TWO CULTURES OR ONE?

Over thirty years ago, C.P. Snow, in his book Two Cultures , eloquently expressed concern about what he saw as a widening and worrisome gap of misunderstanding and mistrust between scientists and non-scientists. While the terms of the dichotomy have evolved over the years since, and bridges have been built, the concern remains a significant one in a number of spheres, including those of academic organization and precollege instruction.

One indication of the continuing significant of Snow's concern is that flareups of the two culture controvery persist. A recent one was triggered by the mathematical physicist Alan Sokal, who published in the humanities journal Social Text (Spring/Summer 1996) an article which Sokal himself, in a second article published in the humanities journal Lingua Franca (May/June 1996), revealed to be a hoax (both articles, as well as some web links to commentary by others, have been made available on the web by Sokal ) . Sokal wished to call attention to "an apparent decline in the standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities." Whether appropriate or not in his particular concerns and methods (see the Social Text editorial response ) , Sokal's articles clearly revealed a continuing two culture controvery by triggering a barrage of accusatory publications by scientists and non-scientists alike.

Among the publications triggered by Sokal was "Sokal's Hoax", an article by the physicist Steven Weinberg which appeared in the New York Review of Books (8 August 1996). Weinberg seems to share with Sokal a belief that science needs to defend a claim to primacy of intellectual rigor over that of other forms of intellectual activity. The following letter, sent to the editors of the New York Review for possible publication, suggests that a less exclusive and more realistic conception of the scientific enterprise would not only better help to bridge the two cultures gap, but better serve as well to defend science and assure its important contribution to human culture generally. Whether in response to this suggestion, or with other thoughts, you're invited to join an ongoing discussion of issues related to the two cultures controversy.



To the Editors:

With defenders of science like Steven Weinberg (NYR, August 8), scientists like myself need no enemies. At the least, we would have fewer were it not for decades of the kind of agressive posturing which Weinberg replicates in his article. Is Weinberg honestly puzzled about why "the gulf of misunderstanding between scientists and other intellectuals seems to be as wide as when C.P. Snow first worried about it three decades ago?" Let me use Weinberg himself to try to explain and, in so doing, to see if I can offset some of the potential damage to a bridge along which a number of us would like to walk, for the health of both science and humanity.

It seriously pays everyone, even scientists, to listen to and and learn from others, a cause which is not well served by the rearing of imaginary bogey (wo)men in a reflex defense against any perceived critique of science. "If we think that scientific laws are flexible enough to be affected by the social setting of their discovery, then some may be tempted to press scientists to discover laws that are more proletarian or feminine or ...". And so we're supposed to avoid thinking that scientific laws may sometimes reflect (among other things) cultural influences, despite demonstrable evidence that this has frequently been the case? That kind of dismissal of evidence is pointlessly incendiary, to say nothing of simply being bad science. Even worse is the misrepresentation of what actually assures the health of science. It is not stubborn adherence to a particular world view, but rather a persistant willingness to continually re-create world views so as to accomodate a continually increasing body of observations (a process in which cultural influences are almost certainly an asset rather than a liability).

Cultural relativism is bad enough to Weinberg, but what really provokes him are two additional deeper challenges to a sacred "objective reality of science". One is the idea that the observed and the observer are interdependent, and the other is the possibility that knowledge is actually a construction by the observer rather than a discovery of a pre-existing external reality. Both, significantly, provoke gratuitous attacks not only on non-scientists but on thoughtful members of Weinberg's own professional community of physicists as well. Which is to say that neither they, nor many other scientists (myself included) are anywhere near as certain as Weinberg that we are, or ever will be, in a position to prove that "nature is strictly governed by impersonal laws".

Here too, Weinberg's defenses of science are not only destructive of the potential for useful sharing of perspectives and ideas (and hence of respect for science), but also both misleading about science itself and wholely unnecessary. As comfortable and productive as it has been for Weinberg and others to believe that they can stand apart from their subject matter and uncover external truths, science itself does not depend on the validity of either of those beliefs. Neither neutrality nor external reality are concepts essential to the process of continually remaking world views to accomodate new observations (a process which predates science as a profession and may well outlive it). Nor is either necessary to legitimize scientific understanding, the validation of which derives instead from the increasing breadth of observations effectively summarized as time goes on. Both neutrality and external reality are instead concepts which arose from science itself, concepts which may or may not prove of continuing usefulness as the ongoing process of summarizing observations and testing those summaries continues.

More generally, science and humanity can both be perfectly healthy without Weinberg's "objective reality of science". Indeed, both can probably be healthier without it, since the phrase triggers an appropriate but unnecessary deep suspicion of and hostility toward science from non-scientists, who quite legitimately challenge the the claim that scientists have privileged access to understanding and reality. Many of us don't make that claim, and would be more than happy to meet our colleagues, scientific and otherwise, in the various netherworlds none of us have yet well explored, to do what science is really about (and humanity needs): increasing the range and number of observations being made sense of, by all of us.

Paul Grobstein
Eleanor A. Bliss Professor of Biology
Bryn Mawr College
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