The Two Cultures

Living in Austin is fun, but sometimes you wonder if you can actually participate in anything important if you don’t live on one of the coasts, something I have peculiarly never managed. This weekend, I am just beside myself with frustration that I can’t possibly attend the New York Academy of Sciences meeting reprising C P Snow’s famous “Two Cultures” lecture. I guess we can hope that it’s captured and logged somehow. Who knows?

(Chris Mooney, who is not only attending but is on the panel (jealous fume) recently said it had not yet filled up. Not sure if this is still true, but if you are in commuter train range of the City, you might want to consider attending.)

This comes to mind because of two photoblog windows that happen to be open in the usual smattering of attention deficit evidence on my desktop. (Hmm… We live in a time when desktops have windows…)

From the wonderful (which is largely about text as art), we have this quote: “There is no way to draw anything wrong.”

And from the marine biology blog Guilty Planet, which I discovered via an alarming bit of historical fumetti about fish catches in the Keys, we have this in Jennifer Jacquet’s blurb:

“As a kid, she read 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth and would come to discover that while those 50 things were indeed simple, saving the Earth was not.”

Which to me says this: in the arts, there is respect for every opinion while in the sciences there is disrespect for every opinion. Accordingly, in a society where, as Paul Murray recently pointed out, almost everyone who understands science is a scientific professional, the encouraging, positive, go along-to-get-along relativism of the arts is considered social adept while the challenging, skeptical, everything-you-know-is-wrong absolutism of the sciences is considered maladroit, arrogant and offensive.

So, last night, I managed to meet my old friend King of the Road, who showed up among the In It readership a few months back, for dinner at a little barbecue place halfway to Houston. (Again, the blog habit makes my life better while holding down a fringe science job just seems to get in the way.) I guess we had chatted on the phone once in the twenty years intervening since we last met, but it was interesting to see how quickly patterns of an old friendship reassert themselves sometimes. Anyway, Rob’s (King’s) take on all this is something like “the world is put together in a certain way, and science tries to be put together that way, so there can’t be a better way to understand the world”. He also said that if you just want to eat, sleep and play guitar, he could perfectly understand that, but then you probably should defer to people who like to think when you put together your opinions.

Anyway, that’s the choir; there are many more blogs addressing this group (I mean teh science group, not the guitar group) than our population would presently warrant. Why do we talk to each other and not the world? Because we like to think. Because we do not know how to talk to the rest of the world very effectively. Because the world isn’t very interested. Because most people form ideas and then look for evidence to support those ideas rather than looking for evidence to shoot their ideas down. Because most people are taught to trust their intuitions while we are taught to treat them with the deepest suspicion.

What’s really at issue is the gap in cognitive style. People simply do not accept that some people are much better at thinking about certain subjects than most everybody else; even though they are quite content to have basketball superstars and guitar heroes.

Paul Murray has quoted one member of the Texas Board of Education as saying “If I don’t understand it, it isn’t science”.

This person’s opinion is consequential; he was deciding on the next decade of science education in Texas and indirectly of many of the rural states that follow Texas’s lead.

So my view of the two cultures isn’t science vs the arts; it’s science vs. everybody who doesn’t get science. Most politicians, lawyers and business people are included in the “don’t get it” group.

As things become overwhelmingly complex, what we need is a society in which intellectual humility is tied to respect for scientific process. When I was a boy, I thought it obvious that this was emerging, but my intuition, alas, was wrong.

So finally, Mr. Obama is increasing the profile and the budget for science. Rob and I discussed what this would amount to. I moaned about all the ways the scientific enterprise itself is broken (partly due to the decades of neglect, partly due to its own internal contradictions). Rob quickly picked up with the question of whether a sudden influx of resources would help very much; indeed, whether there was all that much of use that science could do. I think if the influx is quasi-permanent (which is to say, that the collapse of the republican coalition is permanent) it may attract some of the people science has been losing to such unproductive pursuits as law or finance, but that’s a very slow process.

If Obama wants to support science, shoveling money into grant programs may not be the way to do it. There are very serious problems in the way science is designed, conducted and communicated. Business as usual with a few extra bucks may return the halcyon days of the 50s and 60s for a short while. We could re-establish the PhD mill for a few years but isn’t sustainable. Science cannot go back to growing, as a professional enterprise, faster than society as a whole. It’s that growth rate/sustainability thing again. There is a limit to how many people can be paid to do science.

The main point, though is this. There is no way to draw anything wrong. But there is only one way to think anything right.

I think science desperately needs improvement on two fronts. The first is science that is less effective at writing publications and more effective at reading them, doubting them, testing them and making the winners accessible.

The second, and this is even more important, is to take science education and science promotion and amateur science seriously. That is, people need to reassess the relationship between opinion and fact such that fact wins.

I’ll try to make this case to Obama’s RFC. We don’t, for the most part, need more science. We need better science, and we need better connections between science and the rest of the world.

Picture from Jerry Mikeska’s Barbeque at I-10 exit 698. (in Texas of course; does anybody else have an exit 698?) Turn your sound volume down before clicking, or don’t say I didn’t warn you. Jerry stopped by our table said hi. Like any small business type in Texas, he is a very nice man, but in the interest of scientific accuracy I have to say his brisket is nasty. Stick with the sausage which is fine.