2022 was not the year of consilience
The divide between the Two Cultures got worse this past year
So much happened this past year, from the Ukraine war to Elon Musk buying Twitter, that it went unnoted that this was yet another annus when the relationship between the sciences and the humanities got just a little bit worse. As it often does, it’s worth adding—year by year, what C.P. Snow called the “two cultures” become more and more antipathic. It is a slow slope, but a slippery one, and this year there were a couple examples wherein we all slipped a bit lower.
How can one judge the health of the relationship of something as broad as the two cultures? One way is by looking at how attempts at consilience are treated, that is, how those who honestly attempt to bridge the humanities and the sciences are responded to. Such consilience is a big part of what this newsletter is about. But it is up against a rancorous divide.
There are, of course, many reasons for the disconnect between the two cultures, from necessary specialization to the fact that walking between university buildings is cold in the winter. But no doubt there is, at best, a wariness, and at worst, a hatred. A hatred mostly directed at scientists who dare to engage with traditional subjects in the humanities. One need only look at the pushback, the distaste, which “digital humanities” was greeted with by more traditional scholars—and the digital humanities approach is actually quite staid! They basically just want to do a bit of math and bag-of-words analyses and make a couple graphs occasionally when talking about literature. It’s mostly harmless, but it was treated like a terrible encroachment, an aggressive chess move in a game of territorial defense.
At the divide’s worst, there exists a savage hostility between the two cultures. The award this year for most hostile expression of the division goes to the author of the prize-winning recent experimental novel Ducks, Newburyport, who wrote a screed against science in The Baffler that included diatribes like:
Scientists try to crush us every day. . . And we’re so used to their barbarism, we barely stop to wonder what they’ll do to us next. . . Scientists steal people’s cancer cells and DNA, gleefully deluge us daily with a million minimally tested artificial substances, and are known to have experimented on slaves, students, prisoners, soldiers, and the disabled. Science geeks think their work is too important to be constrained by niceties concocted by the sane and the kind. . . we have delivered ourselves and the entire natural world into the hands of some of the most depraved, misguided, benumbed, and untrustworthy people around, people who literally did not study the humanities [sic]. . . Far from being modest geniuses with our best interests at heart, most scientists are narcissistic monsters. . . There are those who claim there’s no conflict between science and the arts. But whatever these placaters, kowtowers, capitalists, priests and other liars may have you believe, art and science can never be pals.