The Two Cultures, as per Steven Pinker

As I mentioned before, C.P. Snow’s “Two Culture” lecture is light on facts, which makes it easy to mould to your whims. Go back and re-read that old post, absorb C.P. Snow’s version of the Two Cultures, then compare it to Pinker’s summary:

A final alternative to Enlightenment humanism condemns its embrace of science. Following C.P. Snow, we can call it the Second Culture, the worldview of many literary intellectuals and cultural critics, as distinguished from the First Culture of science.[12] Snow decried the iron curtain between the two cultures and called for greater integration of science into intellectual life. It was not just that science was, “in its intellectual depth, complexity, and articulation, the most beautiful and wonderful collective work of the mind of man.” Knowledge of science, he argued, was a moral imperative, because it could alleviate suffering on a global scale …

[Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Penguin, 2018. Pg. 33-34]

C.P. Snow went out his way to criticise scientists for failing to incorporate literature into their lives, and never ranked one culture as superior to another. Nor did he label them “First Culture” or “Second Culture.” And it wasn’t increased knowledge of science in general that would remove suffering, it was the two cultures intermixing. Pinker is presenting a very different argument than C.P. Snow, at least on the face of it.

But hang on, there’s a footnote right in the middle of that passage….

[12] Snow never assigned an order to his Two Cultures, but subsequent usage has numbered them in that way; see, for example, Brockman 2003.

[Pg. 456]

How is it “following C.P Snow” to call it “Second Culture,” when you acknowledge C.P. Snow never called it “Second Culture?!” What’s worse, look at the page numbers: that acknowledgement comes a full four hundred pages after the misleading phrasing. How many people would bother to flip that far ahead, let alone make the connection to four hundred pages ago? But all right, fine, maaaybe Steven Pinker is just going with the flow, and re-using a common distortion of C.P Snow’s original argument. The proof should lie in that citation to Brockman [2003], which fortunately is available via Google Books. In fact, I can do you one better: John Brockman’s anthology was a mix of work published in Edge magazine and original essays, and the relevant parts just happen to be online.

Bravo, John! You are playing a vital role in moving the sciences beyond a defensive posture in response to turf attacks from the “postmodernists” and other leeches on the academies. You celebrate science and technology as our most pragmatic expressions of optimism.

I wonder, though, if it’s enough to merely point out how hopelessly lost those encrusted arts and humanities intellectuals have become in their petty arms race of cynicism. If we scientists and technologists are to be the new humanists, we must recognize that there are questions that must be addressed by any thinking person which do not lie within our established methods and dialogs. …

While “postmodern” academics and “Second Culture” celebrity figures are perhaps the most insufferable enemies of science, they are certainly not the most dangerous. Even as we are beginning to peer at biology’s deepest foundations for the first time, we find ourselves in a situation in which vast portions of the educated population have turned against the project of science in favor of pop alternatives usually billed as being more “spiritual.”

It appears exactly once in that reference, which falls well short of demonstrating common usage. Even more damning is that Pinker’s citation references the 2003 edition of the book. There’s a 2008 version, and it doesn’t have a single reference to a “Second Culture.” I’ve done my own homework, and I can find a thesis from 2011 which has that usage of “Second Culture,” but falsely attributes it to Snow and never brings it up past the intro. There is an obscure 1993 book which Pinker missed, but thanks to book reviews I can tell it labels science as the “Second Culture,” contrary to how Pinker uses the term. Everything else I’ve found is a false positive, which means Pinker is promoting one mention in one essay by one author as sufficient to show a pattern.

And can I take a moment to call out the contrary labelling here: how, in any way, is science “First” relative to literature? Well before Philosophical Transactions began publishing, we’d already had the Ramayana, the Chu Ci anthology, the Epic of Gilgamesh, The Illiad, Beowulf, and on and on. Instead, Pinker and friends are invoking “Second” as in “Secondary,” lesser, inferior. Unlike de Beauvoir, though, they’re not doing it as a critique, they honestly believe in the superiority of science over literature.

Pinker didn’t invent this ranking, nor was he the first to lump all the humanities in with the literary elites. I think that honour belongs to John Brockman. Consider this essay of his; read very carefully, and you’ll see he’s a little confused on who’s in the non-scientific culture.

Ten years later, that fossil culture is in decline, replaced by the emergent “third culture” of the essay’s title, a reference to C. P. Snow’s celebrated division of the thinking world into two cultures—that of the literary intellectual and that of the scientist. …

In the twentieth century, a period of great scientific advancement, instead of having science and technology at the center of the intellectual world—of having a unity in which scholarship includes science and technology just as it includes literature and art—the official culture kicked them out. The traditional humanities scholar looked at science and technology as some sort of technical special product—the fine print. The elite universities nudged science out of the liberal arts undergraduate curriculum, and out of the minds of many young people, who abandoned true humanistic inquiry in their early twenties and turned themselves into the authoritarian voice of the establishment. …

And one is amazed that for others still mired in the old establishment culture, intellectual debate continues to center on such matters as who was or was not a Stalinist in 1937, or what the sleeping arrangements were for guests at a Bloomsbury weekend in the early part of the twentieth century. This is not to suggest that studying history is a waste of time. History illuminates our origins and keeps us from reinventing the wheel. But the question arises: history of what? Do we want the center of culture to be based on a closed system, a process of text in/text out, and no empirical contact with the world in between?

A fundamental distinction exists between the literature of science and those disciplines in which the writing is most often concerned with exegesis of some earlier writer. In too many university courses, most of the examination questions are about what one or another earlier authority thought. The subjects are self-referential. …

The essay itself is a type specimen of science cheer-leading, which sweeps all the problems of science under the carpet; try squaring “Science is nothing more nor less than the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything” with “Most Published Research Findings Are False,” then try finding a published literary critic doing literary criticism wrong. More importantly, Brockman’s December 2001 essay reads a lot like Pinker’s February 2018 book, right down to the “elite” and “authoritarian” “liberal arts” universities turning their back on science. Brockman was definitely ahead of his time, and while only three of his works show up in Pinker’s citation list he’s definitely had a big influence.

This also means Pinker suffers from the same confusion as Brockman. Here’s some of the people he considers part of the Second Culture:

It’s an oddball list. Karl Popper is a member, probably by accident. Adorno was actually an opponent of Heidegger and Popper’s views of science. Essayists (Wieseltier and Gopnik) rub shoulders with glaciologists (Carey, Jackson), sociologists (Bauman), and philosophers (Foucault, Derrida). It’s dominated by the bogey-people of the alt-right, none of whom can be classified as elite authors.

Stranger still, Thomas Kuhn isn’t on there. Kuhn should have been: he argued that science doesn’t necessarily follow the strength of the evidence. During Kuhn’s heyday, many physicists thought that Arthur Eddington’s famous solar eclipse data fell short of proper science. The error bars were very large, the dataset was small, and some contrary data from another telescope was ignored; nonetheless, scientists during Eddington’s heyday took the same dataset as confirmatory. Why? They wanted General Relativity to be true, because it offered an explanation for why light seemed to have a fixed speed and Mercury precessed the way it did. Kuhn called these “puzzles,” things which should be easily solvable via existing, familiar knowledge. Newtonian Mechanics violated that “easy” part of the contract, GR did not, so physicists abandoned ship even in the face of dodgy data. Utility was more important than truth-hood.

Conversely, remember the neutrinos that seemed to run faster than light? If science advanced by falsification, physicists should have abandoned General Relativity in droves; instead, they dismissed the finding and asked the scientists who ran the experiment to try again. In this case, they didn’t want GR to be false, so contrary evidence was rejected. That might seem like a cheap example, since the experimental equipment was shown to be the real problem, but consider that we already knew GR was false because it’s incompatible with Quantum Mechanics. Neither theory can be true at the same time, which means there’s a third theory out there which has a vague resemblance to both but has radically different axioms. Nonetheless no physicist has stopped using GR or QM, because both are effective at solving puzzles. Utility again trumps truth-hood.

Kuhn argued that scientists proposed frameworks for understanding the world, “paradigms,” which don’t progress as we think they do. For instance, Newtonian Mechanics says the International Space Station is perpetually falling towards Earth, because the mass of both is generating attractive forces which cause a constant acceleration; General Relativity says the ISS is travelling in a straight line, but appears to orbit around the Earth because it is moving through a spacetime curved by the energy and mass of both objects. These two explanations are different on a fundamental level, you can’t transform one into the other without destroying some axioms. You’ve gotta chose one or the other, and why would you switch ever switch back? Kuhn even rejected the idea that the next paradigm is more “truthful” than another; again, utility trumps truth-hood.

It’s opposed to a lot of what Pinker is arguing for, and yet:

The most commonly assigned book on science in modern universities (aside from a popular biology textbook) is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. That 1962 classic is commonly interpreted as showing that science does not converge on the truth but merely busies itself with solving puzzles before flipping to some new paradigm which renders its previous theories obsolete, indeed, unintelligible. Though Kuhn himself later disavowed this nihilist interpretation, it has become the conventional wisdom within the Second Culture. [22]

[Enlightenment Nowpg. 400]

Weird, I can find no evidence Kuhn disavowed that interpretation in my source:

Bird, Alexander, “Thomas Kuhn“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) URL = <>

Still, Pinker is kind enough to source his claim, so let’s track it down…. Right, footnote [22] references Bird [2011], which I can find on page 500…

Bird, A. 2011. Thomas Kuhn. In E. N. Zalta, ed., Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy .

He’s using the same source?! I mean, score another point for Kuhn, as he thought that people with different paradigms perceive the same data differently, but we’ve still got a puzzle here. I can’t be sure, but I have a theory for why Pinker swept Kuhn under the rug. From our source:

Feminists and social theorists (…) have argued that the fact that the evidence, or, in Kuhn’s case, the shared values of science, do not fix a single choice of theory, allows external factors to determine the final outcome (…). Furthermore, the fact that Kuhn identified values as what guide judgment opens up the possibility that scientists ought to employ different values, as has been argued by feminist and post-colonial writers (…).

Kuhn himself, however, showed only limited sympathy for such developments. In his “The Trouble with the Historical Philosophy of Science” (1992) Kuhn derides those who take the view that in the ‘negotiations’ that determine the accepted outcome of an experiment or its theoretical significance, all that counts are the interests and power relations among the participants. Kuhn targeted the proponents of the Strong Programme in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge with such comments; and even if this is not entirely fair to the Strong Programme, it reflects Kuhn’s own view that the primary determinants of the outcome of a scientific episode are to be found within science.

Oh ho, Kuhn thought it was unlikely that sexism or racism could warp science! That makes him the enemy of Pinker’s enemies, and therefore his friend. Hence why Pinker finds it useful to bring up Kuhn, despite their contrary views of science, and for that matter why Pinker can look at Snow’s arguments and see his own: utility trumps truth-hood.