Thursday, August 12, 2010

A sequel to The Two Cultures

C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures gets a useful update with Jerome Kagan's The Three Cultures, which adds social sciences to the mix. Kagan is insightful and has a good understanding of each of the three cultures (sciences, humanities, social sciences) that he analyzes in the book. Of course, I prefer Snow's original to the update :-)

Snow: I remember G. H. Hardy once remarking to me in mild puzzlement, some time in the 1930s, Have you noticed how the word "intellectual" is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition which certainly doesn't include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me? It does seem rather odd, don't y'know.

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.

Kagan: The birth of this manuscript was the need for a summer writing project married to the accidental spotting of C. P. Snow’s Two Cultures near the shelf where I was searching for a book in Harvard’s Widener Library. After reading Snow’s 1959 essay the following weekend, it became clear that revisiting Snow’s thesis 50 years later allowed me to organize my thoughts about the state of scholarship in the American academy and to synthesize my unhappiness with the dramatic ascent of the natural sciences in the years following World War 2, which intimidated the other two scholarly communities.

A deep theme in The Three Cultures centers on the different meanings of truth; that is, what does an individual point to when he or she declares, “I believe that idea to be true.” The correspondence between a statement and a reliable observation is the usual meaning of truth for both scientists and the public. However, mathematicians and some physicists accept the logical consistency of a mathematical argument as a second, different definition. The physicists who call themselves string theorists believe that their equations are true, even though many phenomena assumed by the equations have never been observed.

Many humanists accept the semantic coherence of a text and its correspondence with the readers’ intuitions as a related, but distinctive, definition. Readers of John Rawls’s Theory of Justice or Richard Dawkins’s book on selfish genes regard the texts as capturing the truth, even though many statements lack correspondence with observations and do not use formal arguments. William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real have the ring of truth for those whose semantic networks are in accord with those of the authors.

The related concept of “ethically right” belongs to another meaning network that shares the semantic node correct with the concept true. All who are certain that no human should harm or torture an innocent are convinced of the correctness of this belief which, unlike truth, involves a contrast between good and bad.

The final chapter of The Three Cultures is penetrated with personal ethical evaluations of the changes in the ambience of the research university, including the epidemic of a naked seeking of celebrity, the erosion of faculty loyalty to the university or the student body, the surrender by both administration and faculty to the seduction of political correctness, and the faculty acquiescence to demands to account for their time, to publish enough papers to announce that they possess a work ethic and, if possible, to bring overhead money to the college treasurer. Alfred North Whitehead, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Rita Levi-Montalcini, and Marie Curie would have been puzzled by this new breed of academic scholar.


Jin Dih said...

These cultures are not equal. The "scholarship" of the humanities and social sciences is easy and cheap. Theoretical science is cheap, but it's hard. Useful science is expensive and hard.

My experience is that those natural scientists who are "illiterate" are so because they do not value belle lettres or philosophy. It is a waste of time for them like watching television.

The writing is on the wall and has been on the wall for a long time: the history of the world is the history of technology.

anon said...

In science you can't succeed by only doing bad work. In the humanities and social sciences you can. That scholarship is not worthless by necessity. It's worthless because those who practice it do not value the good more than the bad.

paulyarbles said...

How is worth determined? Please provide a formula or algorithm.

paulyarbles said...

"The writing is on the wall and has been on the wall for a long time: the history of the world is the history of technology."

Stop being so pompous and just say technology is the only thing that determines events. The lack of pomposity has the benefit of making it easier to recognize how ridiculous the idea is.

BTW, science and technology aren't the same thing.

Jin Dih said...

It was Marx's idea before it was mine.

The distinction between useful natural science and technology is nil.

Useless science, the type Steve does, is just entertainment for the small group of people who can understand it. He has more in common with people in the music department than those in geology or biochemistry.

paulyarbles said...

The fact that Marx said it doesn't make it sensible statement. This appeal to authority is just an unappealing fallacy.

"Useless science, the type Steve does, is just entertainment for the small group of people who can understand it. He has more in common with people in the music department than those in geology or biochemistry."

Ouch! Nasty but interesting. Then again, why do you think music is useless? Weird.

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