that industry employed to cover up the dangers of asbestos that they had been fully aware of for decades. Until then,I had naively assumed companies made safe, well tested products, and would never knowingly hurt people just to turn a profit. I became a little more cynical after that, and always felt a little sad about being so. BTW- I STILL have my copy of “The Wolf And The Dove”!

    • You’re not alone. Since Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” exposed the meat packing industry for the horror it was, many of us have been clobbered in print with ugly truths about how business is done.

      General Motors DID buy all up all the solar car patents, and Walmart is right now lobbying heavily against rooftop solar… WHO could be against rooftop solar for cryin’ inna bucket? Oh, yeah, that’s right: Folks who want to own commercial solar farms.

  4. In college, I read a book called On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

    It’s had a profound impact on my life. Kubler-Ross wrote of the 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This subject matter was groundbreaking when it was printed. To me, the stages have always made sense.

    I use this model for loss as well as grief and mediating situations. It’s a great method to use when dealing with change. Sometimes. It hard to say good bye to a long standing friendship, a family member , a dog or a way you perform a task. Acceptance is key, sometimes the path to acceptance is not an easy one to travel.

    • I came across her about the same time in life you did, and you’re right, those stages work for everything from getting out of bed at the beginning of a tough day, to letting go of life. I’ve often been comforted by the idea that there’s a process, an order, to all the difficult feelings, even if it’s not a smooth, tidy order.

      Good book on a scary subject.

  5. There have been so many it’s hard to choose. For romance it definitely was Kathleen Woodiwiss – she definitely hooked me! I too still have all my original books by her. Also, Stephen King. His books are definitely out of the box and I like to think anything is possible. I personally think what is wrong in our school system (and life) is you are taught not to question anything. I can still remember in my honor’s english class when I questioned the bible – oh, goodness it was the end of the world! I tend to be very open minded and tolerant but unfortunately I don’t think enough people are. They much rather put their head in the sand.

    • I think we’re scared, Jeanne, and we want unassailable answers. As American’s we’re also handicapped because we don’t have a big long history to anchor us and we don’t have much cultural cohesion. Historically, we’re the people who would rather face the unknown and call it opportunity, than muddle along trying to work out our difference back home, or we’re people brought here against our will.

      We have some deficits to overcome, and open-mindedness and tolerance are exactly what’s needed.

    • I didn’t like that one, Gail, and I recall it because of that. It was the first book I read where the ending was a whole lotta nothing (I was twelve, metaphors about tomorrow being another day were beyond me).

      But it was an amazing book, and if you only write one book, then make it amazing, right?

  6. For me it was probably C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew. I’ve read many books, fiction and otherwise, that have challenged my beliefs and changed the way I look at the world, so why this book. It’s pretty simple. We always got at least one book for Christmas (just like my kids always get at least one even now that they are adults). One year, ‘Santa’ put The Magician’s Nephew in my stocking. My sister got The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and I thought her book looked more interesting and was let down about my book. But then, I read it – and we read it as a family. I realized that it was the beginning of a series of epic adventures. Just because the title didn’t draw me in and the cover wasn’t terribly attractive, it didn’t mean the book wasn’t a great one. Yeah, never judge a book by it’s cover. A simple but very important lesson in life.

  7. Hi Grace,
    Happy New Year!!!! I have been so busy barely have time to check your blog… or Facebook… actually anything…

    oh books … what would I do or be without books??? Law school for me was a really time to read everything I could get my hands on…
    \
    For a real source of hope, to change my wicked heart and really life altering things : the Bible… really there is everything there…

    The first book I read about economy and money that really made me think and opened my eyes : Man’s Worldly Goods – The Story of the Wealth of Nations by Leo Huberman. It really made me think…

    Ah I can not forget Thorn Birds – goodness gracious I cried so much on that book… can’t believe how it affected my impressionable young mind… it was so much for me that for years I only read adventures, mysteries and fiction. It took years for me to read a good romance and be ok… I used to read the end to see if I would like because I refused to read a sad ending story… can you believe it???

    I love Clive Cussler and all his books… very entertaining…

    • Clive Cussler is a big, fun read. The Thornbirds upset me too. All that frustrated love and arrogance and violence… and for what? I didn’t even watch the miniseries I was so bewildered by it.

      The Bible…I’m particularly fond of Proverbs and Psalms. Wisdom literature that in the language of King James is often lovely.

      As for what people DO with the Bible… a whole ‘nother blog.

  8. I read two books the summer I was either 12 or 13 (the years before HS meld in my mind)that changed my attitude about a lot of things. One was “The Cossacks’ by Leo Tolstoy and the other was a biography by Antonia Fraser,”Mary, Queen of Scots.”

    I was blown away by the Tolstoy, which was a novella, really, and the sentence structure fascinated me ….it was a translation but even so! And then read “Anna Karenina”…have tried for years to read “War and Peace” but just can’t do it. Still love all sorts of Russian literature.

    The Antonia Fraser turned me on to biographies of famous women, especially Queens of England. I am a huge, huge, HUGE fan of Allison Weir, both her nonfiction and fiction. And I became a Elenore of Aquitaine NERD…brilliant, talented and beautiful, she was the wife of two kings (France and England), mother of two kings and a BUNCH of queens (she had I believe 11/12 children) and great-grandmother of a saint (Saint Louis). She and one of her daughters by the French King (Marie of Champagne)invented Courtly Love (and what we have come to believe is romance) during a boring, cold winter to liven things up! And the woman had such a conniving mind and big mouth, her husband (Henry II of England)locked her up for 15 years and she STILL managed to control things!

    Anyway, the Mary Queen of Scots book made me think about women’s role in history and I’ve been hooked ever since.

    • Lion in Winter. With characters like that, how could it be anything but brilliant?

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lion_in_Winter_%281968_film%29

      I read Antonia Fraser as well, and now her daughter’s work. Made me so sad for Elizabeth and Mary both. Old Mary could not catch a danged break, but it’s her son that ended up ruling all of Britain. Oh, the irony.

      I’m comforted, generally, by reading history. We’re in such challenging times, but then I read about 16th century Scotland–religious conflicts, political strife, class strife, everything changing too quickly–and we survived that.

      Gives me a sense of, “We’ll get through this, too.”

      • Elenore’s grandfather was the first Troubadour–Duke William IX of Aquitaine and she was raised to succeed her father. She was educated and could read and write, unheard of at the time for women and was a fine musician as well. Katherine Hepburn played her in “The Lion in Winter” movie……and I think of ol’Kate when I think of her!

        Scotland was such a mess in the 16th century. Being a Presbyterian, I am interested in the religious issues of that time and beyond and as it applies to present day Presbyterianism.

  9. I think it was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, where Jo didn’t marry Laurie, but married the professor instead. Laurie was a handsome man, but he wanted a traditional wife. I think he ended up marrying Amy. The professor was an older man from Germany. He didn’t mind that writing was important to Jo, he loved her just as she was. My family thought I should marry Herbie. He was a good guy, but my gut told me he wasn’t the right guy. I married Jet, who loves me just as I am and encourages in whatever I want to do.

  10. I love it. Thank you for many, many hours of reading pleasure.

    One author I keep coming back to, to inform parenting, working with bureaucracy, effecting change, dealing with fallout — Lois McMaster Bujold.

    PS On the page coming.php, Wishing for Will shows up as appearing in Spring 2015 (center) and Spring 2016 (right sidebar).

    • Jo, thanks for the heads up on the inconsistency. Pub dates do change, but not THAT much. Will’s coming out in Spring 2016, as it happens…. last anybody told me.

      You are welcome for the books, but really, I can’t NOT write. I’m so lucky to be published, and to have all the lovely, wonderful readers I do!

  11. You remind of a course I took in university. I didn’t want to tackle a “real” science course – with labs and whatnot! – so I took a “History of Science” course. It kicked my trash! But I learned more in that class than 95% of my courses. The one thing I have retained was concept (which I believe in wholeheartedly) that there was no industrial revolution, but rather an industrial evolution. And so it is with every major change I have looked at in the history of the world: there are always building blocks that lead to every perceived revolution.

    So grateful The Heir wasn’t constrained by conventional standards. 🙂

  12. Kathleen Woodiwiss’ Flame and the Flower captured my imagination all those years ago. I adore the romance genre.Imagine my delight when I discovered Grace Burrow! I had read all I could find; and eagerly await your next book.