C.P. Snow: Still Relevant; "Two Cultures": Still Divided

There were some great comments on our last post announcing the "Two Cultures" 50 year anniversary conference at the New York Academy of Sciences. I wanted to build on that discussion, but haven't gotten around to it until now.

So let's address some of the more noteworthy points; meanwhile, I also suggest that anyone interested should get a copy of Snow's amazing little 1959 lecture. This is the edition that I own, and I highly recommend it.

Why is C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures" argument so influential and cited? Ironically, it has in part to do with the conflict that resulted after F.R. Leavis, an eminent literary critic, attacked Snow in extraordinarily vituperative terms following the lecture. Then all the intellectuals dove in to comment on the Snow-Leavis clash of the titans. I have written an essay about this, which was at one point to compose part of our new book, Unscientific America, but has since been excised. I'll have to see where I might be able to publish it.

At the same time, much as it's a deadly term, you gotta give Snow credit for "framing." Many people in those days were talking about how literary and scientific cultures and mindsets don't mesh. But Snow is the only one who called it the problem of "the two cultures," and that made all the difference. (Even though, as you will see if you read the lecture itself, much of it is not even actually about this divide.)

Does the "Two Cultures" problem still persist? Interestingly, nobody really questioned this. A lot has happened over the 50 years since C.P. Snow spoke, after all--and he was speaking to a British audience. Yet the truth that we've not come very far is I think evident in the fact that no one deeply challenged the existence of this divide, or its continuing problematic nature.

The Role of the Sokal Affair. Yes, this clearly was an instance of the "two cultures" divide during the 1990s. The lessons to be drawn, however, are not so clear. I don't think there were obvious winners or losers here; certainly the humanistic study of science was not refuted or undermined in any serious way. Here I am at Princeton studying the history of science. I hope no one thinks, as a result of the Sokal Affair, this has become a less worthwhile endeavor. I think Snow certainly would have admired it.

Anyway, those are some rough thoughts. I have many more that I will enunciate at the conference, and in subsequent articles. This is just to get the discussion rolling.

Countdown to the "Two Cultures" 50 Year Anniversary: 55 Days...

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I have a lot to say, especially about the changing nature of the Two Cultures rift, but will wait until the conference.

For now I'll add that I echo Chris' recommendation on the Collini edition of Snow's lecture. It's the version I own as well.

I'm going to partially uncloak and cite a specific example of the pernicious effects of the Two Cultures problem: interactive entertainment (currently video games). Now, entertainment is unquestionably part of the arts, but video games require great technical expertise to execute. Ergo, interactive entertainment requires people who bridge the Two Cultures divide. But the empirical results are pretty clear: video games are created entirely by the math/science people with little true design input from the arts people, leading to products that are artistically and entertainingly puerile. Video games have none of the depth or richness of cinema. Granted, video games are not in any way important to our well-being; they could vanish from the face of the earth and few tears would be shed. But I see the problem in terms of lost opportunity. Good entertainment changes people for the better. Video games are not changing people for the better. What a lost opportunity!

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 13 Mar 2009 #permalink

Chris and Sheril, The conference looks like it'll be fascinating. Bravo on getting it together. I wanted to share a link here to an article I wrote a while back: "On the Historical Relationship Between the Sciences and the Humanities: A Look at Popular Debates That Have Exemplified Cross-Disciplinary Tension" (Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society , Vol. 21, No. 4, 283-295, 2001 -- for those with access to Sage publications, you can get it here.) It's purpose, in part, was to dispute the claim above that the science wars was a repeat of the two cultures debate. Be well, Ben

PS This is with apologies in part, because I don't mean to go all Vos Post here by self-citing


Video games have none of the depth or richness of cinema.

This is an incredibly strong statement. Do you actually have any experience with the game industry? There are many indie games being explored with unique artistic story lines or modes of interaction. Yes, these are not always present in the AAA titles, but how many times are Oscar winners the big movie blockbusters. If you compare apples-to-apples, I would say that the characterization in Mass Effect is better than any sci-fi actioner put out by the studios in the past couple of years.

Video games are not changing people for the better.

This is false. Serious Games is an entire academic research area that has been active for years. We have long understood the value of games as training simulations. Exploring moral dimensions and consequences in games has been an active area of research for the past several years.

I will say, however, that educating people to make computer games is very difficult (I run the computer games program at Cornell). You do have to bridget theTwo Cultures problem, and this is what our classes are about. It does not lend itself to the didactic lecture-based education that universities have used for a long time, as lectures are always tailored to a specific audience (I do some lectures in my classes, but some are more successful than others). The courses must be project-driven, and this requires a very different style of teaching than what we train our future faculty members to do.

If anything, I have viewed computer games as an opportunity in the Two Cultures problem. I have an artist in my computer games course right now that has attended every single programmer-focused lecture because she is trying to understand how programmer limitations affect the type of art that she can create for the game. She does not know anything about programming, and so cannot understand the technical solutions that programmers use. However, she has learned a lot just by trying to grasp the nature of their problems.

This is an incredibly strong statement. Do you actually have any experience with the game industry?

OK, I have to uncloak. My name is Crawford. 'Nuff said.

I maintain that games lack the richness or depth of cinema because they have nothing in the way of interpersonal factors. There is not a single game with the richness of characterization of "Gilligan's Island". They're emotionally flat, with the same old tired themes of physical conflict. Yes, some of them work emotional elements in, but those emotional elements are invariably non-interactive. There isn't anything whatsoever that combines emotional substance with interactivity. The emotional elements are tacked on, mere afterthoughts.

The games industry employs lots of artists, but they're used as artisans, not artists. They have zero creative control. People say that Hollywood is a soulless den of cretins, but it's vastly superior to the games industry in terms of its respect for the arts. I know because I personally know lots of people in both industries.

The indie games group has some interesting experiments, but these people are merely twiddling around the edges of a fundamentally soulless enterprise. There's no evolutionary path from games to art because that community is now so dominated by the science/math types that they'll never yield creative power to the artsy types.

My first publication on this problem was twenty years ago.

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 13 Mar 2009 #permalink

So funny to see you blog about this today--i was just working on an article (for K.C. Cole at USC, whose class you came to visit last semester) about science's two cultures (public and private) and the future of the science beat, specialized science media, and journal publication in the digital age.

C.P. Snow's essay is my historical jumping-off point.

The humanistic study of science was not undermined by the Sokal affair. What was radically undermined was a lot of nonsense that goes by the name of "humanistic study of science". Most people who engage in this nonsense have no inkling of what science is. At the very least, the Sokal affair convinced at least some such people to back off and not peddle their fraudulent hokum under the guise of learned offerings. Sadly it has not convinced enough of the hucksters to do this. Sokal's "Fashionable Nonsense" says all there is to say about this, and so does Richard Dawkins's "Intellectual Impostors" essay about it in "A Devil's Chaplain"

You should check out "The Cambridge Quintet" by John Casti, a scientific fiction starring Snow, Wittgenstein, Haldane, Turing and Schrodinger.

I also possess the Canto edition and it is indeed excellent. For another Canto-related Snow piece, do read his lengthy introduction to G H Hardy's magnificent "A Mathematician's Apology"

Erasmussimo | March 13, 2009 12:20 PM

I'm going to partially uncloak and cite a specific example of the pernicious effects of the Two Cultures problem: interactive entertainment (currently video games). Now, entertainment is unquestionably part of the arts, but video games require great technical expertise to execute. Ergo, interactive entertainment requires people who bridge the Two Cultures divide. But the empirical results are pretty clear: video games are created entirely by the math/science people with little true design input from the arts people, leading to products that are artistically and entertainingly puerile.

Please turn up some links to actual data supporting the notion that 'video games are created entirely by the math/science people' , Crawford. In particular - can you show that the managers - who give the go/no-go on any game idea - are disproportionately people with a 'math/science' background? What about the game designers that come up with ideas that managers accept or reject?

I'm happy to accept your assertion that most of the industry's artists are little more than artisans (as are many of the game designers) - but that doesn't therefor mean that 'math/science' people necessarily control the output.

Please turn up some links to actual data supporting the notion that 'video games are created entirely by the math/science people'

Well, I won't provide links, but I will provide something better: a quote from one of the leading authorities in the industry, who wrote the first book on computer game design (The Art of Computer Game Design, 1984), created the first periodical on computer game design (The Journal of Computer Game Design), founded the Game Developers Conference, and has 14 published games and five published books. Allow me to introduce Chris Crawford.

So, Chris, what do you have to say about the notion that video games are created entirely by math/science people?

Oh, it's definitely true. Yes, indeed. I know many game designers personally and they're all math and science people.

Thank you for that revealing quote, Mr. Crawford.

You're quite welcome.

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 13 Mar 2009 #permalink

Hi Chris Crawford,
I don't know a ton about videogames, I deliberately stopped playing them many years ago so I could get some work done (!), but I would say you've added an intriguing new wrinkle to the Two Cultures discussion. C.P. Snow definitely would not have foreseen this.

Lately I've been looking into the intellectual origins of the culture wars. It looks to me like the "two cultures" definitely makes it in there. This is from Tanenhaus's essay, "Conservatism is Dead":

The poor--believers in the American dream, content to struggle upward on their own--had become "a project" for technocrats intoxicated with nostalgie de la boue. In his book Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, Moynihan--disillusioned with the programs he helped instate--ridiculed the pretensions of social scientists, "who love poor people [and] ... get along fine with rich people" but "do not have much time for the people in between." "In particular," he wrote, "they would appear to have but little sympathy with the desire for order, and anxiety about change, that are commonly encountered among working-class and lower middle-class persons. The privileged children of the upper middle classes more and more devoted themselves, in the name of helping the oppressed, to outraging the people in between."

For the neoconservatives, late New Deal-era technocrats were sophisticated, but had problems as far as the culture went. After listening to this Sam Tanenhaus lecture, I picked up Mr. Sammler's Planet (which Tanenhaus calls "the one great neoconservative novel"). It's a great novel--better on a second reading. There's a lot in there. (Here's a rather slanted discussion from the Wall Street Journal.) Anyway, among many other things, Bellow sends up the U.S. space program, H. G. Wells, and implies links between the phenomenon of the counterculture (which he doesn't like) and the technical-mindedness of the larger elite culture. (But he doesn't deal with poverty very much, mostly culture.)

Anyway, I think there's a tendency among sciences people to think, "oh yeah, culture, the arts, humanities" as if it's an afterthought. Well, some of these conservative culture people have been eating our lunch for quite a few years. And may do so again. Don't give culture too short a shrift.

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 14 Mar 2009 #permalink

THERE are deeper, serious, implications to Snow's Two Cultures debate, on a philosophical and epistemological level with profound implications for the practice of contemporary science, not yet plumbed here among the comments.

The best consideration might start with Karl Popper's essay "The Myth of the Framework" and continues with Mark Notturno's lengthier considerations in his sadly OP book "Science and The Open Society: The Future of Karl Popper's Philosophy.' (http://www.amazon.com/Science-Open-Society-Poppers-Philosophy/dp/963911…)

If you read the "Introduction," followed by "Science and 'the Institution,'" (similarly, the former amplified by the next chapter "Demarcation and induction," explaining how Popper's account solves the problem of induction with pan-critical falsifiability), Notturno explains how old epistemological standard of Gettier-type of "Justified True Belief" leads to either solipsism and psychologism (as seen in the subjectivism of PoMo unmask by Sokal), or to Institutionalized Big Science. What is the latter? Eisenhower's famous farewell speech is perhaps an even better place to begin appreciating this. (SEE http://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/02/21/ikes-second-warning-hint-it-is-no…)

But Notturno explains that Institutionalized Science leads to collectivist conventionalism, and stale conformism in science - as we see with the AGW debate today (ie, "the weight of the 'evidence'" standard the IPCC epigone's champion - WTF kind of hard SCIENCE is this, when such an institution self-selects the 'evidence' it considers???). Ike's fear was that military scientists would become a special interest group during the Cold War that over-rode the public interest. Similarly, as public choice law prof Todd Zywicki has shown (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=334341), environmental interest groups are no different than other private interest groups like corporations.

In other words,in Notturno's account Institutionalized Science corrupts the scientific ideal of The Pursuit of Truth in harmful ways, rewards conformism, penalizes innovation, and stamps out freedom of expression encapsulized by the ideal of a "marketplace of ideas." Other chapters in Notturno flesh out the socio-political and epistemological costs involved in going down this road, like in "Tolerance, Freedom, and Truth: Fallibilism and the Opening of Closed Societies."

The connection between the Big Science of Cold War military applications and the Big Science of IPCC directed AGW science is not accidental. A friend of mine, Dr. Amy Garwood, did her MS in environmental studies at the University of Minnesota around 1993-5. And who taught her about climate warming and climatology? Physicists who were former Cold War scientists working on military applications-- re-tasked to plump for AGW 'science'!

"The primary task of science is not to differentiate the true from the false [as former Popper student, philosopher David Miller has argued]. It is to solve scientific problems. It is, as Popper saw it, to explain the things that we want to understand, but are not yet able to understand or explain rationally. This is what is primary. The truth or falsity of the theories that we propose as solutions to our problems pertains to this task. But the only real grip that we ever get upon the truth or falsity of our theories is through their success or failure in solving the problems for which they were created to solve. And it is clear, since we are willing to work with theories that we know to be false, that the thorough and efficient differentiation of the true from the false remains secondary to the solution of scientific problems," writes Notturno.

The difficulty is in the social - ands yes, institutional - problem of distinguishing between genuine scientific problems and pseudo-scientific problems. Institutionalized Science gets bogged down in the latter, while the Open Society thrives on maintaining the Liberal Science that concentrated on the former, as Jonathan Rauch articulates in "Kindly inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought" (1993).

Altogether, Rauch and Notturno put serious thoughtful meat on the bare bones of C. P. Snow's essay. The subjectivism of PoMo as well as the Institutionalized Science of IPPC-driven AGE 'climate science" both pose serious illiberal obstacles to the functioning of sound and serious science - lest we are lost solving mere puzzles , confused as genuine 'problem solving' today.

I should add that buttressing the theses of both Notturno and Rauch is Steve Fuller's essay in the history of the philosophy of science in "Kuhn vs. Popper: The Struggle for the Soul of Science." This is because he fleshes out the Big Institutionalized Science and reactionary biographical roots of Kuhn's theories with the influence of James Conant at Harvard and in Washington, DC in Ike's "military industrial" and scientific complex - in contrast to Popper's liberal realism. Thus, more flesh for the snowy sinew and bones, Chris Mooney truly would be remiss to miss.