January 21, 2014 | 3
I haven’t read Jane Austen, Game Theorist and I’m definitely not going to after reading William Deresiewicz’s scathing review in the New Republic. Deresiewicz calls the book and its attempts at “consilience” between art and science “abominable” and “intellectually bankrupt.” Uniting “the two cultures” by trying to find the scientific foundations to humanistic thought, he argues, is “truly idiotic,” diminishing the value of both science and the humanities. It’s an important and thought-provoking argument, a valuable counterpoint to recent popular scientism, which tries to “explain” culture through hyperbolic reductionism. Unfortunately, however, in tearing down attempts to find the science in art, Deresiewicz ends up arguing for an equally problematic view of science and culture, fortifying the metaphorically militarized border between the “two cultures.”
The origin of the influential “two cultures” meme is usually credited to C.P. Snow and a lecture that he gave in 1959 (PDF). Snow, a British bureaucrat involved in science and technology policy in the 1940s and 50s, saw the “gulf of mutual incomprehension” between science and literature as a major threat to technological progress and the Western way of life. Literary intellectuals, he argued, are “natural luddites,” slowing technological progress with their ignorance of the laws of thermodynamics. To “come out on top in the scientific revolution” would require a different way of educating British scientists, engineers, and literature majors, lest the U.S.S.R. do it better. Snow’s arguments that national competitiveness and science literacy go hand in hand are frequently echoed in today’s arguments for expanded STEM education and public outreach. For Snow and many contemporary scientists, diagnosing the gulf between the sciences and humanities isn’t about understanding different intellectual traditions but collapsing the divide by expecting everyone to know facts about science.
Scientists who promote the concept of consilience have similar goals but a different intellectual approach, proposing instead that there is fundamentally no division at all between the arts and sciences because deep down everything should actually be science. One review of E. O. Wilson’s book summarizes the argument thus: “Cultural norms, for their part, are passed on through generations, some proving more adaptive than others…Only when explanation of cultural and economic behaviors is carried back, largely by way of cognitive psychology, to their causal basis in biology will an analysis be scientific. The false boundary separating the social from the natural sciences will then be exorcised. All roads to the truth will be scientific.” Basically, all human knowledge can be collected under the banner of “science,” with evolutionary psychology shepherding the humanities back into the fold.
Deresiewicz argues against such totalizing visions of unity in science and culture. Rather than lamenting the separation between science and literature like Snow and Wilson, he celebrates it, writing that “the problem of ‘the two cultures’ is not, in fact, a problem at all.” In contrast to the unificationist impulse of the scientists, Deresiewicz clearly delineates the separate spheres where science and art may operate. “Science,” he writes, “addresses external reality, which lies outside our minds and makes itself available for objective observation. The arts address our experience of the world; they tell us what reality feels like.”
This is where Deresiewicz begins to go wrong, because the main problem with the “two cultures” idea isn’t that it places science above culture, not giving enough credit to art and artists, but that it places science outside culture and outside of the subjective human experience. There isn’t just one culture that can be fully explained with fMRI analyses or stories about our primate ancestors, but there aren’t two cultures — one objective, rational, and scientific and one subjective, emotional, and artistic — either. There are many human cultures, and scientists and humanists alike work with and within many cultures at once. Many overlapping contexts and constraints shape work in art and in science, from the physical and technical realities of materials and tools, to the social dynamics of labs, departments, disciplines, scientific journals, and online discourse, to the economics and politics of science funding and technology policy.
To say that science is objectively focused on external reality and not, to quote the best subtitle of all time “produced by people with bodies, situated in time, space, culture, and society, and struggling for credibility and authority,” is to ignore the external reality of how science and culture shape one another through the life and work of scientists. The problem with the “two cultures” concept then is neither that non-scientists don’t know enough about thermodynamics, nor that science can’t fully capture the ineffable power of art, but that separating science off from culture leads to bad science.
The belief that science and scientists are somehow above the influence of cultural forces has made it easier to pass off harmful stereotypes and cultural biases as scientific facts. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the “science” of human difference and the generations of scientists who studied the “natural” inferiority of women and basically any minority group ever. These “scientific” beliefs about human nature change over time not because of the progressive power of science to correct previous errors with new evidence, but because of the changes that happen in culture when disenfranchised people fight hard to be heard — in politics, in art, and in science.
The idea that “true science” is strictly rational, with a clear path leading from questions to answers, organized around the infallible scientific method, is especially damaging for young scientists. When experiments fail or produce inconsistent, confusing data, students get lost in what systems biologist Uri Alon calls “the cloud” — where imagination and intellectual curiosity are necessary to break free. This process only looks plainly rational through 20/20 hindsight, when, following the rubric of the two cultures, scientists painstakingly remove the evidence of their intuitions, leaving a picture of science that is impossible to reproduce.
This is why as a teacher and biologist, I work with artists and social scientists: not to better communicate science through creative packaging, but to understand how cultures, science, and technology intersect. Too often, scientists think of artistic, humanistic, and social scientific methods as ways to make the rational medicine of science go down easier. If science were truly concerned with open inquiry and experimentation, we might look harder for ways to disprove the two cultures hypothesis.