The eternal two cultures reprised

By Razib Khan | July 12, 2013 1:00 pm

A humanist

Over fifty years ago C. P. Snow wrote The Two Cultures. The details of the argument, and his more general worry about the state of his society, are less important than the fact that there has been a persistent and widening chasm in perception, and often in reality, between the two antipodes of intellectualism, the humanities and science. This has not always been so. The great evolutionary geneticist J. B. S. Haldane studied mathematics and “the Greats.” From what I can tell the latter is equivalent to classics. This combination is not unheard of, the eminent UCLA neuroscientist Paul Thompson has a similar educational background (he is also British, like Haldane). The string theorist Edward Witten received his first degree in history, only later shifting toward a focus on mathematics and science. But these are exceptions, not the rule.Most people who end in the sciences began in the sciences, and the majority do not have a liberal arts college undergraduate background.*

The converse situation is also true in regards to experience and familiarity. Most who are enmeshed in the humanities have only a cursory knowledge of science, and a general unfamiliarity with the culture of science (though more students switch out of science to non-science degree programs than the reverse). In most cases I find the ignorance of science by non-scientists sad rather than concerning, but in some instances it does lead to the ludicrous solipsism which was highlighted in books such as Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science. Though there is often a focus on fashionable Leftism in these critiques, it may be notable that the doyen of “Intelligent Design” has admitted a debt to Critical Theory. The scientist-turned-theologian Alister McGrath positively welcomes post-modernism in his The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. The problem is not ignorance of science, as much as the dismissal and mischaracterization which that ignorance can give birth to in the right arrogant hands.


This is why I think Virgina Heffernan’s column ‘Why I’m a creationist’ is important as an exemplar of an unfortunate genre. Her slippery prose makes David Berlinski seem the model of precise sincere clear concision. For me Heffernan’s ‘Creationism’ in and of itself causes little offense; plain and sincere falseness is a clean error at least. I am wrong on many things, though I aspire toward correctness in the future. Rather, it is assertions like the following on Twitter:

I invite you to peruse her strange musings further, and please also read Carl Zimmer’s eloquent rationale for why he became somewhat absorbed in l’affaire Heffernan. Like Heffernan Carl has a background in English literature. Unlike Heffernan he does not have an advanced degree, so perhaps he did not fully imbibe such sophistry at the knee of the greats to the same extent? The inability of some humanists to admit that they know not what they know not is what can be very infuriating about interacting with them in their ‘science skeptic’ modality. Though it is cliche to assert that science is a process, rather than fixed truths (the fixed truths are the subjects of study), it is clear that individuals such as Virginia Heffernan have not internalized that basic fact of how science works (see in her column where she bemoans the protean nature of scientific consensus as if it is a bug, rather than a feature!).

This bizarre perception is particularly ironic coming from humanists, who deal in ambiguity and gray interpretation as their stock-in-trade. There is an incoherent aspect to implying that science is just another subjective narrative, while crucifying it for changing the terms of understanding of the world around us. What is unique about science is not the fact that it is a process (the law is a process!), but that it is contingent and progressive. Science may change, but over the long term it converges upon progressively more precise and accurate models of the world around us. In physics this is illustrated by the refinements of relativity over classical mechanics. In evolutionary biology it is the transition away from tired ‘selectionist’ vs. ‘neutralist’ debates, toward a better understanding of the true distribution of the parameter space than a coarse qualitative labeling of it.

And yet it is important to set aside rage at grand-standing opportunists like Virginia Heffernan, because scientists could themselves benefit from a greater appreciation of the humanities. Though science is protean as it is progressive, the fixity, clarity, and objectivity of standard orthodox science one receives as one is encultured does on occasion lead to unfortunate cognitive ticks. The problem resides in the reality that scientists are humans embedded in a human world, and too often they confuse the order and regularity of natural scientific processes  which are their subject with phenomena more generally. In understanding the biomolecular nature of DNA or basic Newtonian mechanics budding scientists do not engage in discussion. They learn, and they solve. The period of these problem solving sessions are finite and often delimited, and though they may be taxing they illustrate to scientists and engineers that difficult issues can be resolved by reduction, analysis, and/or computation in real time. This same mentality can be transferred to humanistic endeavors, to unfortunate consequences.

The humanities are essential in imbuing us with a sense of values, norms, and an aesthetic framework. But perhaps just as importantly they teach us that understanding topics of extreme complexity such as the historical process or literary creativity require humility, and an acceptance that the task may always be unfinished. Even the masters are but children in this enterprise, and final answers are going to be much more difficult than a good set of questions. The power of science and engineering in the modern world is such that it often confuses the primitive primate practitioners of the discipline. They falsely believe it is in fact they, and not the method, that manage to obtain through power of mental acuity a deep understanding of the subject. This is not so. Science works not just (necessary, but not sufficient) because of individual brilliance, but through a cultural system of values in which scientists are embedded, and the plain fact that their subjects of interest are relatively tractable low hanging fruit. Science inspires awe in part because of its relative ease at generating truth outputs. In contrast, the humanities can remind us that there are truly inscrutable depths which we are only dimly grasping on the edge of our perceptions. I would much rather have a discussion about this reality than the sloppy intuitions of self-aggrandizing intellectual narcissists.

* Going by the fact that only a minority of people graduate from “liberal arts colleges” last I checked.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science
  • Chas

    As a philosophy Ph.D. from France, I would like to point out that most English department postmodernists here in North America are not only ignorant about science, but just as crucially perhaps, regarding many of the “theoretical” references they seek to borrow from continental philosophers. The simplistic howlers I have come across in some papers horrify me for the simple reason that they are dragging my discipline in the mud. Well-defined technical concepts are wantonly misused and you would think from reading some of these papers that most twentieth century thinkers from the Continent have been mired in obscurantism and irrationality. I quite understand the looks of contempt I have sometimes gotten from academic colleagues in the sciences – they think that what I do has something to do with glib postmodern relativism or with purely impressionistic mashups of ill-defined concepts. In fact, I have been aching to teach a course on contemporary European philosophy for science majors. Phenomenology and its different strands for instance might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a far cry from the random gibberish and crude relativism to be encountered in some modern language departments (who do us philosophers the disservice of quoting the same authors as we do).

    However, I must also say that I have encountered people in the hard sciences who had no patience or interest for any concepts taken from outside of their disciplines. Before confidently (arrogantly ?) tossing a particular intellectual tradition into the trash heap, it would be wise to at least give it a fair hearing.

    As I like to point out to a few scientist friends, in the absence of a sure scientific method, the “battleground of metaphysics” (Kant) has its share of wild falsehoods, but perhaps because of the free rein we have to speculate, it is also a wonderful playground. Even in the worst case scenario (solipstic ramblings with no falsifiability), at the very least we have conceptual palaces of perhaps unrivaled subtlety and originality. That’s why the little shapeless lumps of “Theory” in the humanities are so misleading.

  • http://www.scholars-stage.blogspot.com/ T. Greer

    One thing I have always admired about you (Razib) is how grounded you are in history and the other humanities.

    How much of this is gulf between science and the humanities, and how much just academic specialization? One can find a few random historians – say, a classicist who focuses on late Republic rhetoric, the chair of the LGBT studies who wrote a book on queer culture in 1960s Australia, an environmental historian who lectures on land use in colonial South America, and a Sinologist whose speciality is military tactics in early 20th century China – and throw them together in a room and discover they very little to say to each other. And they are in the same discipline! Is the science/humanities thing really a split between the two, or just a product of inward looking academia?

  • BDoyle

    I hate to sound like a pedant, but it’s the second time I’ve seen “stock and trade.” The phrase is stock in trade, or stock-in-trade.

  • Biologist

    Almost certainly an outlier, I pulled up my undergrad transcript and started counting courses: humanities (24), STEM (33). Senior year of high school, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to study literature or science. Freshman year of undergrad I sorted that out. Having seen first hand both sides of the divide, I have to argue the greater degree of fault lies on the humanities side — weight: 80/20. Also, humanities courses are much easier.

    • Biologist

      I did find that humanities majors often believed that they understood science better than they did. They tended to fill in the gaps in their understanding of how science works by inference from how the humanities work (in an academic sense of work).

      The single most effective way of shocking them out of that belief was to point out that historical texts are of very little interest to modern scientists. You don’t consult Darwin’s writings for the most accurate description of evolution. They usually found this very surprising and it served to open them up to reconsidering how much they really understood about how science works.

    • andrew oh-willeke

      I don’t think you are an outlier. While there are lots of humanities and social science majors who take few STEM classes (generally due to weak math skills and a perceived lack of science aptitude), few STEM majors take more than about 60%-65% STEM classes and a fair number take less than 50% STEM classes.

  • andrew oh-willeke

    “Most people who end in the sciences began in the sciences, and the majority do not have a liberal arts college undergraduate background.”

    Some liberal arts colleges have very high rates of science PhD production as a proportion of graduates. Mine had a 50% graduate school attendance rate heavily weighted relative to the general graduate school population towards the sciences – far more than larger universities.

    Science majors (although not engineering majors) generally pursue a liberal arts course of study even if it is at a larger national university or flagship state college. Science majors usual take many non-major classes in the humanities and social sciences and sciences outside their concentration relative to pre-professional majors in business, education and engineering.

    Only a minority of people who end in the sciences began at institutions are predominantly STEM oriented like MIT or CalTech or the Colorado School of Mines.

    • razibkhan

      Some liberal arts colleges have very high rates of science PhD production as a proportion of graduates.

      andrew, please be a close readers. that’s why i put the note that most people do not graduate from a liberal arts college (less than 25%). and i don’t really count the general education type courses as equivalent to upper division humanities seminars. they’re filled with bored/low energy business and science majors who just want to get the grade and move on.

  • omarali50

    There may be two separate (but related) problems in the humanities: one is lack of understanding how science works in general. The other applies only to SOME scientific questions (global warming, GMO foods, genetics of intelligence or behavior, etc) and has to do with giving primacy to politics. Just as an example: in my (limited, anecdotal) experience with a few historians/social scientists, it seems they do have standards and apply rigorous rules of evidence in some narrow area in which they specialize (i.e. in their actual academic work) but they (and many/most? of their peers) accept a broad left wing worldview almost like an inherited dominant religion (metropole, empire, neo-liberalism, racism, colonialism, orientalism etc, you know the drill)..and some scientific topics intrude into that worldview and get pre-judged. . In their thesis or their latest paper they may be careful and skeptical (even if sometimes wrong) but in arguments about science where the dominant church has already filed an opinion, its like those same rules never existed.

    And the lack of insight or self-criticism can be astounding (coming from people who insist knowledge is subtle, nuanced, subject to biases and unconscious influences from prevailing myths, distorted by self-interest, etc).

  • Andrew Selvarasa

    See “Intellectuals and Society” by Thomas Sowell.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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