Phillip Griffiths Looks at 'Two Cultures' Today

Phillip A Griffiths was invited to address the annual Distinguished Chairs Dinner at Rice University held at Cohen House on 13 September 1995. We gave details of the speech:-


It is a great pleasure to be with you at the second annual gathering for Distinguished Professors, and an honour to be asked to speak after a dinner as fine as the one we have just enjoyed.

Even though I am a mathematician, I hope to convince you that my topic is worthwhile, for two reasons. First, my topic is not mathematics. Second, although I shall speak to you mostly about science, the consequences of what I have to say reach into every corner of academic life. I want to talk about why the scientists' traditional "search for the truth" may be in jeopardy and suggest some steps that might be taken to ameliorate this.

Let me move toward this topic along a path skilfully laid down by the great writer and thinker C P Snow. It has been three and a half decades since he delivered his famous lecture, "Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution," which seems as wise today as it did in 1959. In that speech, as most of you know, Snow described what he called a "gulf of mutual incomprehension" between scientists on one shore and literary intellectuals on the other. He saw the literary culture as, in his words, "behaving like a state whose power is rapidly declining - standing on its precarious dignity ... too much on the defensive to show any generous imagination to the forces which must inevitably reshape it." He saw the scientific culture as, again in his words, "expansive ... confident at the roots ... certain that history is on its side, impatient, intolerant, creative rather than critical, good-natured and brash." The scientists, he said, regarded the humanists (when they regarded them at all) as lacking in foresight, unconcerned with their fellow humans, and even anti-intellectual. The humanists regarded the scientists as shallowly optimistic and unaware of man's true condition.

Snow warned that the continued widening of this gulf could lead to grave consequences. For one thing, he said, the "clashing point," as he called it, between the two cultures of science and humanities, was not producing enough "creative chances" - opportunities for new breakthroughs, new ways of looking at the world. "The chances are there now," he said, "but they are there, as it were, in a vacuum, because those in the two cultures can't talk to each other."

Perhaps more serious was his warning that we have lost even the pretence of a common culture. "This loss," he wrote, "is leading us to interpret the past wrongly, to misjudge the present, and to deny our hopes of the future."

Over the years, Snow's warning has been repeated by many of us. It has been accompanied by much wise nodding of heads, but little action. Gerald Holton of Harvard is one of those who believes that the gulf between cultures is wider than ever. Science, he writes, is now separated from not only the humanities, but also from the whole of society.

Indeed, C P Snow would not be surprised by the recent attacks on Western science by people a group known as social constructivists. (And I thought it was mathematics that was full of jargon). Gerald Holton says that social constructivists seek to define science not as a search for the truth - which is the definition most scientists would prefer - but as a collection of ideas constructed by a single social groups - namely, natural scientists. By this definition, Western science has no greater claim to objectivity than any other collection of ideas.

Consider a recent conference sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences. It was called "The Flight from Science and Reason." The conference was organized both to alert scientists to these attacks, and to arouse them to action, and some of the descriptions were chilling. Here is how Gerald Holton, one of the speakers, described what social constructivists believe about science: that "science is a thinly disguised plot to maintain a largely patriarchal elite in power over minorities, women, and experimental animals," and that the so-called objectivity of science is no more than one way of searching of the truth, and no more legitimate than any individual's subjective opinion or the will of the people at large. In other words, science is merely one way of looking at the world. Furthermore, it is a particular destructive way which has contributed to countless social and environmental abuses.

Let's go back a step. What does Western science say that it is? Holton, a physicist and science historian who has thought a great deal about these matters, sees, perhaps over-confidently, three pillars on which the edifice of science is based: first, to all genuine questions there is one true answer; second, the answers to questions are knowable; and third, these true answers cannot clash with one another.

But if the subjective will has as much validity as objective reason in the search for truth, these three pillars of the Western tradition have little strength. If there are no "objective rules," we have to recognize any new rules, whether formulated by the social constructivists or anyone else. We have to admit that scientific truth is not discovered but made, and its results depend on the beliefs from which you began.

This is not, of course, the first time science has been challenged in this way. We remember that Galileo was not only challenged but imprisoned for believing in the laws of physics. Even more chilling was the rise of Aryan science in Germany in the 1930s. This science was the province largely of those of Aryan blood. It shunned formalistic or abstract concepts, which were seen as the hallmarks of so-called "Jewish physics." In making even the most technical decisions, scientists were expected to welcome the opinions of the "volk," or common people.

In our time, the Czech playwright and statesman Vaclev Havel has attacked science for, in his words: "... the proud belief that man ... was capable of objectively describing, explaining and controlling everything that exists, and of possessing the one and only truth about the world." He also said: "Man needs individual spirituality, first-hand personal insight into things, ... and above all trust in his own subjectivity as his principal link with the subjectivity of the world ...."

Here at home, Congressman George Brown of California, a physicist and a former chair of the House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology, has been strongly influenced by Havel and now sees little evidence that "objective scientific knowledge leads to subjective benefits for humanity." Congressman Brown has written that he wants to "make strong attempts to involve ordinary citizens in processes of discussion and decision-making, including citizens who have not previously demonstrated expertise about such matters at all." To some, this recalls the tone of Germany's "volkische" solution, and even of Mao Tse Tung's cultural revolution.

Thus we are seeing a historic trend that has risen and fallen and risen again. Today's anti-science view is held by a minority, but it is an intelligent minority capable of shaping opinion.

From the other side, however, we hear little from the scientists, who tend to avoid political debate in favour of the work they prefer to immerse themselves in. They find it more congenial to focus on a specific task rather than on the place of that task in the broader culture. They rarely ask, "What does science do for society to justify the public's generous support?" I'm reminded of Tom Lehrer's famous song from the '60s about Wernher von Braun and his rockets. The job of the rocket scientist, sang Lehrer, is simply to get the rockets in the air: "Who cares where zey come down?" We know this is a caricature, but it still makes us just as uncomfortable today as it did three decades ago. Many scientists are too narrow and self-satisfied about what they do, and show too little concern about the role of science in society.

So let me suggest that both scientists and intellectuals have some work to do. Let's start with the latter. As modern as some of their views may seem to them, it has deep roots in the English Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century and the anti-industrial fervour of the Luddites. C P Snow said that Western intellectuals have never tried to understand the industrial revolution, much less accept it. And he accused intellectuals of being natural Luddites who were unable to see the irony of their position. That is, the industrial revolution created the wealth and made possible the leisure to support a larger population of intellectuals than the world had ever known. Snow was especially angered by the implications of the intellectuals' attacks on technology. Without it, he said, most of society would be condemned to the drudgery of manual farm labour and to its partners of poverty, illiteracy, and poor health.

But Snow was even-handed: He assigned an equal portion of blame to the scientists-especially those who scorn practical work, even if it leads to better education, health, and personal wealth. Such scientists, he said, seldom see that many problems of application and engineering are as intellectually exacting as so-called "pure" problems, and that many of the solutions are as satisfying and beautiful. More to the point, applied science is necessary to support the lifestyle enjoyed by the scientists.

Nor does Snow spare himself, recalling his own past as a research physicist at Cambridge University: In his words, "We prided ourselves that the science we were doing could not, in any conceivable circumstances, have any practical use. The more firmly one could make that claim, the more superior one felt."

The word pride sticks out here; it reminds one of the biting description, in the debate over funding, by a prominent scientist of his colleagues as "welfare queens in white coats." This pride is more and more a luxury in an era when time and resources for pure science or pure art are more and more constricted. The scientist's sense of entitlement is being questioned today by those who are paying for the white coats.

Let me suggest the beginning toward some resolution of this problem of two cultures by turning to the thoughts of Robert Oppenheimer, one of my most distinguished predecessors as director of the Institute for Advanced Study. Four years before C P Snow's lecture, Oppenheimer gave a lecture about two cultures; he used the categories of scientist and artist. He concluded that both scientists and artists had become highly specialized, isolated, and to some extent irrelevant to society. And he, like Snow, suggested that both groups expose themselves to other people - both to teach and to learn from those around them. The purpose of this exposure is not to dilute their own efforts, or to take orders from those who do not understand what they are doing. The proper role of scientists and artists, he said, is to "not merely find new truth and communicate it to his fellows, but that he teach, that he try to bring the most honest and intelligible account of new knowledge to all who will try to learn." This teaching, when successful, is the first set of girders across the gulf between the two cultures.

Does a scientist make a good teacher? I think it depends on the scientist. A narrow specialist may teach effectively in a very restricted group of those who share the same specialty. But to be broadly effective, a scientist must understand something about the context of that specialty, and about science as a whole, and about other people.

Unfortunately, few of our scientists are oriented toward this kind of teaching. Recently, I was a chair of a committee at the National Academy of Sciences which recently produced a report called "Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers." In preparing this report, we examined the graduate programs in American universities and we found that most of them have for several decades built up the importance of research at the expense of teaching and communicating. To me, one of the committee's most important suggestions is that we adjust this balance in favour of better education and communication, and to remind the scientists of Oppenheimer's invitation to share what they know with others. If our colleagues have some understanding of what scientists are doing, they will be less inclined to attack them.

Let me go one step further. Over the last half century, it has become the goal of the ambitious university to be known as a "research university." The more people in white coats, the better. I would like to suggest a new concept as we prepare for the 21st century - the concept of the research and service university. Clearly, we do not want to diminish the importance of research, which must continue to bring us new technologies, products, and ways of looking at the world. But we need to balance the emphasis on research with an equally strong emphasis on service - on ways to relate what is discovered and accomplished in the university to what is unknown and lacking in society. This involves more teaching, more communicating, and a greater sense of responsibility to the community at large. I think that a conceptual change in the direction of a research and service university can help us place a few more girders across that wide and stubborn gulf between the two cultures.

If this case seems too difficult, let me conclude with a word of hope from Oppenheimer. He said that both scientists and artists have a special gift for us, if they can only bring themselves to share it. Both groups live always at what he called the "edge of mystery" - the boundary of the unknown. But they also live here on Earth among the rest of us. These visionaries must struggle constantly to integrate what they see "out there" with what they see "down here"; to integrate what is new with what is familiar; to find partial order amid the chaos of experience. Thus they are well prepared to help the rest of us, if they will, find our balance in a world which confronts us daily with new challenges and new invitations.

Thank you very much.


JOC/EFR November 2006

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