A Review of the Novel Intuition

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Falsehood flies and the truth comes lingering after, so that when men come to be undeceived the jest is over and the tale has had its effect. — Jonathan Swift

In a classic example of life imitating art, Korean scientist Hwang Woo-Suk fraudulently claimed that he had successfully cloned human embryos and developed lines of stem cells from those embryos. Was it the social and financial pressure to produce results that led him to make this series of career-ending compromises? How did he succeed in his deception for as long as he did? Where was the scientific community to enforce accountability? And what should the legal ramifications be for misusing limited public funding for one’s own potential glory?

Jewish American novelist Allegra Goodman was already delving deep into such issues before this scandal broke in January 2006. In her most recent novel Intuition, Goodman offers an unflinching look at the strengths and weaknesses of a diverse cast of characters as they confront the real-life pressures inherent in scientific research today. Goodman weaves a host of themes throughout the progression of her narrative, including the role of perception in defining reality; competing epistemologies; and the place of individual recognition and achievement in a collective atmosphere.

Setting the story in Cambridge, MA, Goodman employs rich details as only a native could. Her deliberate imagery choices and ability to show through precise detail, rather than tell through abstractions, reveals her effectiveness as a writer. Goodman’s wry observations and understated humor throughout are reminiscent of Jane Austen (indeed the one-word title was a nod to Austen’s novel Persuasion). Although her third-person omniscient narration occasionally borders on the heavy-handed, overall Goodman’s dialogue and characters ring true. If her large vocabulary and numerous literary references sometimes seem pretentious, perhaps the effect is understandable given the somewhat rarefied and elitist setting of the story.

The Story Begins

With the same characteristic conservatism and Jewish background as her namesake, lab director Marion Mendelssohn is responsible for overseeing her post-doc researchers with fellow director “Sandy” Glass at the financially challenged Philpott Institute, located literally and figuratively in the shadow of Harvard (Dr. Glass was originally Sam Glazeroff after his Eastern European Jewish grandparents, but as appearances were of “substantive importance to him,” he jettisoned such unwieldy heritage).

As they face dwindling grant monies and ongoing failures in the lab, the directors and post-docs all long for success. Bright and talented Cliff, his patient girlfriend Robin, pessimistic but knowledgeable Feng, and their colleagues Aidan, Prithwish, and Natalya, could all stand to benefit from more promising results. So when Feng discovers that Cliff’s R-7 virus appears to be shrinking cancerous tumors in the lab mice, a rapid chain of events is set off.

The somewhat unscrupulous Sandy Glass seizes upon the apparent effectiveness of the R-7 virus as the means to escape likely financial ruin, and he persuades Marion against her better judgment to use Cliff’s preliminary results in a grant proposal to the National Institute of Health (NIH). The rush to duplicate Cliff’s successful experiments begins in earnest, and Sandy capitalizes on the power of the press to spread the good word. Meanwhile, back at the lab, Robin finds that none of her R-7 experiments are working; diligent though she is, the cancer tumors are not disappearing.

Enter Jacob Mendelssohn, Marion’s loyal child-prodigy husband. As Robin confesses her difficulties to him and internalizes her unsuccessful experiments as personal failures, Jacob insinuates that perhaps the trouble is with Cliff’s seemingly too-good-to-be-true results, rather than any fault of hers. Thus begins Robin’s painful quest for the truth.

Perception and Reality

Permeating the novel is the haunting question, “Under what circumstances can we and should we trust our intuition?”

Initially Robin wrestles about whether or not to contact the Office of Research Integrity in Science, or ORIS, but eventually she realizes that “her intuition told her Cliff had cheated.” The courage to rely upon her intuition, however, is significant, given that in the lab, intuition was considered “a restricted substance” because “like imagination and emotion, intuition mislead researchers, leading to willful interpretations.”

After gathering sufficient evidence that Cliff was not entirely honest in his data reporting, events begin to move beyond Robin’s control as she enlists the help of investigators at ORIS. While Robin only meant to accuse Cliff, she is soon confronted with a barrage of questions: “Was one small set of untruths really so telling? Did the fault lines in Cliff’s work really extend so far? She did not want to think that way. But then how else could scientific liars prosper, except with the tacit consent of the community around them—a heedless will to believe, on the part of peers, collaborators and mentors alike?”

This predisposition to “see what we want to see” is highlighted brilliantly in the initial academic hearing in which Robin makes her case and Cliff defends himself in front of a panel of scholars. After Robin steadily builds a convincing argument, using scientific methods to prove her intuitive assertions, Cliff is given the floor: “And Robin watched the meeting slip away. Her graphs lay forgotten on the table. She had spoken well, but Cliff spoke better. He had the more compelling argument, because his results were beautiful.” Cliff’s presentation is described as “a scientific argument so natural, so compelling and intuitive, that everyone in the room seemed to relax” (emphasis mine).

Clearly what constitutes “intuitive” depends upon what the intuition is based. Previous experience, present circumstances, and one’s ideals and underlying motives are critical in determining what strikes one as intuitive.

As Clark and Poortenga note in The Story of Ethics, “Copernicus, the intellectual prime mover of the scientific revolution, cautioned that appearance is not always reality, and also that common sense and sense reality are not always reliable guides to comprehending the world.”

The powerful role of perception in determining reality is dramatically highlighted as the investigation continues. Marion begins to question herself and wonders if “circumstances were distorting her perspective.” She suggests to Feng that perhaps Cliff’s early work was rushed. When the generally trustworthy Feng does little to confirm her suspicions, Marion interprets his silence as proof of Cliff’s integrity (as if to underscore the unreliability of interpretation, several scenes later Marion misreads another of Feng’s silences). A strong bias towards belief, motivated by the desire to gain public recognition, save the lab, and avoid the public shame of a retraction, overwhelms Marion’s rationality—a post-modern reminder that human scientists are incapable of complete objectivity.

When Marion finally confronts Cliff about his record-keeping procedures, the power of his self-delusion is evident: “Perhaps his work with R-7 had been more about ideas than concrete facts; perhaps his finds had been intuitive rather than entirely empirical . . .”

Ways of Knowing

In fact, fundamental epistemological approaches compete throughout the novel. The characters often champion the rational scientific “masculine” approach above the more emotional humanistic “feminine” ways of knowing. When Robin first presents her case about Cliff to Marion, Robin is dismissed because she has allowed her emotions to come to the fore. Marion sees her as hysterical, obsessed, and unreasonable, although Robin has just asked a series of entirely valid probing questions.

Clearly partial to the power of literature, Cliff timidly asks Sandy and Marion if he might add the Shakespearean epigraph “What’s your dark meaning, mouse?” to the journal article on R-7, just as a professor he admired used to do. Sandy first laughs at Cliff’s suggestion, but he softens a bit when Cliff mentions that it was Sandy’s daughter Kate who found the epigraph for him. Ultimately, however, Sandy declares, “We never use epigraphs.”

Why should literature and science be construed as mutually exclusive? Why is literature so often perceived as a second-class citizen? Are we such a pragmatic, Enlightenment-based efficiency-worshipping culture that we would so boldly deny our capacity and longing for mystery and wonder?

Being Known in a Collective World

One longing that drives all the main characters of Intuition is a desire for individual recognition and a sense of individual accomplishment. Within the collective mindset of the laboratory, each person is expected to contribute to the greater whole without looking for personal affirmation.

Yet all of us long for our lives to mean something, to count, and Sandy, Marion, Cliff, Robin and Feng are no exception. Perhaps the rigid emphasis on collective achievement in the lab to the exclusion of personal acknowledgement is what predisposes the characters to problems, whether it be entering into unhealthy relationships, obsessing Captain Ahab-like over the white whale of success, or rushing headlong into a pursuit for glory despite well-founded misgivings.

Conclusion

At the conclusion of the novel, readers are left with a realistic but less than encouraging picture of the ability of the legal system to mediate justice in scientific investigations.

While this may strike some as unsatisfactory, another view might suggest that perhaps what’s important is not so much how the bioethical issues have been resolved, but rather how those issues have affected the growth of each of the principal characters.

Similarly, as we engage with the challenging and complex ethical dilemmas before us, we open ourselves up to the possibility not only of being used as agents of transformation, but of ourselves being similarly transformed.

 

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