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The Two Cultures Revisited

Colleen Flaherty’s recent piece on the Steven Salaita affair observes that Salaita’s supporters, both on campus and off, derive overwhelmingly from the “soft” academic disciplines— the humanities and social sciences — while the administration is strongly backed by those in STEM fields. Flaherty points out other instances of tensions between the “two cultures”, connecting these to C.P. Snow’s widely discussed book on the subject.

Most academics have stories of more or less dramatic instances of the “two cultures” fissure. Here’s mine: about a decade ago, I served as an official observer for Yale graduate students’ union recognition election. The first ballots to be counted were those from the liberal arts departments around central campus. The results were overwhelmingly in favor of the union.

But as votes arrived from further out — most notably, those from science buildings and the medical center — it  became clear the drive would fail. This was no surprise to those who, in working to build support in prior weeks, had found a solid wall of opposition there.

For those of us who are sympathetic to Noam Chomsky’s belief that science and rational discourse are “tool(s) of emancipation,” the failure of these and other campus initiatives to achieve support in the sciences is distressing.

Those most at home with the scientific method should, according to Chomsky and others, be the most willing and able to critically examine the claims by those in positions of authority and recognize (as in the Salaita case) their patent dishonesty and fraudulence.

In the past, Nobel Prize winners Salvatore Luria, Linus Pauling, Owen Chamberlain and, most prominently, Einstein saw their radicalism as entirely consistent with and deriving from their commitment to science.

Now it is Stranglovian figures like Edward Teller at worst or bland establishment moderates like Steven Chiu or Harold Varmus at best who are taken as typifying science.

And that is at least part of the reason why the “two cultures” now seem particularly unbridgeable.

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But the responsibility for the gap does not, unfortunately, reside entirely in the reactionary conformism of scientists. Equal blame must be placed on sectors of the academic left, whose hostility to science began to become an issue in the mid 90s, brought to attention through the work of Alan Sokal and his collaborator Jean Bricmont.

Also making similar observations was Chomsky whose 1995 essay Rationality/Science catalogs the anti-science, anti-rationalist views of “left allies.” These include the assumption that science is “dominated by the white male gender,” “limited by cultural, racial, and gender biases,” “thoroughly embedded in capitalist colonialism,” and “used to create new forms of control.” Moreover, science, according to them, “screens out feeling, recreating the Other as object to be manipulated . . . made easier because the subjective is described as irrelevant or un-scientific” by those for whom “to feel was to be anti-science.” Based on these indictments we must conclude “there is something fundamentally wrong with science” and learn to view Western “scientific endeavor (as) also in the world of story and myth creation,” along with other “stories and myths.”

While Chomsky’s patient demolition is, as always, worth revisiting, what Chomsky doesn’t address are some of the predictable consequences of these absurdities having become dominant in the academic left.

Among these is the difficulty, demonstrated in the examples Flaherty cites among others, in recruiting science departments in support of left campus initiatives. Scientists are no different from anyone else in being disinclined to join forces with those who have made no secret of their personal contempt for you. Furthermore, on a political level, it was eminently predictable that scientists, or for that matter, anyone with a minimal claim to sanity, would view any political tendency disavowing scientific expertise in public health, energy, environmental, agricultural, and transportation policy, as a serious danger, indeed, a menace, whether emanating from the left or right.

Finally, it was predictable that the right would eventually make easy pickings of a left willing to associate itself with the attitudes Chomsky itemizes. In particular, university administrations having as their main campus allies those in the sciences would be in a strong position to sell to their governing boards, the media and the public the increasingly heavy-handed crackdown on campus radicals belonging to those departments which, as Andrew Delbanco has written, “only make people laugh.”

That the two cultures schism on the left has continued and even widened is a clear indication the warnings issued by Chomsky and a few others were heeded or had much influence. Also revealing is continuing influence in the academy of postmodernist icons who, as Sokol as Bricmont document, inspired much of the contempt for science in left academic circles: Kristeva, Lacan, Latour, Deleuze, and Guattari and now Lacan’s follower Zizek–remain sources of authority frequently cited and highly influential across a range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, their comical ignorance of science greeted with indifference and even with applause.

That said, it would be a mistake to view the irrationalist currents affecting the left as confined to the academy. Anyone who has been involved in retail political organizing can anticipate that a significant fraction of those expressing interest in many left objectives will be those who view political reality through the distorting lens of conspiracy theories involving 9/11 “Truth”, the Kennedy assassination, or chem trails. As the parent of a 9-year-old, the most problematic for me are “anti-vaxxers,” who allege a conspiracy of the pharmaceutical companies to cover up the side effects of childhood vaccines.

Those buying into crude conspiratorialism tend to be ridiculed by the academic left, who are quick to see them as the contemporary descendants of Richard Hofstadter’s paranoid style in American politics. But there is ultimately little practical difference between hostility to rationality and science that has its roots in les deux maggots or in 19th century farmbelt, populist no-nothingism.

Of course, scientists are only one of many constituencies who have become less supportive of the left agenda over the past decades and it would be mistake to reconsider our goals and tactics based on our failure to reach them. They are, after all, disproportionately among the economically advantaged 1% not to mention the beneficiaries of long standing connections to the national security state via Defense Department funding of basic research. For this reason, as was the case in the past, only a few will be able to resist a system in which their skills command top dollar and confer on them much prestige.

But that the left can no longer count on the participation of even a small corps of dissident scientists is problematic on two counts. First, any political tendency competing for power-presumably our ultimate objective-will need at least a few with technical expertise on public health, energy and transportation policy if it expects to govern responsibly. Their absence from within our ranks is a sign of our ultimate dysfunctionality. More fundamentally, it is troubling on deeper, philosophical grounds. For some of us, the most compelling reason for identifying with the left is that it offers the best explanation for the facts which are before our eyes. In that respect, it not only resembles science, it is its virtual twin. That so many on the left feel comfortable with the banishment of science and scientists from our ranks may have a lot to do with the our having become almost completely irrelevant as a political, moral and social force.

John Halle blogs at Outrages and Interludes

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John Halle blogs at Outrages and Interludes. He tweets at: jghalle.

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