Monday, July 28, 2008

Cocktail Parties and the Two Cultures

I can't tell you how many times I've been in the company of "intellectuals" who can discuss at great length their operatic preferences or how many novels by Gabriel García Márquez they've read, but who don't know what DNA is or which planet is closest to Earth. In many cases these "intellectuals" seem to be downright proud of the fact that they "can't do math." Scientific ignorance is not a only acceptable among this group but seems to be almost a badge of honor.

Imagine the response if one were at a cocktail party and admitted that you didn't know who Gabriel García Márquez was, and what's more, you don't care.1 The concept of two cultures, science and humanities, isn't new—it dates from the time of the scientific revolution almost 500 years ago. The conflict is almost always characterized as the lack of respect shown by humanities toward science. Here's how C.P. Snow put it in his writings on The Two Cultures.
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question -- such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? -- not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.
Much has been written on this topic including a book by Stephen Jay Gould (The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox) that has to be the most useless contribution to the debate that has ever been published. (I say this as an unabashed fan of Gould.)

Two bloggers have recently re-opened the debate. Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles got the ball rolling with The Innumeracy of Intellectuals and Janet Stemwedel (Adventures in Ethics) picked up on the discussion with Fear and loathing in the academy. The latest contribution from Janet is Assorted hypotheses on the science-humanities divide, in which she offers several hypotheses to explain the two cultures problem.23

The comments on both sites are interesting. They bring up related issues such as why do we have courses like "Astronomy for Dummies" and "Science for Poets" while all science majors take pretty much the same courses as the humanities students. You don't usually find examples of dumbed down philosophy courses for biologists.

What's so amazing is that Janet even has one commenter (Shawn) who's willing to defend the superiority of the humanities over the sciences. Here's part of his comment ...
As for the topic generally: it really speaks to the elitism in the hard sciences that everyone from the "science side" is more than happy (either implicitly or explicitly) to lump the soft sciences in with fine arts and literature without batting an eye. It's also rather ironic that many people on the "science side" of this debate seem to have no problem with trotting out tired cliches, culture war bugaboos, and fourth hand anecdotes to shore up their, frankly childish, arguments regarding the irrelevancy of the humanities.

Everything from ascot-ed and monocled patricians, to post-modern mandarins, to smug artsy conformists, a rouges gallery of stereotypes and cartoons presented as if it were actual evidence. But I guess what do you expect from a bunch of nerds who have no knowledge of real life. (See? It's such an easy game to play.)

Yes, of course science saves lives and makes life better, but the actual business of living, 90% of the lifespan of the overwhelming majority of humans is dominated by subjects connected to the realm of humanities. The internet is the product of science and engineering (and massive government/tax-payer funded research), but in the end it's merely a vehicle for people to conduct their lives and maybe (or maybe not) enrich their lives. Science certainly can save your life, but the humanities make it worth living.

The humanities IS civilization and civilization is the sciences' natural habitat. Science is in fact inconceivable without the humanities.
This could be fun.


1. That doesn't apply to me. I know who he is, and I just don't care. His main claim to fame is that he got his Nobel Prize the same year as Bergström, Samuelsson, and Vane and Aaron Klug.

2. As you might have guessed, this debate was way too tempting for John Wilkins. He has weighed in with philosopher's take on the subject: What philosophy of science and "postmodernism" have in common. John has some interesting things to say but I'll deal with them in a separate posting.

3. Razib at Gene Expression contributes: Humanities "vs." science.

[Image Credit: The cartoon is by Serge Bloch from The New York Times via Can the “Two Cultures” Become One Again?]

17 comments:

  1. So, Larry. Which planet is closest to the Earth? The answer might not be what you first think...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Bayesian Bouffant, FCDMonday, July 28, 2008 11:22:00 AM

    Science is in fact inconceivable without the humanities

    Why is it that the terms "in fact" and "the truth of the matter is" are more frequently followed by opinions than facts or truth?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Bayesian Bouffant, FCDMonday, July 28, 2008 11:23:00 AM

    So, Larry. Which planet is closest to the Earth?

    My guess would be: Earth.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I thought about qualifying my question to say "except Earth itself, of course"; but I though, no, no-one's going to be that.... ah skip it. ;)

    Which planet, other than Earth itself, is closest to Earth. It's a multiple choice question, and the correct answer is one, and one only, of the following: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Have you read Edward Wilson's latest book Consilience? I think he really gets to the root of the current status of the two cultures problem, and shows the path forward towards unification, if there is one to be found.

    The argument that the gap is essentially a result of science's limited ability to explain the brain is compelling...

    ReplyDelete
  6. Whoops. Missed your footnote.

    Chris: Doesn't it depend on where in their orbits they are?

    Of course, I would have said the moon (since some designate it a "sister planet" because it doesn't orbit the Earth's center but a common center of gravity (about 1,000 miles deep in the Earth).

    ReplyDelete
  7. On Dumbed Down Courses:
    Having struggled through astronomy for english majors, I'm interested in the comments about how there are no equivalent classes for math and science whizzes who struggle in literature and writing courses. What I noticed when applying to grad school is that in regard to the standardized tests still required as part of an application packet by most departments/institutions, sometimes math and science whizzes don't need to worry about their language based score at all. They can get a zero on the language based part of their test and it doesn't make a difference because they're judged (at least at some prestigious places I noticed) only on their math based score. I haven't found that the favor is returned by language or writing based grad school departments nixing the math based scores of their applicants.

    On Communicating:
    I'll never be a science or math natural, but for me--about as out there as you can get on the not-just-Marquez but Borges, Allende, and Neruda-loving end of the spectrum, the practice and challenge of logical thinking only helps in the expression of language and literature-based thoughts. A healthy dose of humility about one's own abilities (and walking away from badly bloated egos no matter what subject their owner has found to pontificate on) helps to address those intellectual conversations, where the patronization and stigma surely runs both ways.

    ReplyDelete
  8. At the moment, the closest planet to earth is Mercury:

    http://space.jpl.nasa.gov/cgi-bin/wspace?tbody=1000&vbody=1001&month=7&day=28&year=2008&hour=00&minute=00&fovmul=1&rfov=5&bfov=30&porbs=1&showsc=1

    ReplyDelete
  9. fred wins. Yes, it depends where they are in their orbits. Right now, Mercury is closest; and they are all further away then the Sun. Sorry to go off topic; back to the bunfight with science and humanities.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I''l jus say first, I am not a fan of goudl, but I can tell when I can see a poser.
    Larry's "Gouldism" is made of carboard. His epistemology and scientism (the TRUE foundations of his way of thinkins) are pure Dawkins-lover material.
    Need I even mention Larry's stance of race? If gould were aliv he would push larry away in disgust (as he desperately attempts to show his Gouldism by licking his shoes or something)

    ReplyDelete
  11. sanders says,

    Larry's "Gouldism" is made of carboard. His epistemology and scientism (the TRUE foundations of his way of thinkins) are pure Dawkins-lover material.

    Hmmm .... I'm beginning to see why you've been banned from some blogs.

    I hate to censor anything but spam so from now on I'll just ignore you. You don't know what you're talking about.

    ReplyDelete
  12. "It has become almost a cliche to remark that nobody boasts of ignorance of literature, but it is socially acceptable to boast ignorance of science." -Richard Dawkins

    (I think I got this from PZ's random quotes list)

    ReplyDelete
  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  14. you might just censor me, your anti-censorship is probably made of cardboard, too.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Unfortunately, your stupidity is The Real Thing (TM).

    ReplyDelete
  16. "It has become almost a cliche to remark that nobody boasts of ignorance of literature, but it is socially acceptable to boast ignorance of science." -Richard Dawkins

    This is absolutely correct. Maybe english majors in modern institutions are not allowed to have this sort of attitude, but pretty much anywhere else you go people will be amazed if you express interest in science but are not a TV Genius*.

    * Defined in tvtropes.org: "The unintelligent person's idea of what a genius is like".

    ReplyDelete