Thursday 20 June 2024

Those Lying Bastards

In the previous months I've been in a somewhat unique position where I was simultaneously working on two publications. The first of these is a small monographic publication on some of my own drawings. The second is a research report on some physical characteristics of a novel alkyd resin. Naturally, the first of these deals with art in the freest sense, while the second is a strictly scientific publication, meant to provide reproducible insights upon which future research can be based.

And while working on these publications, a very clear distinction between art and science revealed itself to me. The distinction is obvious, but not commonly discussed, so I believe it's valuable to discuss it here.

The artistic publication I'm working on concerns itself with drawings of stick figures that perform certain movements that were memorable to me. Because I can't produce visual imagery in my mind, actively recalling movement for me is difficult, if not impossible. It was therefore interesting to explore this by creating distinctive stick figures, that are nevertheless awkwardly positioned and proportioned because I can't recall the nuances of the movements. On the one hand these show a great understanding of form in the abstract sense, yet on the other hand they are also poorly drawn and unrealistic.
In the introductory text to the publication I've written that 'this book is but a number of drawings. Each of them was an attempt to draw from memory those movements which can’t live in my mind.'
And this is a lie.
In the process of making the publication there were many times where I worked directly from photographic reference material. This was necessary in order to show the dichotomy between my abstract understanding of shapes and artistic techniques. Doing that involved highlighting interesting and easily recognised movements, and they have to adhere to a certain 'ideal' in order for me to place emphasis on the skewed knowledge I have of them. Showing the 'true' skewed memory I have would make recognising the starting point challenging, so for many of these drawings I worked from reference material to some extent. Below is an example of the same drawing, one truly from memory and one I made using references:

As you can see, these drawings are very different. The pose of the first drawing, made from memory, doesn't posses the nuance and comprehensibility of the second. The original point of this specific pose, a reading of the body as the letter 'K', is even largely lost in the first drawing. And although I can easily recognise that this is so, I couldn't imagine what I should do to change that.

To lie in my actions therefore fits the truth of the narrative better than merely showing the drawing that adheres to the factual truth. This kind of abstraction of reality in order to clarify your point of view is very common in the arts. It might even be one of the main aims or achievements of visual art, as can be gleaned from the common term 'artistic license' for such creative interpretations of the truth.

This is of course in sharp contrast with the aims and methodologies of science. No scientist should ever attempt to bend the factual truth in order to better fit their own preferred narrative.
If as a scientist my results don't fit my desired narrative, then it's the narrative that has to change, not the results. This might lead to something ugly, messy and incomprehensible, but that's unfortunate only for me as a person. One has to abide by the factual truths that one is confronted with, even if understanding and explaining those truths is rarely a straightforward and elegant path.
For scientific results to be reproducible, it's also important to be as comprehensive as possible about your methods. Any parameter, any tool, anything that might have influenced your research is supposed to be included in your description of the experiment. Exhaustive descriptions of methods and materials, as well as their influence, are preferably quantified and explained in the text.
Such a completeness of information is almost never polished and simple, with many little things that were adapted to changing circumstances over time. But unlike in art, in science there is no way to discard unwanted information. No way to make your narrative more easily digested by leaving out or altering crucial details. Everything and anything has to be included, nothing can be left out.

It is therefore impossible in science to increase the readers comprehension simply by making the available information fit the narrative, while in art the exact selection of information to fit your narrative is often a basic necessity.
If you understand this fundamental distinction, it's easy to see why rigorous scientific research can't ever be good art, and why research that focusses on an artistic narrative can't ever be science.