segunda-feira, maio 11, 2009

422) As duas culturas, de C.P. Snow

The split between scientists and writers
By Sam Leith
Financial Times, May 9 2009

Fifty years ago this week, at the Senate House in Cambridge, CP Snow delivered what was to become one of the most influential single lectures of the past century. Charles Percy Snow, later to be Lord Snow, was then 53. As a young man he had worked as a research chemist. He went on to hold senior positions in the civil service, a directorship of the English Electric Company, and was a bestselling novelist. He was on the way to taking his eventual place as a well-known wise, or speechifying, head in public life.

In the Rede Lecture he was addressing his peers. The lecture series, one of Cambridge’s most prestigious public events, dates from the 16th century and the list of previous lecturers included Matthew Arnold, TH Huxley, EM Forster, John Ruskin and Max Beerbohm. Snow, as both a literary man and sometime scientist, was as he saw it ideally positioned to address his topic. He called his lecture “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution”.

In it, he warned of an academic emergency: “The intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups ... literary intellectuals at one pole – at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension.” This mutual incomprehension, he held, was not simply a potential obstacle to scientific progress but a threat to the survival of western civilisation.

During the war, Snow had been given the task as a civil servant of recruiting physical scientists to help the war effort. In the course of his work, he said, he had surveyed 30,000-40,000 working scientists. He found that, when asked about what books they had read, they would typically mumble that they had “tried a bit of Dickens”. Conversely, when Snow asked those literary academics accustomed to sneering at philistine scientists to explain the second law of thermodynamics, they looked just as blank.

The apparent even-handedness of the way Snow articulated the divide is deceptive. Snow was taking sides. He might have regretted all those physicists not having managed to read Dickens but he would not have thought that it actually mattered very much. The scientific illiteracy of the humanities graduates, in Snow’s view, mattered very much indeed – and the reason that it mattered was that these were the people in charge of things.

Even in the midst of the cold war, and with the explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki not long in the past, Snow unfailingly regarded the discoveries of science, and behind them the scientific cast of mind, as grounds for optimism. He quoted the Nobel prize-winning chemist Ernest Rutherford’s view that we were living through a “heroic age of science”. Rutherford “was absolutely right”: scientists, as Snow put it, had “the future in their bones”.

A ruling class of humanities graduates were, however, in Snow’s account, indifferent if not actively antagonistic to the understanding of science. They might have benefited from the industrial revolution (“the material basis for our lives ... the social plasma of which we are a part”); but they did not care to know how it worked. (There is, perhaps, an analogy with most of our attitudes to the electronic age here.)

Snow had delivered his lecture in a style that alternated between self-preening earnestness and airy high-table bonhomie. The position of the Rede lecturer, however, is one that is implicitly congratulatory – and Snow fitted easily into the role of an emerging category of person: the public intellectual. As he shambled up to the lectern, he could perhaps be imagined as a cross between Melvyn Bragg and Mary Warnock.

Snow’s lecture attracted, by and large, favourable comment and the notion of “two cultures” has by now so far entered the language as to have become a cliché. But, even from the start, there were objections raised to the looseness of Snow’s terms and to his schematic and ex cathedra argument.

“From the beginning,” Snow wrote four years later, “the phrase ‘the two cultures’ evoked some protests. The word ‘culture’ or ‘cultures’ has been objected to: so, with much more substance, has the number two. (No one, I think, has yet complained about the definite article.)”

Among those critics was Snow’s Cambridge contemporary FR Leavis, a literary critic described by AN Wilson in Our Times (2008) as “the closest thing modern Cambridge produced to Savonarola”. Snow, Leavis believed, was merely a PR man for science and one whose attitude to literature amounted to philistinism. Snow had unfavourably contrasted the moral effect of literature (the core of Leavis’s world-view) with that of science. He had also taken what must have been to Leavis an infuriatingly cheap shot at TS Eliot, by declaring the last line of “The Hollow Men” (“This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang, but with a whimper”) to be “one of the least likely scientific prophecies ever made”.

Personal animosity, stylistic revulsion, and unwavering intellectual opposition combined to bring out one of the most scalding personal attacks Leavis ever delivered. Snow, he declared in a lecture at Downing College, was “intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be ... He doesn’t know what he means and doesn’t know he doesn’t know.

“If that were all, and Snow were merely negligible,” Leavis continued, “there would be no need to say so in any persistent public way, and one wouldn’t choose to do it. But ... Snow is a portent. He is a portent in that, being himself negligible, he has become for a vast public on both sides of the Atlantic a mastermind and a sage.”

Leavis notwithstanding, the notion of two cultures caught fire as a topic – evidence at the very least that Snow had given memorably aphoristic expression to a widespread anxiety. “Original ideas,” said Snow, as modestly as provokingly, “don’t carry at that speed.” The current flurry of public debates and commemorations – among them this week’s Royal Society of Arts panel discussion in London, and a symposium at the New York Academy of Science – suggests that his thesis continues to resonate.

In the 50 years since Snow spoke at Senate House, the diffusion of scientific and scientistic writing through the general literary culture has been considerable. It was in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, that science fiction enjoyed probably its greatest flourishing of respectability, and “hard” SF – speculative fiction with its roots in established science and maths, as opposed to the pseudo-magical apparatus of ray guns and force fields – became established as a form.

Writers such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke have influenced the way scientists think about space exploration and robotics, while borderline SF writers such as the late JG Ballard have crossed over into the mainstream, and literary experimentalists have embraced science fiction. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), for example, is filled with mathematics. Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day (2006) is shot through with the physics of Nikola Tesla and the geometry of William Rowan Hamilton.

“Straight” literary writers, too, now profitably grapple with science. Ian McEwan has put neuroscience and climatology at the centre of novels. AS Byatt is another writer with an intense and rigorous interest in science. Younger writers such as Andrew Crumey, James Flint and Simon Ings are at ease with the vocabularies of science and maths.

Byatt raises almost an opposite emphasis to Snow: scientists, she says, often “have very soppy views of art. They tend to think art is sort of wonderful and strange. They will use words like ‘inspiration’ and ‘unique’. I mean, it doesn’t really matter: the uniqueness of a novel isn’t the most important thing about it. It’s the goodness of it, or badness of it. So you have to batter them a bit to make them understand that what you do is as technical as what they do in some ways.”

Similarly, the years since Snow’s lecture have seen an explosion in popular science writing: Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking on cosmology and physics; Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, and Matt Ridley on evolutionary biology; Steven Pinker on neuroscience and linguistics; Marcus du Sautoy on mathematics. The front table of any self-respecting bookshop will now carry a wide range of popular science books.

But some caveats need to be entered. A Brief History of Time (1988) is, notoriously, one of the most bought but least read books of our age. Fermat’s Last Theorem (2002), Simon Singh’s gripping narrative of the solving of one of the oldest problems in mathematics , can do everything except explain the problem itself: the maths is simply too abstruse.

The success of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the Guardian – a weekly look at the way newspapers misrepresent scientific issues – demonstrates that even basic scientific literacy in public discourse is rarer than the slew of pop-science books would suggest.

“Snow was right,” Goldacre says. “And since he gave that speech things have actually got much worse. He was complaining that science was ignored. Now, people who have absolutely no understanding of the basics of what it means for there to be evidence for a proposition feel perfectly entitled to pass comment on it. And that’s actually much more dangerous, I think.”

Simon Singh agrees: “I think science is still misunderstood by most people. Sensationalist news reporting and an inadequate education system mean that both young and old consider science to be either dull or dangerous, nerdy or pointless.”

In addition, public attention has tended to light on theoretical science – pure maths, cosmology, evolutionary theory and neurology – rather than applied technology. Thus, while it is probably not too difficult to find arts graduates who can tell you the second law of thermodynamics (if only because they learnt it from Flanders and Swann), they’ll be no better at explaining how to feed the starving or organise a button factory.

For Snow, “The scientific process has two motives: one is to understand the natural world, the other is to control it.” And the central preoccupation of his lecture – as made clear by its subtitle (“The Scientific Revolution”) – was the effect applied science could have on the common lot of humanity.

It was the moral and political content of his argument Snow cared most about (as he later wrote, he had very nearly given his lecture the forgettable title “The Rich and the Poor”). But in popular accounts of the lecture, this has often been elided. For far more than it was intellectual, The Two Cultures was, in the widest sense, political.

Snow believed that unless the leaders of modern industrial society set about spreading the benefits of the scientific revolution to the wretched of the earth (before the wretched of the earth lost patience and started grabbing what they could) then we, too, would follow Old Venice to the grave.

According to Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford’s Charles Simonyi professor of the public understanding of science, we still have some way to go.“I think that we can do a lot more to integrate the curriculum,” he says. “That’s a place where we compartmentalise a bit and think: ‘Now I’m doing maths, now I’m doing music, now I’m doing history...’ But, in fact, all these things are closely integrated.

“Certainly in the past decade we’ve seen a real responsibility placed on scientists to have a dialogue with the rest of society. We’ve made progress. The progress we’re not so good at is that science is not just one culture but many cultures. We could do with more communication between ourselves.

“[Snow] was talking about poverty but it’s even more relevant today. Climate change, the current swine flu, the energy debate, the science of risk ... unless those outside science actually can engage with the science they’re not going to be able to understand decisions that affect humanity and the planet.”

Snow’s lecture may have dated in its detail, its mode of argument and its manner of address. But his broad themes – of the dangers of resistance to scientific understanding – still can, as the intellectual historian Stefan Collini says, “legitimately claim the attention of any educated citizen”.


The scientist who hoaxed the academy

One of the significant shifts in the academic landscape since Snow’s Rede Lecture has been the spread through the humanities of postmodern literary theory.

This was an intellectual movement that did two slightly contradictory things: on the one hand it appeared to professionalise the business of criticism by bringing to it a quasi-scientific rigour; on the other, its remorseless emphasis on reading everything as “text” went against what most would recognise as scientific practice. A world of absolute indeterminacy or ineluctable social construction doesn’t provide any basis on which Karl Popper’s test of “falsifiability” can rest. It was into this territory that the scientist Alan Sokal, a professor of physics and mathematics, stepped in 1996. Irritated with what he saw as the intellectual laxity (and implicitly reactionary politics) of postmodernism, Sokal wrote to Social Text, a respected academic journal, offering an essay called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”.

To a certain sort of academic, that very title is absolute catnip – the present participlel; the crucial colon stapled through the middle; the allusion to transgression and liminality; the showy indefinite article denoting “transformative hermeneutics” as singular.

The essay itself, filled with the hip jargon of postmodern theory, argues that gravity is essentially a social construct. If you read it knowing it’s a hoax, it is incredibly funny. If you’re a scientist and read it, it’s even funnier because Sokal littered it with sophomoric mathematical errors.

It whistled straight into print and when Sokal went public with the fact that it was a hoax, a fantastic spasm of recrimination and self-examination followed.

“It may have less to do with a conflict between sciences and the humanities than most people think,” Sokal is keen to emphasise. “It rather mirrored a debate that was going on within the humanities and social sciences.” But, he says, the extent to which those ideas have taken hold may in part be attributed to the divide Snow described.

Sokal says the scientific worldview now faces “a variety of antagonists, starting with what I consider the most lightweight, which are the postmodernist academic intellectuals, then pseudosciences, then religion, and then politicians who don’t care at all about the truth and just try to sell predetermined policies.

“I think the kind of questions that Snow raised may not have been the most important questions 50 years ago outside of a small radius of Oxford and Cambridge high tables ... [But] even then it might have been relevant to raise the question of what does the bulk of the population know about either literature or science ... Today, both the traditional literary culture and the traditional scientific culture are in decline.

“One American journalist put it well. He said, ‘Why students are not reading Shakespeare is not because they’re reading Derrida; it’s because they’re studying marketing.’ ”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

Um comentário:

Glenn Borchardt disse...

It is the old battle between determinism and indeterminism. Just take a look at my recent book "The Scientific Worldview."

Glenn Borchardt