Two Cultured?

Over at Scienceblogs, there has been a discussion about the relationship between science (and mathematics in particular) and the arts and humanities. This was started by Chad Orzel, and continued elsewhere. John Wilkins has a fairly up to date set of links, as well as some well thought out musings. He’s also the firs to point out that C.P. Snow talked about the same issues in the first part of his 1959 Rede lecture (the whole essay is worth reading: many of his lesser-known points are still relevant today).
This got me thinking about why I, as a scientist, should know about the arts and humanities. After all, they’re on a different campus from us.


For me a knowledge of the humanities has been useful for me as a scientist1. Having a greater understanding of the cultural realm should inform the way science is done and understood. To pick a few examples from my own scientific development:
Ever since I was an undergraduate, I read histories of science written by historians. It became apparent that the history we are taught in science is very much a fake history – the Good Guys make great advances by carrying out the crucial experiment, and once it was published the best of the scientific community accepted it and moved on the next Great Advance. Only the elderly professors and the less competent objected, and they were wrong. Aspects like Mendel being ignored are treated as some oddity – how on earth could scientists have ignored the ground-breaking work of an obscure monk for 40 years?
Once you start to read “proper” histories, you see that reality was different. It was never as clean: the original experiments were not definitive, there were valid criticisms of them (some were even fiddled!), or were not understood the way they are today. Sometimes experiments had to be placed in the right context before they could be properly understood (this is more or less the issue with Mendel: he was thnking along different lines when he did his experiments). If we are ignorant of this sort of history, we can end up with a distorted view of science and its progress – we can become naïve scientific triumphalists (to use a phrase one of my genetics lecturers used about her head of department). It should be clear that, by implying the inevitability of progress, this can breed undue arrogance.
Similarly, sociology can be useful. Both in our understanding of how science develops (it is done by people, so has to be a social phenomenon), but also of how science relates to the outside world. Both aspects became clear in the last couple of years when I was involved in a project on risk assessments for GMOs. Our project included some sociologists. One thing we did was to sit down and discuss how our risk assessment tools would be used. Simply doing this made us aware that doing the work was not enough: we also had to work out how to make sure the work was used. This entailed looking at who would use it, how it could fail etc. It is clear that the success of our work depends on the social, not technical, realities. Whilst it is obvious at one level, it is clear that a lot of scientists don’t think about this. Many good ideas languish in the scientific literature because they are not marketed well enough. The success of the R statistical package is partly because it was taken up by enough people early on. Contrast that with Survo, which does a similar job and has been around for much longer. A large part of the difference is that Survo was developed by one person, without reaching out to the wider community. The problem is one of social interaction, not science (or perhaps in this case technology).
I think we see something similar with GMOs and public perception. As a scientist, I can see the potential for great benefit, as well as the possibility of harm. I can weigh up the possibilities, and decide on what I think is best. It seems it was a shock for a lot of the scientific community when there was a backlash against GM. A lot of that, I think, was because we (or perhaps companies like Monsanto) didn’t realise how the public would perceive the introductions. There was (and to some extent still is) an attitude of paternalism: we just have to tell the public that GM is good for them, and they will follow. But this ignores why the public is suspicious. There is ignorance about GM, but also many of the attitudes and arguments are not scientific at their core: they are about what is “natural”. Understanding these arguments requires humanists: philosophers to pick apart the logic of the arguments, and sociologists to explain how they came about and perhaps how we could respond.
I can even delve into the worst horrors of the humanities: post-modernism. My reading of post-modernism (which is, after all, as good as anyone else’s) is that there is a an important nugget of insight. The problem is how we decide what values are the right ones. The pomo argument is that any set of values is as good as any other. Now, this is a challenge to science, and particularly to philosophy of science, because if we can’t show why it is wrong, we’re in trouble: why should scientific knowledge be previleged over any other? I suspect we can do this, but we might end up defining a more basic set of values2. But the positive aspect of pomo is that it tells us that there are alternative sets of values we can use. Outside of science, it says there’s nothing wrong with reading space opera: it still has value. Within applied science, it tells us that other values can be important too, which brings us back to the GM debate. Once we are aware that there are competing sets of values, and no one set is “right”, we are then aware that we have to negotiate the different value sets. Which brings us back to sociology.
I guess the point of all this is that as scientists we do science, but if we are to understand what we do, and do it effectively, we need to understand the hows and whys of the scientific process. Because science is done by people, we need to understand how people behave as individuals and in groups. This is the job of the humanities, so we need them if we are to be effective as science practicioners.

1 The arts are useful in making us rounded people: knowledge of nutrition naturally does the opposite.

2 Unfortunately we can’t simply appeal to reality because we have to demonstrate we know what reality is. And that is what science is meant to be showing us. So how do we know science is doing that? We end up in an infinite regress, with elephants all the way down. The only escape, I think, is through induction. But that just replaces elephants with turkeys, at least until Christmas.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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12 Responses to Two Cultured?

  1. Henry Gee says:

    Thanks for this post, Bob. I came across it last night but in my bleary state I thought I’d save it for when I was more awake and had a coffee insiode me.
    I agree with you all the way. When I wrote a book called Deep Time I sought to challenge the textbook view that evolution was linear and triumphalist, progressing through a series of victories and increases in complexity “culminating in Man” (a phrase I culled from J. Z. Young’s Life of Vertebrates, my main undergraduate zoology textbook. Shocking, eh?). Cladistics (which is what I was writing about) asks us to put aside our preconceptions (what we think happened, informed by authority and anthropocentrism) and weigh up the evidence — testing our preconceptions against many alternative possibilities. Amazingly, many zoologists resisted cladistics, despite the fact that it sought to replace naive storytelling with the scientific method.
    While I was researching the book I discovered that academic historians had been way ahead of us scientists all the time. The traditional view of evolution is no more than ‘Whiggish history’, told retrospectively to justify our current position, and that historians such as Ferguson and Meinig were seriously in the game of examining ‘counterfactuals’ – what might have happened, had circumstances been slightly different.
    Thus informed I started Jacob’s Ladder, a kind of prehistory of genetics, looking at how predarwinian concepts such as preformationism and Naturphilosophie continue to inform science up to the present day. The current view we see in the public prints is that our scientific ancestors were periwigged dolts floundering around in ignorance until Mr Darwin descended from on high with his graven tablets.
    Au contraire – preformationists such as Spallanzani and Bonnet were fine scientists who backed up their ideas with meticulous experiments, whose ideas were rendered obsolete by the development of better microscopes. And without airy-fairy Nature-Philosophers such as Goethe, Oken and Wolff, whose ideas were based on weird ideas such as a ‘life force’, not to mention lunatics such as Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (who invented the principles of homology we still use today) we’d still have no reason to link individual development with evolutionary history as a whole. Watson and Crick’s famous paper of 1953 wouldn’t have been possible without either preformation or nature-philosophy. For what would be the significance of their copying mechanism were there not something to copy, already in existence?
    And in the dawkinisian darwinian hoopla we often forget that evolution by natural selection was in serious trouble by the time the great man died. University textbooks from the turn of the 20th century were Lamarckian, and luminaries such as William Bateson and T. H. Morgan viewed Darwinian ideas with extreme scepticism, because of the lack of knowledge of the substrate on which selection was to have acted. When Bateson coined the word ‘genetics’, it was in support of his idea that evolution happened in discrete jumps and in opposition to the gradualist view. Bateson’s masterpiece, just before the ‘rediscovery’ of Mendel, was his 1894 tome Materials for the Study of Variation – a polemic againt the vacuity of darwinism (as it then was) attached to a kind of medieval bestiary cataloguing hundreds of instances of natural variation, and in which he coined the term ‘homeosis’. Yet Bateson’s book has been pooh-poohed by Dawkinsian acolytes (one of the Ridleys – can’t remember which) as irrelevant to our modern concerns. There are none so blind …
    Bateson remained anti-Darwinian until he died. Morgan was only dragged kicking and screaming into the darwinian light by his students, especially Sturtevant and Dobzhansky, the latter of which finally worked out how to reconcile genetics and evolution, in the late 1930s.

  2. Mike Fowler says:

    Very heavy on the deep thoughts today, so here’s some
    humanities silliness
    And the discussion reminds me of one of my favourite aspects of science. It doesn’t matter how correct we think our results prove us (our hypotheses) to be, we are always limited by current knowledge and tools. Next year, someone could develop an objectoscope and we’d all view the world in a different way.

  3. Bob O'Hara says:

    I’m currently reading The Taming of Chance, about how views of probability and statistics changed in the 19^th^ century. Again, it’s more people with a totally different viewpoint, and anyone who suggested these ideas now would be thought of as silly. No doubt in 200 years, someone will see our thoughts and have the same idea.
    So, Henry, you might want to get your books disposed of if you don’t want to suffer future ridicule.

  4. Brian Clegg says:

    Bob -
    While I take your point about history of science, as a popular science writer there is a very difficult balance – you do need to make something readable, which implies some simplification of the history just as much as it means a simplification of the science.
    How much it’s a simplification of the science is coming home to me now more than ever as I am finishing writing a book with a cosmology flavour. There is just so much that is assumption – I am trying to point out where this is the case, because few popular science texts do so enough, but I have to be careful because a book where every sentence is qualified with ‘if’s and ‘but’s rapidly becomes dull.
    Incidentally, I’m sure you don’t need to appeal to such rubbish as post modernism to justify reading space opera, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Coronation Street, or enjoying the movie version of Mamma Mia. In fact it’s almost the reverse of post modernism, which seems to be about taking the most pretentious view of the world you can, where liking stuff because it’s fun is the opposite…

  5. Boris Cvek says:

    Brian: While I take your point about history of science, as a popular science writer there is a very difficult balance – you do need to make something readable, which implies some simplification of the history just as much as it means a simplification of the science.
    Boris: If I might something recommend you, I would recommend these Eddington´s lectures at Cornell: NEW PATHWAYS IN SCIENCE (Cambridge University Press 1947).

  6. Bob O'Hara says:

    Brian – thanks for giving me more to think about!
    I guess the linear view of science history may partly come from it being used as a vehicle to teach the science – it is easier to remove the blind alleys from the subject. So the perception is perhaps an unintended consequence.
    I think it’s good to be aware of simplifications of science history, and also that some of the stories we are told are actually wrong. Life is never as simple as it appears in lectures. Or perhaps I only ever remembered the simple bits.

  7. Bora Zivkovic says:
  8. Graham Steel says:

    Dearest Bora,
    “To hyperlink a word or phrase (at NN), place it in quotation marks followed by a colon and the URL e.g. text to link
    Ducks for cover big style

  9. Bob O'Hara says:

    Thanks, Bora. I saw the title in my RSS, and went to the post to advertise this one. But you were ahead of me…
    There’s more discussion now – e.g. John Lynch and Ben Cohen are wondering “why?”. There are a lot of links to historians of science in the comments to John’s post. Experienced ScienceBlogs readers can work out who’s provided most of them.

  10. Heather Etchevers says:

    Bob – very thoughtful. I’ll cite you sooner or later. :-) Nothing profound to add, except that since we scientists are human (despite some assertions to the contrary), personal as well as disciplinary well-roundedness is never wasted.

  11. Bart Penders says:

    Actually, I just finished a paper on the subject:
    Penders B, Horstman K, Vos R.(2008) A ferry between cultures. Crafting a new profession at the intersection of science and society EMBO Reports 9(8):709-713
    including CP Snow and the history of science, but also the ethical, legal and social aspects of ~-research which is often accompanying current Big Science initiatives.

  12. Boris Cvek says:

    Bob: I think it’s good to be aware of simplifications of science history, and also that some of the stories we are told are actually wrong. Life is never as simple as it appears in lectures. Or perhaps I only ever remembered the simple bits.
    Boris: Exactly! I have to use 3 times the one name: Feyerabend, Feyerabend, Feyerabend (especially, Against Method).