Editorial

Help Us Build a Third Culture

Last year, an anti-vaccination activist was awarded a PhD from an Australian University. She conducted her thesis in the School of Law, Humanities and the Arts.

Her thesis was titled “A critical analysis of the Australian government’s rationale for its vaccination policy”. In it, she argued that the Australian government’s vaccination policy was not based on solid evidence but a conspiracy concocted between the World Health Organisation and Big Pharma and this was the basis on which the policy rested.

When she was awarded her PhD, Australia’s medical and scientific community were horrified. It was soon reported that the examining panel did not have a single member with a scientific background, let alone a background in immunology or epidemiology to judge the merits of the thesis. While the names of the three examiners have been kept confidential, we do know that they are all scholars of the humanities.

On one hand, the Wilyman scandal is an aberration and is not an indictment of academia. The controversy that it generated is evidence that it was a severe breach of academic standards in Australia and even internationally. But on the other hand, I do think that it is an example of what can go wrong in a balkanized education system where large sections of the sciences and humanities deliberately avoid each other.

Today, humanities departments such as Women’s Studies and Gender Studies make a systematic effort to avoid dealing with evidence from biology and psychology—to the point where even the scientific method is considered “masculine” and “oppressive”. Queer Studies academics have long argued that science and medicine oppress LGBTQ communities, as have Fat Studies academics, more recently. Even mathematics is not immune to the creep of critical theory—

Today, scholars in the “critical fields” of the humanities rarely celebrate the scientific method for its ability to reduce bias and enable breakthroughs which actually help people. Rather, these approaches seek to undermine neutral fields of scholarship, or seek to provide an ideological overlay on top of scholarly foundations.

***

C.P. Snow

One of the first people to recognise the problem of disengagement between the arts and sciences was C.P. Snow. He identified the schism in his famous 1959 lecture “Two Cultures“. In it, he argued that the disengagement between the worlds of the sciences and the arts stymied our ability to solve our most pressing problems.

Snow was both a scientist and a novelist, and he put into words what all of us have observed: that the world of arts, literature and cultural commentary have their own language, and that scientists have their own language too. Often there is a mutual misunderstanding between these two worlds and often individuals operating in each world have blindspots that make us look ignorant to one another. He wrote—

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare‘s?

Apart from a few notable exceptions not much has changed much since Snow’s mid-20th century essay. The rise of post-structuralism and critical theory has meant that rather than moving towards a consilience between the humanities and the sciences—the chasm has widened.

No doubt there are pockets of excellence where the two worlds are synthesised. Indeed some of our most well respected public intellectuals are masters of synthesising the two. Think of how Jonathan Haidt merges Durkheim with cross-cultural psychology, or how Steven Pinker combines evolutionary anthropology and data analysis to identify sweeping historical trends. Or, if you like, think of Jordan Peterson’s ability to explain myths and legends with the vocabulary of psychometrics and clinical psychology. Or historians such as Alice Dreger telling stories about embattled scientists that the public would otherwise never hear.

It’s important for us to remember how Snow’s lecture was received back when he delivered it—it was very controversial at the time. The Cambridge literary critic F.R. Leavis viciously attacked him, and ridiculed his writing ability. In his rebuttal Leavis wrote that “as a novelist Snow doesn’t exist; he doesn’t begin to exist. He can’t be said to know what a novel is.”

Humanities scholars might resent scientists when they venture into the territory of the arts because the encroachment can only go in one direction. A physicist, with the ability to write and an imagination, can become a novelist much more easily than a novelist  can become a physicist. Perhaps F.R. Leavis thought that if he can’t venture into scientific territories, why should he let scientists into his?

Yet alienation between the two cultures likely creates problems and makes existing problems worse rather than solving them. The co-opting of the humanities by activists has affected not only the academic world but, no doubt, also Western culture at large. The alienation and sometimes outright hostility towards science that is taught in some humanities courses is now visible in journalism and its related environments with insidious results.

Nevertheless we also have to admit that the disengagement between the two cultures is a two way street. For example, scientists can be, and are often, dismissive of the value of persuasive communication. For a scientist, factual accuracy is the most important factor of any form of communication. Presenting information in a way that is pleasing to the reader, with embellishments such as metaphor, narrative structure and other literary devices may seem alien and even dangerous.

But presenting information in a way that is accessible to a general audience is extraordinarily important if we want to live in a culture that values science and truth.

While scientists have the best intellectual toolkit available to discover empirical truths about our world, artists—whether they are writers, film-makers, or painters—have the best toolkit available to communicate those truths.

Of course, several scientists understand the power of art and use it to great effect, this is by no means a blanket condemnation. Earlier this year, the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller together with Mark Changizi, Steven Pinker and Brian Boyd represented different theories of the evolution of art at MONA in Hobart, Tasmania.

The Origins of Art Exhibition, the Museum of New and Old Art, Tasmania.

A consilience between the worlds of the humanities and the sciences is something I think should be fostered. When contentious social or behavioural issues arise, this magazine seeks to draw on experts for comment (see the piece on the Google Memo). But we also want to feature works by upcoming writers and literary essayists whose primary interest is in the arts.

Luckily, the Internet provides us with an amazing opportunity to achieve these goals. We can truly build third culture communities across the globe bringing together the toolkits of both cultures, outside the walls of universities, and without concern for geographic location or financial status.

We’re building a third culture community here at Quillette with the help of readers like you. I am excited about 2018, and what the future will hold. Thank you for joining us in this marvellous adventure.

 

Claire Lehmann is the founder and editor-in-chief of Quillette.

 

 

26 Comments

  1. Great article, thank you- really pinpoints the divergence of arts and sciences and shows a brilliant example of where it can go absurdly wrong. However I don’t believe the role of arts or humanities is to convey truths discovered by scientists. Truths are implicit in the humanities – science as I understand Jordan Peterson describes it is the explanation of the physical world as it is or the processes involved in going from state A to state be (please excuse any misunderstanding or oversimplification). Science does nothing to tell us how to act, it cannot define love friendship loyalty etc – these contain truths which can never be explained by science and play a huge role in our existence.

    • Roger Latour says

      Yes great article showing a troubling ever-expanding “continental drift” though. As Mark says “the role of arts or humanities is (not) to convey truths discovered by scientist”. He is right, but the arts or humanities *can* do that… And science *can* certainly help us deciding how to act. We are always better off listening to what it says. I think science can (and does) define “love friendship loyalty” and I’m OK with that. Love friendship loyalty would still be cornerstones of my life. Along with art…

    • Steve Roedde says

      Mark,
      I’m not certain I agree with the limits of science in explaining “truths”. I would say that in many respects this is true… so far.

      Science, in particular evolutionary biology and psychology, has in fact, clarified many important concepts. Selfishness, altruism, behaviours around issues of sex and mating being just a few examples. I concur that science cannot and should not tell us “how” to live our lives… but it can clearly demonstrate “why” we do what we do. In doing so, it is an antidote to fact statements made by those who instead rely on “faith” (beliefs held in the absence of evidence).

      So many “truths” have been proven … incorrect (by science) that I can understand the resistance of those who feel threatened by it.

      • BrianB says

        Evolutionary psychology has great difficulty qualifying as “science” under most definitions.

        Most of the “truths” proven incorrect by science have been previous scientific theories judged by many to be their own “truths”.

  2. The French say “It won’t work. If it can work, then the powerful will kill you. And even if it works, someone will steal your idea.”
    The German says “Why is this my problem?”
    The American says “Do you really think we’ll hold hands and sing ‘kumbaya’ “?
    The British says “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
    The cynical says “What’s the incentive?”
    Twitter says “Too many words.”
    The PoMo says “It’s about power structures..”
    The liberal says “Hold on a minute, let’s look at the facts first.”
    The Austrian says “Free Market! Free Market!”
    The Kadarshian says “Oh, awesome, let’s look at my butt?”
    The Religious says “What does the Bible/Quran/Gita say?”
    The Tea-baggers say “Handoff my medicare!!!”
    Trump says “COVFEFE!! eruewoitw!#(*$^”
    Hillary says “I deserve another shot at it!”
    The Depressives says “All of the above”

    etc…

    At least, can you pinpoint one item you’re confronting head on? I mean realistically? I hate to bring the logistics, but can we start checking off items?

  3. This is a good piece, and I was just thinking about it the other day when I came across this passage from Snow:

    “…literary intellectuals vocalize, and to some extent shape ad predict the mood of the non-scientific culture: they do not make the decisions, but their words seep into the minds of those who do.”

    A mishmash of bad Continental philosophy and literary theory has spread through much of academia–most of the humanities, social sciences, “x studies” departments…and para-faculty–and through them to the parts of the culture they influence. So: discussions like you might find in the comments at the NYT. A certain collection of guiding ideas and forms of reasoning, and a certain vocabulary, has infected those sectors of the culture. On the political side, it’s extreme leftist, anti-Western and anti-liberal…even totalitarian-leaning, I’d say. (And anti-male, anti-white, etc…which may not be worse…but they’re pretty bad…) On the intellectual side it’s anti-rational, anti-Enlightenment, anti-science. It encourages a weird method of free-form, improvisational interpretation inspired by postmodernism (which is one of the bad Continental quasi-philosophies): no interpretation is better than any other…so you just find whatever you please in any “text” you please. And since another idea in the mishmash is: politics should dominate inquiry, this improvisational interpretation always aims at politically correct conclusions. This is why everything is racist and sexist according to the left: they begin with that presupposition, and their literary method (such as it is) places no constraints on the actual logic of their arguments. So they always “find” what they set out to find. (C. S. Peirce calls this “sham reasoning.”) They seize on any slight hint of sexism or whatever, and spin out their interpretation from there…and if there’s no hint…well, they make one up.

    Anyway, this is the intellectual orientation that has seeped into the left-leaning, educated class that tends to run the cultural superstructure. Or so it seems to me. This is why we end up with Title IX hysteria and the resultant totalitarian interference in sex on campus, the frantic stampede to force the rest of the society to accept that men can become women simply by saying so (and, indeed, to insist that more-or-less everything is “socially constructed”), the movement to suppress politically incorrect speech on campuses, the widespread replacement of claims about discrimination with claims about “privilege,” and so on.

    In short, I think Snow was right. The humanities have an effect on middle-brow-and-up culture, in part at least by introducing them to the quasi-philosophies that reign in the humanities…which means leading them to use certain concepts and forms or reasoning, and to be guided by certain big ideas. (I might add: since academic philosophy retreated from interacting with other disciplines back in the early 20th century, a philosophy vacuum has opened up…and it’s been filled by Continental philosophy…which is more like politicized literary theory and soft social science than it is like philosophy. ) So our educated class has–to exaggerate just a bit–been indoctrinated with Foucault et al. And that ain’t good.

  4. Humanities or liberal arts are neither humane nor liberal, but for the sake of this conversation, I will bow to social convention. For I know my place.

    It is not a two way street between science and humanities. Logic is not welcome in the other culture; humanities will not stay in their lane. I wouldn’t say that science has been told there it is humanities’ way or the highway, for that would suggest that the arts entertain the idea there is more than one option.

    This can be seen in education. We must take the same intro courses that humanities majors take. They, on the other hand, were awarded math credits for classes that were below our entrance requirements. Due to their failure to accomplish high school math, they had to get their own science courses, for which they also received science credit. There is no reciprocity for language, art, or sociology requirements. My local state university requires three semesters of a language other than English. They do not accept mathematics, the language of science, presumably because they don’t have anyone in their department who can speak it.

    I was in sociology class studying for my physics midterm when the statement that ‘perception is reality’ was averred. I think it was the nonsensical, reverent treatment of this banal saying caused the hand of logic to come over my soul and compel me to speak. I happened to sit in the center of the front row immediately in front of the lecturer and may have had a reputation as a recalcitrant non-believer. I asked the nearest ardent who had been nodding and saying ‘that’s true, that’s true’ in an enraptured trance what would happen if we climbed to the top of the three-story building we were in, and I pushed him off. Could he just believe he was a bird and fly away, or would he go kerrrrrrr-splat?

    I was soundly and loudly rebuked for my unbelief because, well, everyone knows the words of Lee Atwater are true. After all there are posters that say this very thing in the hallway. And those posters make us feel good. Who was I to challenge a poster?

    I hadn’t yet, haven’t yet, learned to avoid talking about theological discussions in public. Apparently that is how refined, learned, people conduct themselves. But I’m of blue collar stock and routinely let my inner philistine shine through, and so I asked what I thought to be a reasonable question. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that our delusions obscure our access to reality?

    Let us draw a curtain of charity over the scene.

    This sense that science and logic is only permitted at the sufferance of humanities does not change in the public sphere as has been covered hear at Quillette. Science has evolutionarily lost to humanities. We, the lesser beings, should accept that we are an inferior species. For we have fought for survival and lost. The only truths that can be conveyed are the ones that humanities have deemed appropriate to validate. It is this verification that is the final step of the postmodern scientific method.

    We should accept that they are the keepers of the keys, for they will never let us have a say as logic would fundamentally destroy their power structure. Cohabitation, alliances, or even balkanization are not valid alternatives, only outright domination will be accepted by the humanities.

    Perhaps I am wrong and there is, in a concrete sense, a way to build a third way. To build this foundation, humanities would have to surrender power and that is both unnatural and illogical to expect. Ephemerally, I’m sure there would be a few artists who would contribute to build this construct. For one can always find an artist to build castles in the sky.

  5. I’ve always thought that a substantial part of Snow’s observed difference between Arts and Sciences is due to their setup in academia.

    Academics in Science departments are in most cases scientists, i.e. they do science as well as teach it.

    Academics in Arts departments however are not usually artists, they are art critics.

    Big difference.

  6. Pingback: Together but Disunited: On Intellectual Culture – Semiotic Thomist

  7. I fully support the idea that the humanities and the sciences need to listen to one another, to be in dialogue, to study (within reasonable limits) the truths unveiled by one another–and indeed there are truths unveiled by the humanities which are invisible to science–but I think this idea that simply engaging in dialogue will produce a third culture is misguided.

    As I wrote (here: https://semioticthomist.wordpress.com/2017/12/14/together-but-disunited-on-intellectual-culture/), “A culture is the product of an organic growth..  Simply attempting to plant the two in a common garden will not bear the new desired fruit, however.  Rather, what needs to be discovered and understood, in order that a true acculturation can occur, is the common root”.

    The way I see it, a third culture already exists, albeit in an as-yet incipient state: semiotics in the specifically Peircean tradition. Look at the journals of Sign System Studies, Biosemiotics, Semiotica, the American Journal of Semiotics; the Routledge Companion to Semiotics; the De Gruyter series in Semiotics, Communication, and Cognition; read the work of Tom Sebeok and John Deely, Kalevi Kull and Jesper Hoffmeyer, and a growing number, and you’ll see that the soil for a third culture has already been tilled and seeded.

  8. Caligula says

    It’s difficult to avoid seeing this conflict as anything less than a power grab by critical theorists to control science, scientists, and especially what scientists may be permitted to study, or to say, or the conclusions they may be permitted to reach.

    Scientists do not seem to have any equivalent interest in controlling what’s said or done in the humanities.

    Critical theory is inherently political; it starts with desired answers and then works back to methods by which these may be achieved (or imposed, should that be necessary). Whereas science (ideally at least) is an open-ended inquiry that starts with questions, not answers.

    Critical theory looks at speech and other cultural outputs and sees only power relationships, and then (surprise!) decides that should, it must!, have more power and others must have less.

    One side is the aggressor here (even if the aggression is sometimes less than coherent), and the other is being aggressed against. And you want “consilience”?

    • In case it wasn’t clear–not consilience with critical theory. But consilience with the arts, and outside of the university walls.

  9. Instead of a separate “third culture” how about an interconnected, interdisciplinary, and interdependent “fluid culture”?

    Critical theory + POMO examines power structures and relationships, but left unchecked, it becomes what it examines. It tries to “control” outcomes that those power structures produce by criticizing them. (Criticism I’m using loosely, and comes in many forms, including activism).

    Science uses our best, albeit imperfect discovery and experimental processes to examine reality and generate knowledge bases that are continually updated and built upon. For the most part, communication of those findings is valuable. (Although effective, clear, and in some cases, empathetic science communication is in short supply).

    But with the value inherent in those findings, comes a price…

    Some groups and some corrupt institutions try to leverage those findings to bolster their power structures (eugenics “science” in the early 1900’s is only one example). Varying levels and varying styles of THIS corruption and THESE kinds of power structures give “fuel” for the postmodernism / critical theory camps to “be critical” of.

    Since neither “side” will stop because of our biological and psychological nature, I think we need both in an interconnected and more cooperative fashion instead of an “Us versus Them” fashion (and I know there are more “sides” to this, but I’m trying to keep this simple).

    Obviously POMO / Critical Theory can get ridiculous, but so has science. None are immune to human nature, corruption, psychopathy, etc…

    Nor are any of the “sides” in this discussion immune to the inherent need to “dominate” the other and “win” the “war” that seems to exist for all of them.

  10. NOTE: I like Claire’s idea here though. I just think it could “flow into” the overall coversation rather than be a “separate department.”

  11. “avoid dealing with evidence from biology”

    Surely the point of setting up the “social sciences” as separate fields from primatology was to do more than “avoid” dealing with this evidence. In the nineteenth century, the religious right was the main obstacle to the Darwinian analysis of humanity. In the twentieth, surely it was sociology, anthropology, and most of psychology. Let’s make this Darwin’s century.

  12. augustine says

    It is one thing to say “Know your place and stay there” to the scientific world but we now have open hostility toward consensus or near-consensus findings about our social nature and even the “hard” sciences. Critical Theory et al. is no less than a declaration of war that each day more closely resembles the simultaneous, older attacks against the Church.

    Is there really any parity between the sciences and the arts? The latter embraces a role as the essential voice of the human condition whereas science seems to be viewed as tech support. Everyone knows that science is a recent phenomenon and, excepting quality of life issues, in a pinch it is disposable; the humanities have been inextricably linked to our very existence since Prehistoric times.

    Another commenter writes:

    “Science does nothing to tell us how to act, it cannot define love friendship loyalty etc – these
    contain truths which can never be explained by science and play a huge role in our existence.”

    This is true and I suggest that the front is not between science and the arts. Rather it is within the arts and humanities, and in the body politic itself. This lopsidedness might help explain the boldness and viciousness of postmodern reformers (or deformers) since they know their stage has the more universal cultural interface. Those with opposing views, informed by scientific training or not, need to fight for a place on that same stage.

  13. “humanities departments…make a systematic effort to avoid dealing with evidence from biology and psychology”

    “Information avoidance”, to my understanding, can be useful when there is conflict between self-centered impulses and a broader, out-group communication potential. To protect our self-image we often seem to “choose” information which best protects our values while actively remaining ignorant of information that contradicts our values. That contradictory information is then left to waft in by pure chance, to then be refuted or presented as “it is merely…” or “it is just…”.

    In short, it seems to be about personal ego and values, of which there is no shortage of supply in either camp (often the very tools needed to excel in each of these areas). To bridge the chasm, I would think that “values” would be the first place to identify common ground. What are the values? Do they differ? How?

    Science, to me, seems to value the process of exploring and then explaining a mystery. The humanities, to me, seems to value the process of feeling and expressing emotional response to a mystery. One wants to explain, the other wants to experience. Can one “fall in love” when it is “biochemical interaction and adaptive mating strategies”? A romance writer that speaks in the language of biochemistry and mating behavior? How would that book read?

    I am not saying that one can’t do it, what I am saying is that 1) it is rare because it seems to cause some dissonance, generally, and 2) feeling that dissonance seems to cause motivated thinking, aka circle the wagons.

    So, how do we reconcile (if it is at all possible) different values?

  14. Julius Nevanlinna says

    World’s leading bodies of social and natural sciences will merge in 2018, becoming “International Science Council”. If I wasn’t aware of this through my father, who has been working towards this end for sometime I would probably have never heard of it. At least it got no mention whatsoever in the Finnish mainstream media outlets. Somehow the value of the press isn’t quite understood on these levels of scientific decision making.

    I believe that such a vote alone (even without the wonderful outcome) should be sexy enough for the mainstream media to tune in to. Could the Quillette be a suiting promoter / investigator / platform of it?

    https://www.icsu.org/current/press/worlds-leading-bodies-of-social-and-natural-sciences-to-merge-in-2018-becoming-international-science-council

    Julius Nevanlinna

  15. Liz Sydney says

    Terrible shame that Quillette is conflating serious and legitimate vaccine criticism with current political lunacy. Please read up on science-based criticism of vaccines before throwing vaccine-critical inquiry under your bus. It would be intellectually responsible for Quillette to begin by speaking with Sayer Ji of GreenMedInfo (and publishing a piece by him) and taking it from there. There are a number of rigorous researchers and clinicians who have evidence-based critique to offer; but instead Quillette is pointing to some individual in the Humanities simply to prove a point Quillette wants to make. Quillette is doing a disservice to serious vaccine-critical inquiry.
    Liz Sydney

    • nicky says

      GreenMedInfo? Purveyors of quackery, sellers of snakeoil and promoters of woo? ‘Serious vaccine-critical inquiry’?
      You must be joking, are you not? I missed your ‘/s’.

  16. The examples given here of the science/humanities asymmetry don’t really get to the point. Humanities scholars aren’t writers of novels–they are readers/interpreters/critics of novels. Of novels, and of all other human actions and representations of human experiences, including scientific articles and even scientific labs. Even as a Shakespeare scholar (if there are any left) couldn’t do physics in a way that would pass muster with physicists, a physicist couldn’t do a neo-historical or eco-critical study of Shakespeare that would pass muster in literary studies.

    The examples here are instead typical of “two culture” discussions in focusing not on science/humanities but science/arts. This is anecdotal, but in my experience scientists are very open to artists–I think they think of them as their creative equals, but in ways that aren’t directly competitive. By contrast, scientists think of humanities scholars (a) not at all–we are invisible or confused with artists or social scientists; or if not that, then (b) as uncreative and not producing anything that can really be called knowledge; or if not that, then (c) in competition.

    This might not matter much, since few scholars can understand what goes on in other disciplines. But I remain convinced that many scientists would benefit from sustained reflection into what they are doing in the world we share, and that humanities scholars can help.

  17. James Kierstead says

    This is a worthy project and I agree with much of what you’ve written. I also worry about humanists and scientists talking past each other – when they aren’t shouting at each other. But I think your characterisation of the differences between the humanities and the sciences is incomplete.

    It’s true to some extent that humanists focus more on writing and communication. And it’s also true that scientists are more consistent in applying an empirical methodology and in using mathematics as a tool.

    But that’s partly because mathematics wouldn’t be a useful tool in a lot of the work that humanists do. That’s not because it’s wrong-headed or nonsensical – it’s just different. So, for example, statistical analysis just isn’t that useful when it comes to writing a commentary on a book of the Iliad. (It might have some use in stylistic analysis, but that can only ever be a tiny part of a commentary).

    I’d add that when empirical tools are useful, humanists do sometimes use them. There’s a lot of good social scientific work in ancient history (studies of wealth distribution in ancient societies, for example). I do think there should be even more of this type of work, but I don’t think it’s absent from the field.

    Even my colleagues who are into critical theory don’t just do critical theory, by the way. They also do things that aren’t theoretical, and also aren’t scientific, but are worthwhile and respectable nevertheless. Things like trawling untranslated texts for evidence, suggesting dates for them, and so on.

    What I do think is a problem is when intellectual communities grow up which have committed themselves to certain propositions in a way that then makes them resistant to dialogue with the sciences. And that does happen. But I’m not sure how representative it is.

    Humanists and scientists can definitely work together more. And we could find much more common ground. We certainly shouldn’t be hostile to one another. But part of that is realising that for most of our lives we’re just going to be doing different things, and using different methodologies – not because of ignorance or stubbornness, but because different jobs calls for different tools.

  18. If you’d have been looking at art schools in the 80s, you would have seen the sociopolitical hostile takeovers there.

  19. Pingback: Morning Ed: Mindspace {2017.12.21.Th} | Ordinary Times

Comments are closed.