Whither the two cultures?

Image: Scholars at an Abbasid library, part of the Baghdad “House of Wisdom”;  by Yahyá ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti, 1237

This is a guest post by Viqar Husain, a theoretical physicist with research interests in quantum gravity – and scholarly interests that range much more widely.

Little of substance has been written about the literary and scientific “two cultures” since C.P. Snow’s historic essay lamenting the academic divide.  2009 marked its 50th anniversary, with limited commentary.

This is perhaps not surprising. A look at the louder discourse over the last two decades suggests unification is not near. If anything, the gulf perceived by Snow has widened to a chasm. Two prominent snapshots highlight this trend.

The first is a battle in the post-modern “Science Wars” culminating in Sokal’s hoax article “Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, which appeared in 1996 in the Social Text. Its Editors were subsequently awarded the Ignoble Prize for Literature for “eagerly publishing research that they could not understand, that the author said was meaningless, and which claimed that reality does not exist.”  For me this episode highlights Snow’s primary complaint.

The second, appearing a decade later, is Dawkins’ God Delusion, which purports to present scientific and statistical arguments that the existence of God is a dead hypothesis. It received praise from many prominent scientists, DNA’s Watson among them. On the other side, prominent literary theorist Terry Eagleton’s review of the book “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching” begins “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology”. Would it not have been more unifying for Dawkins to discuss religion as an evolutionary survival strategy?

My most recent glimpse of the two cultures came from participating in a unique and diverse twenty one-member academic planning committee. It arose under an administrative threat of handing the job over to one or more eager consultants, a consummation devoutly not to be wished. Our apparently mundane task was to assess the state of the university and provide guidance for the future. But discussions became dominated by existentialist questions such as “Who are we?” and “What can we afford to become?” and discussion of how “academic leaders” (read President and VPs) ought to provide incentives for “revenue generating” programs. Depressing stuff.

Along the way I saw not merely two cultures, but an entire Serengeti, complete with food chains, watering holes that deliver easy papers, and uneasy consensus on narrative versus data. The only hint of a common theme lay in the numerous statistics and research methods courses offered by virtually every department. One of our recommendations was to unite as many of these as possible to save and redirect resources for efficiency — a frail attempt at unity driven by threats of extinction.

So where do we go from here? It appears the problems Snow described in his essay seem quaint in comparison to what we now face. He could hardly have imagined a time when funding for creating and transmitting knowledge would become a widespread cultural and economic challenge. But we might still try a few things to stay happy.  Scientists would do well to be informed in detail of the cultural fuel that produced the Greek city-states, Baghdad’s House of Wisdom, and the Scientific Revolution. Humanities scholars might attempt to learn at least the intuitive foundations of Electromagnetism the Second Law of Thermodynamics. And we ought to keep the public engaged.

© Viqar Husain vhusain@unb.ca, May 16 2016

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2 thoughts on “Whither the two cultures?

  1. William Kenneth Wayne Godsoe

    Certainly there are tensions between arts and humanities but i’m a big believer in counting our blessings for the links we do have between the two. I for one think some of the best ecological papers I’ve written have been based on Hume’s philosophical critique of causation. I wanted to highlight one recent discussion I’d heard by artsy folks discussion a botany memoir https://player.fm/series/slate-magazine-daily-podcast/abc-lab-girl .

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  2. Pingback: Why so few novels about scientists? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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