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?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.)
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.
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.This could be fun.
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.
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?]