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—
— New Real Peer Review (@RealPeerReview) March 10, 2017
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.
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.
— The Offing (@theoffingmag) August 13, 2017
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.
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.