The Lost Symbol is the third book in Dan Brown’s series following the trials and tribulations of Robert Langdon, Harvard symbologist extraordinaire. In this gripping instalment, Langdon is Mysteriously Summoned by an old friend to the US Capitol to give a lecture, only to find his friend’s severed hand tattooed with eldritch symbols. He has only a few hours to crack the code and deliver up the ancient Masonic wisdom the kidnapper is after, or his friend will die. Apparently. No-one bothers to check this information.
One of the most annoying things about The Lost Symbol – and believe me there are a great many annoying things about it – is the way it insists on presenting itself as factual and educational. “All organisations in this novel exist,” it proclaims, as if this actually means anything in a genre not unadjacent to realism; and almost every single chapter begins with a rundown of useless factoids (usually of the dimensional variety) about some Washington building or other. Not only is this bad writing – the thriller equivalent of the infodump – it’s also a deeply mendacious narrative strategy designed to suggest that everything in the novel is true. It’s assuming a position of authority that it doesn’t deserve.
I don’t think I would be quite so bothered by this if one of the main characters wasn’t (supposedly) a scientist. Katherine, the brother of the kidnapped man, studies noetics – a real discipline concerned with studying the power of the human consciousness. Whether or not the real-world Institute of Noetic Sciences (which, yes, does exist, thank you Dan Brown) seems legitimate isn’t the point here: the point is that it comes off as hokum in the book because Brown doesn’t seem to have the least idea of how science actually works. Katherine’s work is secret, and is not backed up anywhere. It has never been published or peer reviewed. And yet, the vast amounts of data sitting on her hard drive apparently “prove” that thoughts have weight and can cure cancer and other unlikely things.
In particular, there’s a scene in which Katherine plays her brother a video recording of an experiment – a single experiment on a single person – in which a dying man is weighed in a sealed chamber. And, lo and behold, at the very moment of his death the number on the scales drops – proving that the soul is real and physical!
This is stupid both on its own terms and in the factual real-world terms the book aligns itself with. Firstly, physical things can’t leave the sealed chamber – that’s the point – so if the soul is physical its leaving the body wouldn’t register a loss of weight on the scales; it would just float around, presumably, within the chamber. Secondly, any scientist worth their salt – any scientist whose research might, for example, genuinely be able to revolutionise our understanding of the human mind – would know that one data point proves absolutely nothing. It could be a systematic error, an error with the measuring equipment, a flaw in the glass of the sealed chamber that’s letting some of the air out. None of this apparently crosses Katherine’s mind, or, indeed, Dan Brown’s.
I think the problem here is that Brown is trying to draw a parallel between the “knowledge of the ancients” (which Katherine, incidentally, has dedicated her life to proving, which is also not how science works) and modern-day science; and that this is a parallel which doesn’t hold up. As Brown presents it, the “knowledge of the ancients” is a body of knowledge locked up in old books. Science isn’t like that; science is a process in which nothing is ever really proved to be “true”, only less false. Unlike, say, Freemasonry, science isn’t a field in which authority is based on how much you know (or it shouldn’t be, anyway); it’s based on how you think, your reasoning, your logic, your experimental design. It’s the difference between learning by rote and actually learning. The Lost Symbol doesn’t understand this; hence the fact that it takes such pride in the kinds of factoids a twelve-year-old would trot out at parties (“did you know the Capitol covers four acres of floor space?!”).
Why does this matter? Because thinking about scientists as a privileged elite isn’t healthy, for them or for us. Anyone can do science, in theory. I mean, to do properly groundbreaking stuff nowadays you need complicated and expensive machines; but everyone can think about science, evaluate evidence, weigh up whether a study into whether the MMR vaccine causes autism that involved ten children who were selected for the fact that they already had autism actually tells us anything new. And breeding misunderstanding of this fact, casting scientists as experts who know secrets we mortals can only dream of, is (to get topical for a moment) one of the reasons America has just sworn in a maniac as President.
Or, as the Circumlocutor says, “It is a smelly book.”