The two cultures puzzle

Has Dominic Cummings solved the two cultures problem, or misunderstood it?

Effective policymakers must have an understanding of both the humanities and the sciences. Dominic Cummings, trained in the humanities but zealously enthusiastic about the sciences, seems to be trying to bridge this divide. This union must be seen as a positive, but we must not lose sight of the fact that data is nothing without an understanding of the context in which is was gathered. 

In 1959, C.P. Snow delivered a well-publicized lecture at Cambridge on what he had already dubbed ‘The Two Cultures’. It focused minds on a problem that had existed in academia for a century and which after the Second World War had migrated to the political sphere. ‘The two cultures’ in question refer to the arts and the sciences, two forms of knowledge that operate in radically different ways. Whereas the arts – understood as the humanities – are verbal and historical in orientation, the sciences – understood as physics – are mathematical and experimental.

Snow, who was himself trained as a physicist but was known mainly as a novelist and policy advisor, had a foot in both camps. Indeed, he often functioned as a kind of translator between them. However, Snow believed that effective policymaking required closer integration of the mind-sets that inform the arts and the sciences. Is Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief advisor, the Oxford-trained historian and arch science enthusiast Dominic Cummings, the solution to Snow’s original problem?

Snow realized that the two cultures problem would not be solved easily. The main barrier was the increasingly divergent educational paths of humanists and scientists.

Before turning to Cummings, it is worth noting that Snow realized that the two cultures problem would not be solved easily. The main barrier was the increasingly divergent educational paths of humanists and scientists. In the mid-nineteenth century, most scientists still began their university studies in history and philosophy, and only later specialised. Even as the century drew to a close, Charles Darwin was regarded as a ‘natural historian’ and James Clerk Maxwell as a ‘natural philosopher’. The use of ‘biologist’ and ‘physicist’ to name specialist scientists was still novel. However, for various reasons, the drive to specialisation accelerated in the early twentieth century – in both the arts and the sciences. Its overall effect was to persuade the public that education should be strategically focussed rather than broadly informed. This tended to favour the sciences over the arts, especially as the time taken to convert a technical result into a useful technology shortened. People – not least policymakers -- could see that ‘science works’.

Unfortunately, the people drawn into both politics and the civil service remained intellectually rooted in the humanities. The same is true today, of course, but the situation has changed. In Snow’s day, the humanists who migrated into policymaking were in equal measure impressed and suspicious of scientists. The main problem was that they understood very little of what the scientists were talking about and what little they understood sounded scary. After all, the same nuclear physics that would teach the world the secret to cheap and clean energy had also taught the world the most efficient means of destroying itself.  The same chemistry that gave us artificial fertilizers also gave us poison gas, the same biology that is giving us advances in gene editing first backed eugenics -- and the list goes on. Snow’s original point in all this was that as long as the humanists in policymaking circles regarded themselves as completely outside the scientific world-view, full acceptance of science in the wider society would remain at an impasse.

However, and also to his credit, Snow realized that both humanists and scientists would need to reorient themselves. Unfortunately his ‘Two Cultures’ lecture has come to be known mainly as a club with which to beat scientifically illiterate humanists. In fact, Snow believed that each culture had to learn from the other. Here it is worth recalling that much of what we now call ‘science communication’ in Snow’s day was extremely futuristic, essentially straight versions of the visions satirized in Brave New World and 1984. In particular, democracy was seen not as a hard won achievement of human self-empowerment but as a transitional phase on the way to rule by scientifically trained experts. The alarm was further raised because many of these scientist-communicators – including such charismatic figures as J.B.S. Haldane and J.D. Bernal – looked longingly to Moscow for guidance on the design of their scientific utopia. Keep in mind that Snow’s lecture occurred during increasing Cold War tensions between the US and USSR.

The world has changed, and futurism is now virtually a parlour game. This reflects the profound democratisation of access to scientific information.

One immediate yet underrated effect of Snow’s lecture was to inspire the creation of the Science Studies Unit at Edinburgh University, which aimed to encourage students with a science-based background to understand their activities within a more humanistic frame. The original director of the Unit, David Edge, was a radio astronomer who had become a BBC producer of science programmes. Edge measured the early success of the Unit’s work in terms of the number of graduates who worked outside of the pure research context. He is today remembered mainly for having founded Social Studies of Science, the flagship journal of the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS). It is ironic that this field has been periodically seen over the past fifty years as trying somehow to delegitimize science simply by situating it in its social and cultural context. If anything, STS has helped to normalize the standing of scientists as ordinary social agents, as opposed to the scary demi-gods that in Snow’s day they sometimes appeared to be.

Perhaps more important in bridging the two cultures divide – not least in the mind of Dominic Cummings –  has been the half-century effort by the US literary agent John Brockman to create what he started calling in the mid-1990s the ‘third culture’, which is best evidenced by his elaborate website, which periodically brings together around 200 of the world’s leading thinkers to address questions that bring cutting edge science to bear on deep human concerns. To be sure, Brockman crafted the phrase ‘third culture’ with a nod to Snow but seemingly without realizing that it had long referred to the social sciences. Unsurprisingly, leading social scientists are conspicuous by their absence from Brockman’s client base, which tends toward the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker. Their modus operandi involves asset stripping social science research by appropriating its data without acknowledging the theoretical and methodological constraints under which the data had been gathered. It is arguably also the modus operandi of Dominic Cummings.

This practice befits a certain sort of ‘radical’ solution to the two cultures problem, one that often invokes self-styled ‘evolutionary’ explanations that embed everyday life in very deep history without much of note happening in the intervening period, which might be centuries if not aeons. Lacking here is a sensitivity to just the sorts of things that the social sciences are designed to provide. The intellectual basis for such a radical approach lies in what philosophers formally call ‘hysteresis’, but which is more colloquially known as ‘spooky causation’ or ‘action at a distance’. For example, the persistent difficulties that we have in deferring gratification, notwithstanding its known benefits, is attributed to our so-called ‘reptilian brain’. This phrase is meant to recall a change in the animal makeup that first happened hundreds of millions years ago, the genetic markers of which humans continue to bear today. On this view, recorded history is simply an outworking of this and other innate tendencies, which in turn are the proper targets of policymaking. The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson has recently enjoyed celebrity by sticking closely to the hysteresis playbook.

Dominic Cummings resolves the two cultures problem in his belief that science is too important to be left to scientists. Put more provocatively, professional scientists do not own science but rather are relatively well positioned to exploit its potential as a public good.

Needless to say, evolutionists are hardly alone in deploying hysteresis in this manner: Consider the role of ‘trauma’ in psychoanalysis or, for that matter, ‘Original Sin’ in Christian theology. All of these concepts are ‘radical’ in the etymological sense of addressing matters at the level of ‘root causes’. In each case, the ascendant form of knowledge and the ascendant form of power mount a pincer attack on history. As a result, a suspicious gaze is cast over established institutions and traditions, which are seen as obscuring our ability to take charge of ourselves, our environment and our destiny. This attitude – minus the evolution spin – had characterised the first movement to dub itself ‘philosophical radicalism’, namely, the Utilitarians. The attacks on academia, the civil service and the judiciary already launched by Dominic Cummings in his brief time at 10 Downing Street makes him a worthy heir of Jeremy Bentham’s original reformist zeal.

At first glance, these more recent developments seem to have brought us back to the scary scientific futurism that Snow was trying to overcome. However, the world has changed, and futurism is now virtually a parlour game. This reflects the profound democratisation of access to scientific information. In the sixty years since Snow’s lecture, the world has witnessed unprecedented levels of formal study of scientific and technological subjects and an explosion of science communication activities from all backgrounds and all angles. But most importantly, a science-facing information technology – the internet –  has become the aether through which both the global economy and everyday life transpires. What Snow failed to anticipate in all this ‘humanization’ of science was that people would feel empowered to interpret science in line with their own lifestyle concerns, a by-product of which is a manifest lack of deference to expert authority. This is the spirit in which Dominic Cummings can consistently present himself as being at once ‘pro-science’ and ‘anti-expert’.

In short, Dominic Cummings resolves the two cultures problem in his belief that science is too important to be left to scientists. Put more provocatively, professional scientists do not own science but rather are relatively well positioned to exploit its potential as a public good. Perhaps the epitome of this sensibility is Cummings’ proposal for a new ‘high-risk, high-reward’ science funding agency modelled on the US Defence Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which might even replace the various broadly discipline-based funding agencies that currently operate. The precedent is telling. A creature of the Cold War, DARPA pioneered the internet, virtual reality technology and drone warfare. Most recently it has been trying to develop a ‘social supercollider’, the ultimate compiler and processor of big data. DARPA characteristically issues an open call for proposals, inviting self-organizing teams drawn from any discipline and any place of employment to address some significant part of the stated objective. It turns out that Cummings’ proposal for a UK version of DARPA has been enthusiastically received by the scientific community, as it promises to promote bold visions without too much red tape.

Nevertheless, Cummings’ modus operandi has also attracted sceptics and naysayers, mainly from STS, one of the original products of Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ lecture. STS scholars focus their fire mainly on Cummings’ ‘radical’ willingness to bounce back and forth between cutting edge science and deep human concerns. As they see it, Cummings’ science enthusiasm leads him to mistake metaphor for reality. Indeed, such criticism recalls Snow’s own response to the humanist uptake of the thermodynamic principle of entropy. However, as STS scholars should know, the history of conceptual transfer between the natural and human worlds has been always a two-way street. We too easily forget that James Clerk Maxwell’s 1870 presidential address to the British Academy for the Advancement of Science was about persuading physicists to adopt probabilistic reasoning from the social sciences to overcome various impasses they had reached in making sense of the nature of energy. Maxwell’s hard sell was that physicists need to regard the natural world as being just as fickle as the human world, though on a scale that we don’t normally notice. The result was statistical and quantum mechanics, which opened the door to the twentieth century revolutions in science. Cummings should take comfort that his radical solution to the two cultures problem may be on the right track.

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