Saturday, March 13, 2010

Three Cultures? Or one?

Of late, I’ve been slowly working through a book: "The Three Cultures" by Jerome Kagan. This is a work that pays homage in its title to C.P. Snow’s classic work, "The Two Cultures", in which Snow described and attempted a reconciliation between the seemingly very different cultures of science and the humanities. In Kagan's book, the author (a social scientist) adds a third culture by distinguishing between “natural” sciences and social sciences, the latter of which focus on human beings and their activities in various ways (political science, economics, sociology, psychology, etc.). Kagan divides the "science" culture into two ...

I’m not going to delve into this book’s notions - maybe later. But reading it has forced me to mull over the divisions among the diverse human “cultures”. Of particular significance is that being a physical scientist has given me a broad perspective - in a position to grasp challenging scientific concepts based on a knowledge of advanced mathematics. Those in this position are relatively rare. I don’t know the numbers, but I’m guessing that simply knowing Calculus puts me into a very tiny minority (of order 1% or less) of humans in my country, to say nothing of those in other nations (“worlds” apart, in nations where most people have little chance to pursue a career in science, regardless of their talent and interest).

And I'm also human, with all the same feelings and perspectives that those pursuing careers in the humanities have. Science inevitably colors those aspects of my perspective, naturally - nevertheless, I see the beauty of a rose as well as the next human. I also see deeper than that, to the processes allowing that rose to happen in my world. It's my privilege to live at a time and place where science has added considerable understanding about the world for all of us who choose to gain that understanding.

I know many scientists who dabble in other fields of endeavor, including many who are artists of various sorts – visual arts, performing arts, etc. Some of them are reasonably well-accomplished in their hobbies. Not full-time professionals certainly, but serious enough about those hobbies to develop considerably their talents in those directions. Most good scientists are far from one-dimensional geeks, despite the widespread myth that all scientists are one-dimensional.

Unfortunately, I know very few folks who are the inverse of my colleagues - that is, professionals in the humanities but simultaneously pursuing some scientific interest at a serious level. [Many of the exceptions to this rule amongst those I know are storm chasers!] This means that scientists well may be more than able to grasp non-science concepts, but few of those pursuing careers outside of science have much of a clue about how science really works. Their bias against science comes, perhaps, from hated science courses in K-12 education, which they rejected as of no interest and boring in the extreme. Math phobia also takes a toll of the potentially interested. Unfortunately ignorance of how science works perpetuates myths about, say, the conflict between evolutionary biology and creationism. Myths fill the vacuum created by rejected understanding.

It’s my hope that this essay won’t come across as encouraging or perpetuating a divide between science and the humanities. My experience suggests that the concept advanced by C.P. Snow is true - that the two cultures have some elements in common and could viably interact, to the benefit of everyone. But it’s been my perception that most non-scientists have erected a barrier in their own minds to the value and excitement of learning about the natural world in a scientific way. To them, knowing a rose’s biology somehow detracts from our appreciation of the rose as an object of beauty or a symbol of something relating to the human condition. I couldn’t disagree more with that thesis, but it’s impossible to change the mind of someone who has chosen to remain ignorant of the inherently beautiful perspective associated with knowing how things work.

I can’t imagine how the modern Western world of today, with its deep roots in science and technology, must appear to someone who has trouble understanding the information content of a graph. As I suggested earlier, that ignorance breeds the growth of faith-based mythology. In today's world, where important social decisions ride on scientific issues, the growth of that mythology as a means of making societal decisions is inherently dangerous.

Whatever their world view, folks ignorant of science and how it works are separated by a vast gulf from the world as I know it. That saddens me, because I enjoy discourse with people who are informed enough to have a substantive understanding of some topic. Finding myself "preaching to the choir" is a less than satisfactory experience - I'm not seeking affirmation of my ideas by murmured agreement in a crowd of the faithful. Rather, I welcome challenges to my understanding, provided they're intelligent challenges, and not simple bashing. By the same token, a clash of ideas that results in no one changing their minds still can be useful and stimulating, provided the discourse remains civil (see my earlier blog about civil discourse).

C.P. Snow bemoaned the division of our society into two apparently different "cultures". Today, the fractionation of our society is rolling forward at an accelerating pace. We're mostly talking past each other, not engaging in a search for understanding and reconciliation where possible. Dehumanizing those with opposing views is rampant on all sides. If we're to survive the storm we're creating for ourselves, I think we need to welcome dissent in the way that our nation's "Founding Fathers" hoped would happen - in the way expressed so eloquently on a plaque affixed to Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin.


Lak said...

I am also disturbed by the point you raise in the second half of this post. It will be hard to find a scientist (who knows English) who is not familiar with at least one of Shakespeare's plays. That's because it's widely considered to be an integral part of "culture".

But how many English professors know any of the laws of thermodynamics? Let alone be able to understand their implications? It's unfortunate that the ability to interpret data or follow a scientific proof is not considered a necessary part of "culture".

===== Roger ===== said...

I completely agree with your argument that more folks in the humanities and social sciences should become more educated on concepts of physical science. The coin, however, has two sides, and the misunderstanding and distrust go both ways. Further, that sort of division not only splits "social" and "physical" scientists, but science versus non-science humanities (i.e., arts, religion, literature, linguistics, etc.). Lak alluded to this in his example of the English professor not having at least fundamental conceptualization of thermodynamic laws.

One contributor to the division of "cultures" you noted, in and out of science, is the deep antagonism of many in science toward humanities, including religion. I don't get that. Why must one necessarily exclude and/or demonize the other? For some insightful discussion, see this essay:

Lost in that division has been the ideal that, for example, one validly can be a religious scientist, as were Isaac Newton, Copernicus, Bacon, Ben Franklin, and thousands of others today (i.e., I wish more scientists would appreciate the contribution that humanities as a whole, and religion in particular, has made to science, instead of focusing on the oppressive misdeeds and sometimes violent crimes of the extreme zealots and generalizing that outward to a whole group. The same goes the other way too: for those in religion who condemn scientists to hell's back forty (a decision that's not up to them anyway).

Those who behave in such ways, on both sides of the divide of which you write, and in each manifestation of that schism, become what they bemoan, whether or not they realize or admit such.

By the way, your point about K-12 science courses can't be understated. The same can apply to many college science courses also, especially those intro-level classes taught by tenured professors who rather would not have to condescend to it, or by graduate students whose command of the English language is so poor that they really don't belong in a teaching capacity. [Yes, I experienced both, more than once.] Most such courses, K-12 or college in my generational experience, were exercises in rote memorization instead of pathways to actual understanding -- especially in fields such as chemistry and physics. Curricula too easily became full of *facts*, but devoid of *meaning*. No wonder so many kids didn't see the point in it.

Chuck Doswell said...

Roger, you asked:

One contributor to the division of "cultures" you noted, in and out of science, is the deep antagonism of many in science toward humanities, including religion. I don't get that. Why must one necessarily exclude and/or demonize the other?

I agree that exclusion and dehumanizing are not necessary, but there are two points regarding this question I'd make:

(1) The majority of 'demonization' in this clash between religion and science historically has been done by religious 'zealots' who see anyone not believing in their brand of religion as heretics worthy only of eternal damnation. I have no problem acknowledging that 'moderate' believers exist in most religions, of course, and they're only a problem when they stand by passively and say/do nothing about the misdeeds of the zealots [e.g., when Islamic terrorist actions are not condemned in public statements by all 'moderate' clerics of Islam who supposedly don't support such actions]. Historically, 'moderate' believers are cowed into silence by threats from the fanatics.

(2) Some clash between religion and science is inevitable. Science is based on observational evidence. Religion is based on blind faith acceptance of dogma. Wherever those two interpretations of the world intersect (as in evolution vs. creationism), conflict necessarily results. Where they apparently don't overlap (as in tornadogenesis theory), no conflict ensues.