The Two Cultures

I’ve added a new blog to my blogroll, that of David Harris, a physicist who works with the American Physical Society. He’s got a lot of good science, mixed with a range of literary discussion that fills the blog with useful surprises.

One imagines a bridge here between The Two Cultures, with literary types unexpectedly exposed to nuclear fusion and the like while the scientists dabble in haikus or David’s discussions of Herman Hesse.

I’ve been reading him for a while, but his work is especially on my mind after a fascinating talk yesterday by Tim Moy that touched on C.P. Snow’s famous lectures/book on “The Two Cultures”. Snow was a poet and physicist who spoke famously in 1959 about the divide between humanities and science, neither understanding the other’s world. If anything, the divide has widened in the years since, with the postmodern critique of science creating a chasm that seems at times unbridgeable.

The context of Moy’s talk was a global climate change workshop (the one I’ve been yarmmering about of late – fascinating stuff in other ways too numerous to blog completely). Moy broadened the two cultures to three in a perceptively useful way – science, humanities, and “the public”. He pointed out an issue I’ve thought about a lot – the relative distrust on the intellectual left of the idea of a consensus of science – this is at the heart of the postmodern critique. Here the left, if I may overgeneralize, is a hypocrite. On the issue of global warming, it demands we accept and act on the scientific consensus. But on issues that do not suit it – the risks of low-dose radiation, or genetically modified foods, to cite my two favorite examples – the left rejects the scientific consensus and demands we listen to the scientific outliers with whom it agrees. Tricky business, this intersection between science and politics. (I would point out that the intellectual right labors under the same hypocrisy, mocking the left and hewing to consensus on GMO’s and radiation while picking its contrarian darlings on global warming.)