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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

C. P. Snow and Three Cultures

C. P. Snow and Three Cultures

Several weeks ago, I sent questions to a few friends.

 Why do we know so much about African American writers and so little about African American scientists?  Who talks about Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ruth Ella Moore, Mae Jemison, Euphemia Lofton Haynes, and Sylvester James Gates, Jr.?

Some of the responses were illuminating.  One friend who is a librarian knew Tyson, Moore, and Jemison.  Another, who is a medical doctor, proposed that people fear mathematics and think science is too hard. A rather surprising answer came from a poet who holds that scientists don’t know as much about literature as writers know about science.  The most intriguing response came from a highly acclaimed literary scholar and cultural theorist.  He said that I was playing a Sunday morning game as if I were moderating an Oxford Union debate and that Tyson’s popularizing of scientific ideas compromised his trustworthiness as a scientist. Damn. If asking a question is now the equivalent of being on a television show, so be it.

  These responses inspired me to revisit C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1959).  Less than a day after rereading Snow, Lee McIntyre’s article “The Attack on Truth” appeared in the online Chronicle Review, June 8, 2015.
(  Two friends with whom I shared the article slammed McIntyre for publishing bullshit, for being ignorant about the history of literary theory, and for being tendentious in claiming some conservatives have borrowed postmodern rhetoric for the sake of disputing “inconvenient” scientific facts.  They are right, of course, but I am still amused that McIntyre imitates Snow without specifying Snow’s political and ideological motives for writing about easily observable habits attributed to disciplines.

McIntyre, a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University, will publish his book Respecting Truth: Willful ignorance in the Internet Age this month with Routledge. If “The Attack on Truth” is a synecdoche, it is probable that some reviews of his book will be less than kind.  Had he used Peter Dear’s The Intelligibility of Nature: How Science Makes Sense of the World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006) or Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962) as templates for examination of ignorance and wisdom, McIntyre might have secured more credibility.

Like some of his intellectual peers, Sir Charles Snow was very much a man of the West, the British-inflected West, and his fears about minimal communication between “the men of science and the rest of us” were genuine in the late 1950s.  He feared that the Russian Communists had the edge on Britain and the United States in training scientists and engineers, people whom he deemed less racist and paternalistic than most Europeans and Americans who intervened in the affairs of Asia and Africa. The rest of us might at that time have included George Padmore, Richard Wright, and participants in the 1955 Bandung Conference who were thinking beyond science and literature toward a third culture, a culture of actions which is neither Western nor Communist in the purest sense. Snow was not prophetic enough, cosmopolitan enough, to behold the future which he hoped to influence.  Few human beings are capable of triple consciousness.

To his credit, Snow did recognize the treachery of unmitigated binary thinking, for he wrote:

The number 2 is a very dangerous number: that is why the dialectic is a dangerous process.  Attempts to divide anything into two ought to be regarded with much suspicion. I have thought a long time about going in for further refinements: but in the end I have decided against.  I was searching for something a little more than a dashing metaphor, a good deal less than a cultural map: and for those purposes the two cultures is about right, and subtilising any more would  bring more disadvantages than it’s worth. (10)

Snow should have proposed that the number 3 is less dangerous than 2.  Dialectic does involve three basic gestures, does it not?  If dialectic is tempered by ethics, particularly in social and political discussions, its results do not always reduce us to disadvantages. Snow did have the modesty to know that his idea of two cultures had “to be regarded with much suspicion.”

My own binary question about African American writers and scientists demands a mea culpa, because I did set it in a context that would have made my nationalist motives transparent.   I am not like that jesting dude made infamous by Sir Francis Bacon, the shrewd dude who asked “What is truth?” and promptly washed his Roman fingers. I know that the only “truth” to be trusted is a perpetual state of inquiry and uncertainty, although I do wash my African American hands frequently and try to put distance between myself and utter stupidity.  I do not believe Neil deGrasse Tyson has committed a grave error in making some scientific mysteries and partial explanations of them “popular” or attractive for non-scientists. I do believe that I have profited as a writer from having known a little bit about the thinking of such scientists as St. Elmo Brady (who was tutored by George Washington Carver) and Slayton Evans (who was much beloved for his work in chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and from my efforts to grasp what quantum theory, fractals, and dark matter might help me to understand about writing, art, and language.  I do not believe it is a cardinal sin to encourage people, especially young learners, to study both Ernest Everett Just and Langston Hughes; to tell them they might gain something of value from reading Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters and doing research on African American folk medicine in the American South.

I may be forced to say mea culpa for a cargo ship of flaws, but I’ll be damned if I will say mea culpa for asking whether we can be more curious than we seem to be in our use of interdisciplinary thinking, more curious in looking for practical symbiosis of imaginative expression and hard science.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
June 9, 2015

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