Jane Austen, Must Reading for Scientists

Ehle and Firth, "Pride and Prejudice"

Ehle and Firth, “Pride and Prejudice”

Alex Rogalski, a biology major who took my Jane Austen class two years ago, alerted me to a recent New York Times article applying Jane Austen-inspired game theory to the practice of science. I’ve written in the past about UCLA political scientist Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s book Jane Austen, Game Theorist, but it was particularly gratifying to see former students finding their own way to him.

The topic of Chwe’s article is confirmation bias, which involves scientists unconsciously seeking out data that confirms their theories. Spurring Chwe’s article was an article in Nature two years ago in which C. Glenn Begley and Lee M. Ellis “reported that they were able to replicate only six out of 53 ‘landmark’ cancer studies,” and that “[s]cientists now worry that many published scientific results are simply not true.” Chwe says that “science might look for help to the humanities, and to literary criticism in particular,” and quotes Captain Wentworth in Persuasion:

We each begin, probably, with a little bias…and upon that bias build every circumstance in favor of it.

After laying out a number of instances where scientists have fallen prey to confirmation bias in recent years, Chwe then discusses how Austen can help:

 [R]esearchers should emulate Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, who submits, “I will venture to say that my investigations and decisions are not usually influenced by my hopes and fears.”

Chwe commends Darcy for at least acknowledging the possibility “that his personal feelings might influence his investigations.”

I think there are even better passages that Chwe could have chosen from Pride and Prejudice, instances where both Darcy and Elizabeth are able to look closely at data that undermines their theories, locate their confirmation bias, and arrive at more accurate theories. I’ll quote these in a moment. First, however, it’s worth noting how Chwe initially found his way to Jane Austen:

When I began to read the novels of Jane Austen, I became convinced that Austen, by placing sophisticated characters in challenging, complex situations, was trying to explicitly analyze how people acted strategically. There was no fancy name for this kind of analysis in Austen’s time, but today we call it game theory. I believe that Austen anticipated the main ideas of game theory by more than a century.

Now back to Pride and Prejudice. Early on, Elizabeth actually recognizes that she is susceptible to confirmation bias, saying to Jane about Darcy, “To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate!—Do not wish me such an evil.” Awareness of her tendencies does not save her from error, however.

When she receives his corrective letter following the accusations she levels following his first marriage proposal, her pride could keep her from facing up to the truth. However, she has the courage to admit that she is wrong. Notice the steps she goes through, which require her to scrutinize his letter and line it up with the data available:

With amazement did she first understand that he believed any apology to be in his power; and steadfastly was she persuaded that he could have no explanation to give, which a just sense of shame would not conceal. With a strong prejudice against every thing he might say, she began his account of what had happened at Netherfield. She read, with an eagerness which hardly left her power of comprehension, and from impatience of knowing what the next sentence might bring, was incapable of attending to the sense of the one before her eyes. His belief of her sister’s insensibility, she instantly resolved to be false, and his account of the real, the worst objections to the match, made her too angry to have any wish of doing him justice. He expressed no regret for what he had done which satisfied her; his style was not penitent, but haughty. It was all pride and insolence.
But when this subject was succeeded by his account of Mr. Wickham, when she read, with somewhat clearer attention, a relation of events, which, if true, must overthrow every cherished opinion of his worth, and which bore so alarming an affinity to his own history of himself, her feelings were yet more acutely painful and more difficult of definition. Astonishment, apprehension, and even horror, oppressed her. She wished to discredit it entirely, repeatedly exclaiming, “This must be false! This cannot be! This must be the grossest falsehood!”—and when she had gone through the whole letter, though scarcely knowing any thing of the last page or two, put it hastily away, protesting that she would not regard it, that she would never look in it again.
In this perturbed state of mind, with thoughts that could rest on nothing, she walked on; but it would not do; in half a minute the letter was unfolded again, and collecting herself as well as she could, she again began the mortifying perusal of all that related to Wickham, and commanded herself so far as to examine the meaning of every sentence. The account of his connection with the Pemberley family was exactly what he had related himself; and the kindness of the late Mr. Darcy, though she had not before known its extent, agreed equally well with his own words. So far each recital confirmed the other; but when she came to the will, the difference was great. What Wickham had said of the living was fresh in her memory, and as she recalled his very words, it was impossible not to feel that there was gross duplicity on one side or the other; and, for a few moments, she flattered herself that her wishes did not err. But when she read, and re-read with the closest attention, the particulars immediately following of Wickham’s resigning all pretensions to the living, of his receiving, in lieu, so considerable a sum as three thousand pounds, again was she forced to hesitate. She put down the letter, weighed every circumstance with what she meant to be impartiality—deliberated on the probability of each statement—but with little success. On both sides it was only assertion. Again she read on. But every line proved more clearly that the affair, which she had believed it impossible that any contrivance could so represent as to render Mr. Darcy’s conduct in it less than infamous, was capable of a turn which must make him entirely blameless throughout the whole.

And now her confession as to what has led to her mistaken impressions:

How despicably have I acted!” she cried.—”I, who have prided myself on my discernment!—I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candor of my sister, and gratified my vanity, in useless or blamable distrust.—How humiliating is this discovery!—Yet, how just a humiliation!—Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly.—Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.

A little later, in a conversation with Jane, she is ruthlessly honest with herself:

And yet I meant to be uncommonly clever in taking so decided a dislike to him, without any reason. It is such a spur to one’s genius, such an opening for wit to have a dislike of that kind. One may be continually abusive without saying any thing just; but one cannot be always laughing at a man without now and then stumbling on something witty.

We know that Elizabeth and Darcy are worthy of each other when he proves to be as capable as she of acknowledging where he went wrong and why:

What did you say of me, that I did not deserve? For, though your accusations were ill-founded, formed on mistaken premises, my behavior to you at the time had merited the severest reproof. It was unpardonable. I cannot think of it without abhorrence.

And further on:

I cannot be so easily reconciled to myself. The recollection of what I then said, of my conduct, my manners, my expressions during the whole of it, is now, and has been many months, inexpressibly painful to me. Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget: “had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.” Those were your words. You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me;—though it was some time, I confess, before I was reasonable enough to allow their justice.

I’m willing to put Pride and Prejudice on the required reading list of all science majors—and for that matter, of all people who look to the world to confirm their own preexisting prejudices. In other words, on the reading list of just about everyone.

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