Bloggingheads Diavlog with D. Graham Burnett on the Two Cultures

By Chris Mooney | April 25, 2009 8:22 am

Apologies for not keeping up on my C.P. Snow posts as I intended, but perhaps I’ve done one better: I cornered my Princeton prof, D. Graham Burnett, to do a bloggingheads session about the historical and contemporary meaning of C.P. Snow, in anticipation of the New York conference. And I think it went off quite well:

Burnett really kicks ass in a couple of moments: For instance, where he shows that both C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis were kind of clueless about the very real impact of science on the literary work of someone like Joseph Conrad, who totally grokked the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Other topics that come up in the diavlog: What is the history of science and its origins as a field; why do we tell so many cliched stories about the development of knowledge, and the smiting by science of superstition, when the actual history is always more rich, interesting, and complex; and how can we mobilize history of science knowledge in the present moment to weigh in on the global warming or evolution debates.

So, enjoy.


Comments (5)

  1. There’s some pretty interesting stuff in there, but here’s something amusing; Prof. Burnett keeps referring to “usable energy” in the context of the second law. “Usable energy” is what we chemists and physicists usually call “free energy”, something completely different from what the 2nd law talks about, namely entropy. The entropy of a system may become unfavorable and yet the free energy may become favorable. Free energy or “usable energy” is not what the Second Law talks about.

  2. Jon


    Really sharp guy. I envy your being able to take courses with him.

    Perhaps anticipating your discussion on science and religion you guys mentioned, I found this interesting piece on Charles Taylor in the UK’s Prospect magazine:

    Though [Taylor’s] book reads like an argument with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, it won’t be joining theirs at the front of the bookshops. That is a pity, as Taylor is arguably the most interesting and important philosopher writing in English today…

    At the heart of Taylor’s thought is a critique of “naturalist” modes of thinking, whether manifest in philosophy, social science, economics or psychology. For Taylor, naturalism is the view that all human and social phenomena, including our subjectivity, are best understood on the model of natural phenomena, by using scientific canons of explanation. So wherever possible, apparently complicated social entities should be reduced to their simple component parts; social and cultural institutions and practices explained in terms of the beliefs and actions of individuals; value judgments reduced to brute animal preferences; the physical world to sense data; sense data to neurological activity and so on. Taylor believes that in the last 400 years, naturalism has fundamentally reshaped our individual and collective self-understanding. Seeing the limits of this mode of thought promises to give us a critical purchase on ourselves and our culture…

    …Taylor… published two widely read books on Hegel that did something to reconcile English-language philosophers to that famously obscure German. Hegel’s metaphysics—in particular his pre-Darwinian, teleological view of nature as an expression of spiritual power—may be dead, Taylor argued, but he analysed better than anyone the tensions between scientific instrumentalist and Romantic expressivist values, tensions which remain at the centre of society, culture and philosophy today…

  3. Also, Prof. Burnett says that the Second Law leads to an “icy, crystalline” state of the universe. But an icy, crystalline state would signify a high degree of order, opposite to what the Second Law says.

  4. Jon

    Chris, you say you’re amazed about the science vs. religion critique being completely present during the French Revolution. That’s what all my Isaiah Berlin links have been about over the past few years. That’s kind of his specialty…


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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