One Culture, Two Culture, Three Culture, Four…
Where Are Science's Ambassadors to the Rest of Society?
Nearly ten years ago, to get myself officially clear of college, I wrote a senior English essay about parallels between the work of Charles Darwin and the writings of several Victorian novelists. I singled out Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and George Eliot’s Middlemarch in particular. It seemed to me that the scientist and the novelists alike sought to address a particularly prevalent human failing: How we deceive ourselves into believing what we want about reality, rather than what is true, by selectively reading the evidence (rather than considering it in its entirety).
Scientists and literary intellectuals stood separated by a “gulf of mutual incomprehension.”
In short, I argued that Dickens and Eliot were proposing a kind of “scientific method” for avoiding self delusion, in life and especially in love. Darwin, meanwhile, had a similar approach to the naturalists who had come before him and had tried desperately to fit species into Linnean categories that just didn’t work any more—in the process disregarding the full range of evidence from nature, which showed insensible gradations between variations and species that, in turn, suggested common ancestry rather than immutability.
On some level, then, the scientist and the novelists were engaged in closely related endeavors.
Coming from this background, of course I found myself intrigued by Jonah Lehrer’s clever little book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, recently released by Houghton Mifflin. Some have argued that Lehrer overstates the case in claiming that a number of 19th and 20th century artists and writers anticipated the discoveries of modern neuroscience. But one can also read the book more modestly, as a catalogue of overlaps and resonances between thinkers working in vastly different arenas (or so we thought). Whatever else he achieves, Lehrer clearly demonstrates that scientific and artistic processes have more in common than you think. And he succeeds by having the courage to explore an intellectual space that’s too often neglected—the little visited hinterland between the humanities and the sciences.
Reading Lehrer, it’s hard not to be reminded of the British novelist-scientist C.P. Snow’s famous 1959 lecture and essay, entitled “The Two Cultures.” For Snow, scientists and literary intellectuals stood separated by a “gulf of mutual incomprehension.” Snow lamented academic over-specialization and the educational system that had created it; and called for an end to fruitless polarization between two different kinds of very smart people.
If science today isn’t learning much from the humanities, neither is it learning enough from those with expertise in politics or in communication.
Despite Snow, however—and despite the work of a few innovators like Lehrer—I would argue that the “two cultures,” today, remain just about as divorced as ever. After all, remember the Sokal Hoax of the 1990s—and the resultant battle between science and the humanities that came to be known as the “Science Wars”? Have we really come very far from Snow’s time?
In fact, if anything I would say it’s even worse than Snow thought. Not only does modern American science remain largely alienated from the humanities—it is essentially divorced from the rest of our society as a whole. How else to account for the continual frustration of scientists with the media, with the political system, and with the public?
If science today isn’t learning much from the humanities, neither is it learning enough from those with expertise in politics or in communication. And it shows. Consider the experience of American science in the 2000s. Despite producing more Ph.D.s than ever—with 29,854 in 2006 representing an all-time high according to the National Science Foundation—science found itself continually outraged by inaccurate media coverage of science; poor science education and widespread public science illiteracy; a resurgence of anti-evolutionism; and the Bush administration’s assault on scientific expertise on issues like climate change.
Science today doesn’t have any problem producing; but it has a huge problem connecting.
Alas, while some in science are beginning to recognize this problem, for others it still remains off the radar. Part of the problem may be that science convinced itself, not so long ago, that it had actually vanquished the problem highlighted by Snow. In particular, about a decade or more ago came claims (originating with literary agent John Brockman) that a so-called “third culture” had come to the rescue and bridged the gap. “Third culture” scientists were typically thought of as including people like E.O. Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Pinker, and especially Richard Dawkins. During the 1990s and beyond, these scientists sold lots of popular books—and that, of course, represented a core element of their success.
But that didn’t mean they had addressed the “gulf of mutual incomprehension” described by Snow between science and the humanities. First of all, the audience of popular science book readers still represents a very narrow slice of America as a whole. Moreover, many of the messages that came from the “third culture” hardly seemed to have outreach at their core. E.O. Wilson’s book Consilience, for instance, could be described as an attempt to usurp the place of the humanities, rather than to build a bridge between them and the sciences. Its tone depicted science as somehow superior; and that wasn’t the only way in which some of the “third culture” science popularizers failed to help reconnect science to other disciplines or to the rest of America. Many elements of the “third culture” also engaged in considerable sneering at the ignorance or religion of the rest of America—an attitude that, again, only set science off from everyone else.
Here, of course, Richard Dawkins—most recently, the author of The God Delusion—is probably the greatest culprit.
Appropriately enough, Jonah Lehrer ends his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist by slamming the “third culture” movement. Many of its luminaries, he writes, are “extremely antagonistic toward everything that isn’t scientific.” And so Lehrer calls for a “fourth culture”: “Much closer to Snow’s original definition, [it] will ignore arbitrary intellectual boundaries, seeking instead to blur the lines that separate. It will freely transplant knowledge between the sciences and the humanities, and will focus on connecting the reductionist fact to our actual experience.”
I’m all for it—and clearly, by this standard Lehrer would count as a “fourth culture” intellectual. But alas, the problem is bigger than he thinks. It’s not just that we need people transplanting knowledge between science and humanities—it’s that we need people who can transplant between science, the humanities, politics, communication, law, business—and everything else. All other walks of life, types of talent, kinds of expertise…the more science draws upon these and the more these intersect with science, the closer science will move back into relationship with the society that fosters it. We need more people engaged in intersectional endeavors like Randy Olson, the scientist-filmmaker whose Flock of Dodos poignantly captures why we keep having to re-fight the evolution wars, or like Matthew Chapman and Shawn Lawrence Otto, two Hollywood screenwriters with a deep love of science who, in turn, have been central to the push for a presidential science debate in 2008.
But that, in turn, would require broad changes to education, and considerable reforms to the way in which science trains its students and awards its graduates. It would take a massive, creaking, groaning alteration of current scientific culture—a reinvestment of resources to train the kinds of ambassadors who can blend scientific knowledge with some other type of understanding and thereby help it to resonate beyond the rarefied world of science itself.
In short, it’s close to asking the impossible. But then, every time a book like Proust Was a Neuroscientist appears and enjoys a success, perhaps the range of the impossible shrinks—ever so slightly.
Chris Mooney is the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.
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