Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Solutions Without Problems

Why do people have such a fetish about uniting disparate things? It may have worked with chocolate and peanut butter, but generally you get something that is less than the sum of its parts.

So it is with the quixotic quest to unite the worlds of Art and Science:
It’s been some 50 years since the physicist-turned-novelist C.P. Snow delivered his famous “Two Cultures” lecture at the University of Cambridge, in which he decried the “gulf of mutual incomprehension,” the “hostility and dislike” that divided the world’s “natural scientists,” its chemists, engineers, physicists and biologists, from its “literary intellectuals,” a group that, by Snow’s reckoning, included pretty much everyone who wasn’t a scientist. His critique set off a frenzy of hand-wringing that continues to this day, particularly in the United States, as educators, policymakers and other observers bemoan the Balkanization of knowledge, the scientific illiteracy of the general public and the chronic academic turf wars that are all too easily lampooned.

Yet a few scholars of thick dermis and pep-rally vigor believe that the cultural chasm can be bridged and the sciences and the humanities united into a powerful new discipline that would apply the strengths of both mindsets, the quantitative and qualitative, to a wide array of problems. Among the most ambitious of these exercises in fusion thinking is a program under development at Binghamton University in New York called the New Humanities Initiative.

Jointly conceived by David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biology, and Leslie Heywood, a professor of English, the program is intended to build on some of the themes explored in Dr. Wilson’s evolutionary studies program, which has proved enormously popular with science and nonscience majors alike, and which he describes in the recently published “Evolution for Everyone.” In Dr. Wilson’s view, evolutionary biology is a discipline that, to be done right, demands a crossover approach, the capacity to think in narrative and abstract terms simultaneously, so why not use it as a template for emulsifying the two cultures generally?

What's the point? The two cultures do what they do best by doing what they do best, not by trying to do what some other culture does best? Should airline pilots try to be more like stock brokers? Should cheese makers try to be more like cab drivers?

More to the point, what's the problem? Is literature suffering from it's distance from science? Is science suffering? No. There is no magical middle ground between science and art where some mystical synergy kicks in to enable fantastic realms of new possibilities. Like most border areas it is a dead zone, a no-man's land of barbed wire and trenches. That's what keeps Germans in Germany and what keeps scientists productive.

Proving my point, here is an example, from the article, of what qualifies as a product of the art/science merger:
To illustrate how the New Humanities approach to scholarship might work, Dr. Heywood cited her own recent investigations into the complex symbolism of the wolf, a topic inspired by a pet of hers that was seven-eighths wolf. “He was completely different from a dog,” she said. “He was terrified of things in the human environment that dogs are perfectly at ease with, like the swishing sound of a jogging suit, or somebody wearing a hat, and he kept his reserve with people, even me.”

Dr. Heywood began studying the association between wolves and nature, and how people’s attitudes toward one might affect their regard for the other. “In the standard humanities approach, you compile and interpret images of wolves from folkloric history, and you analyze previously published texts about wolves,” and that’s pretty much it, Dr. Heywood said. Seeking a more full-bodied understanding, she delved into the scientific literature, studying wolf ecology, biology and evolution. She worked with Dr. Wilson and others to design a survey to gauge people’s responses to three images of a wolf: one of a classic beautiful wolf, another of a hunter holding a dead wolf, the third of a snarling, aggressive wolf.

It’s an implicit association test, designed to gauge subliminal attitudes by measuring latency of response between exposure to an image on a screen and the pressing of a button next to words like beautiful, frightening, good, wrong.

“These firsthand responses give me more to work with in understanding how people read wolves, as opposed to seeing things through other filters and published texts,” Dr. Heywood said.

Combining some of her early survey results with the wealth of wolf imagery culled from cultures around the world, Dr. Heywood finds preliminary support for the provocative hypothesis that humans and wolves may have co-evolved.

“They were competing predators that occupied the same ecological niche as we did,” she said, “but it’s possible that we learned some of our social and hunting behaviors from them as well.” Hence, our deeply conflicted feelings toward wolves — as the nurturing mother to Romulus and Remus, as the vicious trickster disguised as Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother.

Wow, what a breakthrough!

The idiocy of this supposed idea is thinking that scientists don't read literature, or artists have no grasp of science. The unity of such cultural activities happens within the human mind, not within the subject matter of the disciplines themselves. There is no psychological barrier that prevents an individual from appreciating art for what it provides and also appreciating and understanding science for what it does. One can simultaneously understand how sound waves propagate and at the same time enjoy great music. One doesn't have to write songs about the propagation of sound waves through air to realize the benefits of music and science.

You'll notice that the conflict C.P. Snow wrote about was between scientists and literary intellectuals, not science and literature. There's literature and then there are literary intellectuals. One shouldn't assume the two are more than tangentially interrelated. One is the product of creative individuals, most of whom are dead. The other are uncreative individuals who spin abstract, arcane political theories based loosely on the former and then try to parlay such theories into political and institutional influence and power.

Scientists are beginning to bastardize their own discipline in the same way. A more negatively consequential uniting of science with the narrative literary form than Professor Heywood's wolf study is the dystopian fictional work called "Global Warming" It has already won an Oscar. Who says art and science never mix?


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I thought Snow's point was that the 2 cultures couldn't talk to each other because they did not know each other.

He himself demonstrated that when they knew each other, they got along well.

That trained scientists know little or nothing about non-scientific matters is an absurd canard. That most litterateurs know next to nothing about science is more defensible.


I'm not sure what it would mean to say that humans co-evolved with wolves, at least, not any more than it would mean to say we co-evolved with goats.

June 04, 2008 9:06 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

It looks to me like the point is that scientific types just don't buy the leftist narrative so if one can teach the scientists to follow the narrative, perhaps they'll be less resistant to the leftist worldview. In other words, the leftist intelligencia feels stymied in their constant quest for more power over everybody.

June 04, 2008 1:04 PM  
Blogger Chris Dornan said...

I broadly agree with your conclusion that these attempts to jam arts and sciences together are misconceived. You will hardly be surprised to find that I manage to find lost of disagreement in this agreement. :-)

I do think there is a problem with the compartmemtalization of scientific and artistic thinking. But that doesn't mean that it can be solved by scientists reading novels or novelists learning about science because the thinking in both fields is predicated on a common philosophical failure that came about between Kant and Hume.

I have written a short article about this that links into other writings in The Two Cultures.

June 04, 2008 4:13 PM  
Blogger Mike Beversluis said...

I don't think many in the hard sciences take this seriously (e.g., Sokal's Hoax). It's a one-sided conversation by those interested in making things that aren't too subjective seem subjective.

In the meanwhile, there are going to be a lot of befuddled sociology majors trying to wade through a year of statistics. Good luck with that.

June 04, 2008 6:03 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Should cheese makers try to be more like cab drivers?

Blessed are the cheesemakers.

C.P. Snow delivered his famous “Two Cultures” lecture at the University of Cambridge, in which he decried the “gulf of mutual incomprehension,” the “hostility and dislike” that divided the world’s “natural scientists,” its chemists, engineers, physicists and biologists, from its “literary intellectuals,” ...

There is a gulf, alright, but not the one of which C.P. Snow speaks.

Rather, the gulf is one of professional competence. Natural scientists are, literary intellectuals are not.

Consequently, the academic turf wars, whingeing and hands black and blue from wringing belong entirely to literary intellectuals. (It is worth remembering who did, and did not, sign the petition condemning the Duke Lacrosse players ...)

June 08, 2008 9:11 AM  
Blogger joe shropshire said...

Mmmm, maybe. But the Duke lacrosse players just barely escaped, and had their original accuser been a bit more compos mentis, they wouldn't have. Less affluent targets would have disappeared without a trace. Power is power, and the Duke 88 types have their share.

June 08, 2008 11:38 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home