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The Two Cultures at Fifty May 8, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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On May 7, 1959, C. P. Snow gave his famous lecture on “the two cultures”.  The event took on such resonance that there are now 50th-anniversary events taking place in some major institutions of science to acknowledge its significance.  See the New York Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, the latest Nature, and the folks from my old neighborhood.

The event is taken as an opportunity to reflect on and question the relevance of Snow’s message.  But for me Snow has taken on the sort of red-flag qualities that other people in the history of science see in intelligent design or bad pop science.  Why am I so exercised by Snow, of all people, and not these other things? Aside from his direct (albeit marginal) place in my research, I think it’s because Snow exists in a somewhat uncomfortable space between the uncontrollable bazaar of public ideas and the coherence of useful conversation.  The bazaar will always be with us.  But Snow helps experts who should know better think they’re having a good conversation, when it’s not the case at all.

The way Snow did this was through a shrewd combination of good-but-obvious advice, bad history, and issue advocacy.  As UVa New York University prof Guy Ortolano details in his new (and lamentably expensive) book, The Two Cultures Controversy (2009), when Snow made his argument, he had specific (more…)

Science and Humanities May 27, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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1 comment so far

C. P. Snow rises from the dead to haunt us once again! I’m going to take a break from Galison’s questions for a post or two to try and concentrate on some other things. In this case, it’s a New York Times article on a curriculum to unite the sciences and the humanities, which Advances in the History of Psychology picked up on as well.

We are confronted with the question of whether the science and the humanities (a.k.a. non-science) cultures can ever resolve their perspectives. I’ve been hacking away at the intro to my book, which essentially says that we among the academic commentariat have missed the boat. The two cultures never existed. (See also Edgerton’s Warfare State and Guy Ortolano’s recent intellectual history dissertation on the Snow two cultures controversy).

This is a hard subject to address in blog format, but I’d just point to two issues. First, the problem of specialist knowledge is not limited to science. Modern society is effectively founded on the notion that many differing kinds of specialist knowledge and skill must be brought together even though no one individual (or committee) can master it. Questions of trust and fairness abound. This issue is much bigger than science, and Snow was wrong to suggest that the inclusion or exclusion of science, in particular, was central to this problem (science studies could do with some reality checks here as well).

The second issue is the definition and relevance of the humanities to public and scientific culture.
By any reasonable standards, science is incredibly mainstream. And humanistic thinking is equally mainstream, if, by humanistic thinking, you mean non-scientific thinking. The two get along quite nicely, again, by any reasonable standards. Snow was (needlessly) worried that Britain’s administrative ranks were chock full of people who could quote obscure literary passages, but knew nothing of the second law of thermodynamics. But this was not representative of the state of British science-society relations in Snow’s day. Today the concern is even less relevant.

Science has been incorporated into the technological life of society to the point where the university-commercial divide has ceased to exist in a meaningful way. There are many who hand-wring about the integrity of academic science, perhaps in some cases rightfully, but the situation we enjoy was precisely what Snow was advocating. The question thus becomes, do the academic humanities have anything to contribute along the lines suggested in the NYT article?

The NYT article suggests the contents of the humanities could be useful (not just some vague analysis and writing skill acquired through work in humanities courses regardless of their content). Personally, I doubt it. I think our work could be useful, if we wanted it to be (and it’d be legitimate if we said we don’t want it to be). Public discourse consists of a series of short-hand references–historical references (witness the recent hubbub over Bush’s reference to appeasement), turns of phrase, etc. Humanists could be good at researching, dissecting, and judging the pertinence of the way public discourse unfolds.

We in the history of science could demonstrate how people are bad at talking about science and technology; but that would mean taking what non-historians have to say seriously. Traditionally, some non-historians have done very well in arguing about issues. A humanities training could be good at preserving the quality of prior arguments and rearticulating them, and repackaging them in useful ways so as to promote originality and cumulation of ideas. But our work will never be pertinent unless we are committed to being cumulative ourselves–working amid abstruse details, and refusing to set up straw men. Scientists have no problems with either, and it’s gotten them a long way. Until we can match them in terms of quality and the core importance of their contributions, I don’t think programs that attempt to link science with the humanities can flourish.

–apologies for sloppy use of the term “humanism” in the prior version of this; it’s still not up to snuff (humanists=practitioner of the humanities; ugh), but will have to do.