On the edge of the city, the edge of Ambrosia… Science is culturally boring

A friend sent me an article: Artificial divisions between science and culture hinder creative dialogue and public engagement by Athene Donald.  It’s yet another in a long line of articles about how the humanities and the social scientists — and how the wider public more broadly — should make space for scientists to lay down their wisdom.

Facts are sacred and should be transmitted.

Needless to say, my friend was less than impressed with my response: scientists are philistines, and science is culturally toxic.

Let’s start with the most offensive aspect of Donald’s opinion:

There is a tendency to ghetto-ise disciplines: Science Festivals and Literary Festivals do not usually co-mingle (although the Hay Festival does include a good line up of scientists) and speakers from one background may either lack confidence to speak in other arenas and/or may not get invited. This is not healthy.

It is strongly suggested in Donald’s piece that it’s the ‘cultural festivals’ that should invite more scientists, as if they have anything interesting or relevant to say by virtue of them being scientists.  There is an asymmetry to her proposition: she would never think of inviting a poet or author to a conference on experimental physics.  Why?  Because poets and musicians wouldn’t have anything interesting to say about experimental physics.  It would be a waste of time for the audience to listen to poets and musicians explain their feelings about experimental physics.

When I’m at a literary festival, I don’t much care what a scientist has to say about religion, or ethics, or pretty much anything.  They never say anything that’s worth hearing.  They invariably lack the education or experience to form any worthwhile opinions.  And it’s not just Dawkins who feels the need to opine about Islam and feminism.  For some reason, Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks knowing about space should influence the way we think about human issues (it shouldn’t).  Lawrence Krauss similarly spends most of his speaking tours talking about social issues and religion rather than whatever esoteric branch of physics he studies.  Brian Cox, similarly, thinks that knowing about high energy physics (which, by the way, will never solve a single social problem) means that he’s qualified to give his hot take on social issues as well.

It’s always men.  It’s usually white men.  It’s always old men.  It’s always clunky positivist intuitions and appeals to nebulous ‘evidence’ (as if we all agree what that means).  It’s always reductionist garbage that misses the key issues, using old concepts that no serious thinker uses, using frameworks that privilege lumpenliberalism.

And usually it involves some smug joke.

There is an incorrect perception that science is difficult and requires specialist training, while anybody can have a ‘valid’ opinion about a social issue.  The quote from Donald about ‘facts being sacred’ feeds into that: Science is the realm of hard Facts while humanities and social sciences are about mere Opinions.  Science, in its quest for mind-independent, objective truth-makers means that, in theory, a computer could do science.  Opinions, on the other hand, require minds.  The better the mind, the better the opinion.  The better the opinion, the more it will shape the way we think about facts, using them in different ways to reconcile the way we deal with each other.  Scientists aren’t part of that latter conversation.  Give us the computer print out and go home.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that scientists are stupid.  I am saying that science is only possible due to hideous economic inequality which ensures that wealthy countries will always be more technologically advanced than poor countries, and will need to exploit the resources of poorer countries to continue the scientific endeavour.  I am also saying that it’s extremely rich for scientists to sook about nobody paying them enough attention when scientists were encouraging social evils like experiments on African Americans, and writing in favour of wiping out Indigenous people because they were less advanced and likely to wipe themselves out soon enough anyway.  I am also saying that despite rapid technological progress over the past century, we haven’t made similar cultural progress, meaning that we’re now racing to form coherent ethical, social, political, legal ideas about technology before it does irreparable damage and harm.  I am saying that scientists fundamentally do not care about difficult questions.

Science is culturally toxic.  Its emphasis on positivist modes of engagement — empiricism, provability, falsifiability — pushes people to think that the only ‘valid’ responses to the world are those which are based on measurables.  Science in business resulted in managerialism.  Science in economics resulted in libertarianism.  Science in foreign relations resulted in colonialism.

So why would people interested in culture want to listen to a scientist?

Donald (accidentally) says it best in this hideous sentence:

If culture is to mean anything it should mean ‘the best that has been thought and known’ as Arnold would have it, but without taking a large part of our knowledge and implicitly saying that since it’s science it can’t count as culture, even if it has been ‘thought and known’.

Although the findings of science is ‘thought and known’, it’s not among the best that is thought and known.  That’s why cultural festivals shouldn’t include scientists.  Let the real thinkers take the stage.

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3 thoughts on “On the edge of the city, the edge of Ambrosia… Science is culturally boring

  1. Interesting…but I do wonder if most of the best which has been thought and known is in the realms of mathematics and formal logic, and those areas are pretty impenetrable to most folk attending any cultural events. 🙂

  2. I know this is an old post – but I only just read it and I have some feels. To start with, I think you could make your point a lot better without the condescending and borderline-abusive tone. Regardless, I’m going to overlook the snark and try to engage with the substance of your arguments.

    “It would be a waste of time for the audience to listen to poets and musicians explain their feelings about experimental physics”. I think you’re confusing cultural events for the general public (like writers’ festivals) with industry-specific conferences. By the same token, I don’t think that a scientist would be invited to an academic meeting on modernist literature for example.

    “It’s always men. It’s usually white men”. A preponderance of “white men” doesn’t seem a good excuse to dismiss all scientists as non-serious and irrelevant, including a huge number of people with diverse backgrounds and experiences. Anyway, given the preponderance of white men generally, I think you could make the same argument against almost any other discipline.

    “Opinions, on the other hand, require minds. The better the mind, the better the opinion”. Scientists don’t have good minds or opinions? You make a lot of sweeping generalisations about “scientists” when they are in fact a pretty diverse lot, ranging from engineers to behavioural psychologists. Some areas have more overlap with the humanities, and day-today relevance than others. Some of these people are terrible communicators, and some are very good with quite a good grasp of topics outside their own discipline.

    “I am also saying that it’s extremely rich for scientists to sook about nobody paying them enough attention when scientists were encouraging social evils like experiments on African Americans…”. Really? Can you think of a single discipline that hasn’t been used for immoral purposes at some point in its history?

    “Science is culturally toxic. Its emphasis on positivist modes of engagement — empiricism, provability, falsifiability — pushes people to think that the only ‘valid’ responses to the world are those which are based on measurable”. Such a misunderstanding of science. Decision making (which is basically what most of our public conversations are about) is based on applying ethical and moral frameworks to the facts. Scientists have to somehow communicate those facts to the public in order for this confluence to occur – a point which I think Brian Cox made yesterday.

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