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The eternal two cultures reprised

Gene Expression
By Razib Khan
Jul 12, 2013 10:00 PMNov 19, 2019 8:14 PM


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A humanistOver fifty years ago C. P. Snow wroteThe 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.

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