pseudo-Socratic Politics

Read that Atlantic profile of Stephen Miller yet? This part in particular jumped out at me:

That night was the culmination of a well-organized campaign of campus disruption. It had begun when Miller formed a chapter of Students for Academic Freedom—a national conservative pressure group [David] Horowitz had launched to expose the leftist “indoctrination” taking place at America’s universities. As the head of the Duke chapter, Miller was sent a 70-page handbook that provided detailed instructions for orchestrating a campus controversy. It included guidance on how to investigate faculty members’ partisan biases (special attention should be paid to professors of women’s studies and African American studies, the handbook noted); tips for identifying “classroom abuses” (“Did your professor make a politically-biased comment in class about the war in Iraq?”); and advice for drumming up publicity (“Appearing as a guest on your local talk radio station is probably easier than you think”). The handbook also urged students to invite controversial speakers to their schools, adding that if the administration declined to fund such visits, students should “issue a press release … questioning why they have refused your request to increase the scope of intellectual diversity on campus.”

The playbook was in many ways ahead of its time, but Miller recognized its merits—and executed flawlessly. After inviting Horowitz to speak at Duke, he seized on the pushback from some professors as evidence that the university was trying to stifle free speech. He wrote an incendiary op-ed in the student newspaper, The Chronicle, titled “Betrayal,” in which he claimed that “a large number of Duke professors” were determined to “indoctrinate students in their personal ideologies and prejudices”—and then presented a series of anonymous student testimonials as proof.

Amazingly enough, you can grab a later edition of that document for yourself. On the surface it seems quite innocuous:

Students for Academic Freedom is exclusively dedicated to the following goals:

  • To promote intellectual diversity on campus.
  • To defend the right of students to be treated with respect by faculty and administrators, regardless of their political or religious beliefs.
  • To promote fairness, civility and inclusion in student affairs.
  • To secure the adoption of the Academic Bill of Rights as official university policy, and the Student Bill of Rights as a resolution in student governments.

For a thorough treatment of our mission, please see the red Students for Academic Freedom booklet, pages 4-12.

That resembles the language of contemporary progressives, right? If you dig into the history and context, however, a sinister side starts to appear.

The proposed Academic Bill of Rights directs universities to enact guidelines implementing the principle of neutrality, in particular by requiring that colleges and universities appoint faculty “with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives.” The danger of such guidelines is that they invite diversity to be measured by political standards that diverge from the academic criteria of the scholarly profession. Measured in this way, diversity can easily become contradictory to academic ends. So, for example, no department of political theory ought to be obligated to establish “a plurality of methodologies and perspectives” by appointing a professor of Nazi political philosophy, if that philosophy is not deemed a reasonable scholarly option within the discipline of political theory. No department of chemistry ought to be obligated to pursue “a plurality of methodologies and perspectives” by appointing a professor who teaches the phlogiston theory of heat, if that theory is not deemed a reasonable perspective within the discipline of chemistry.

These examples illustrate that the appropriate diversity of a university faculty must ultimately be conceived as a question of academic judgment, to be determined by the quality and range of pluralism deemed reasonable by relevant disciplinary standards, as interpreted and applied by college and university faculty. Advocates for the Academic Bill of Rights, however, make clear that they seek to enforce a kind of diversity that is instead determined by essentially political categories, like the number of Republicans or Democrats on a faculty, or the number of conservatives or liberals. Because there is in fact little correlation between these political categories and disciplinary standing, the assessment of faculty by such explicitly political criteria, whether used by faculty, university administration, or the state, would profoundly corrupt the academic integrity of universities. Indeed, it would violate the neutrality principle itself.

The first attempts at pushing the “academic freedom” line were clumsy and gave the game away too easily; for instance, Rick Santorum’s attempt in 2001 used much of the same language but mentioned “biological evolution” as a topic of controversy. But by 2003 it was clear that basic tactic of appropriating progressive language and concepts to push regressive ideas was powerful, the American far-Right just had to tune the messaging to appear as neutral as possible. By 2010, the date of the revised handbook, you either have to be quite adept at decoding dog-whistles or the patience to dig in deep to spot what was really going on. On page 31, well away from the lofty goals, you’ll find the giveaway alluded to above:

As you complete this process, you may begin to get a sense of which professors are particularly partisan in their teaching. If you know that a student is taking a class with one of these professors, make sure to ask whether they have encountered abusive actions in the classroom. Some departments are known for their ideological and partisan leanings. These include Cultural Studies, American Studies, English Literature, Women‘s Studies, African-American (or Black) Studies, Chicano/Latino/Hispanic Studies, Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Studies, American-Indian Studies, and Asian-American Studies. Fertile ground is also found in the Political Science, Sociology and History departments, although to a lesser degree than the departments mentioned above.

The end goal of all this is confusion and frustration. They want progressives arguing with one another about what “diversity” and “inclusion” means, as it makes them susceptible to a re-framing of those terms via emotional pleas, conspiracy theories, and well-funded think tanks. The messaging has become so finely crafted that without the history you’d have no idea it was created to teach Young-Earth Creationism in schools.

Universities ought to be the arena in which political prejudice is set aside and open-minded investigation reveals the way the world works. But just when we need this disinterested forum the most, academia has become more politicized as well – not more polarized, but more left-wing. Colleges have always been more liberal than the American population, but the skew has been increasing. … The proportions vary by field: departments of business, computer science, engineering, and health science are evenly split, while the humanities and social sciences are decidedly on the left: the proportion of conservatives is in the single digits, and they are outnumbered by Marxists two to one. Professors in the physical and biological sciences are in between, with few radicals and Virtually no Marxists, but liberals outnumber conservatives by a wide margin.

The liberal tilt of academia (and of journalism, commentary and intellectual life) is in some ways natural. … A liberal tilt is also, in moderation, desirable. Intellectual liberalism was at the forefront of many forms of progress that almost everyone has come to accept, such as democracy, social insurance, religious tolerance, the abolition of slavery and judicial torture, the decline of war, and the expansion of human and civil rights. In many ways we are (almost) all liberals now.

But we have seen that when a creed becomes attached to an in-group, the critical faculties of its members can be disabled, and there are reasons to think that has happened within swaths of academia. In The Blank Slate (updated in 2016) I showed how leftist politics had distorted the study of human nature, including sex, violence, gender, childrearing, personality, and intelligence. In a recent manifesto, Tetlock, together with the psychologists Jose Duarte, Jarret Crawford, Charlotta Stern, Jonathan Haidt, and Lee Jussirn, documented the leftward swing of social psychology and showed how it has compromised the quality of research. Quoting John Stuart Mill – “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that” – they called for greater political diversity in psychology the version of diversity that matters the most (as opposed to the version commonly pursued, namely people who look different but think alike).

Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Penguin, 2018. pg. 377-378.

In practice, the tactic comes across as a pseudo-Socratic politic: on the surface it advances no unique ideas of its own, instead borrowing from other movements in an attempt to embrace, extend, and extinguish, but the “extinguish” bit gives away that there actually is a unique vision buried under layers of obfuscation and plausible deniability. Read the section on tabling on pages 43 to 46, for instance, and you’ll find the SAF advises their student groups to avoid debate, and instead focus on pushing a standardized message to recruit new members.

The tactic has a strong resemblance to trolling, hence why that Atlantic piece was subtitled “Trump’s Right-wing Troll.” And unfortunately, it’s just as effective.

 

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 = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2013/entries/thomas-kuhn/>

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 . https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/thomas-kuhn/.

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.

The Two Cultures, as per C. P. Snow

I’d never heard of C.P. Snow until Steven Pinker brought him up, but apparently he’s quite the deal. Much of it stems from a lecture Snow gave nearly sixty years ago. It’s been discussed and debated (funny meeting you here, Lawrence Krauss) to the point that I, several generations and one ocean away, can grab a reprint of the original with an intro about as long as the lecture itself.

Snow’s core idea is this: two types of intellectuals, scientists and elite authors, don’t talk with one another and are largely ignorant of each other’s work. His quote about elite authors being ignorant of physics is plastered everywhere, so I’d like to instead repeat what he said about scientists being ignorant of literature:

As one would expect, some of the very best scientists had and have plenty of energy and interest to spare, and we came across several who had read everything that literary people talk about. But that’s very rare. Most of the rest, when one tried to probe for what books they had read, would modestly confess “Well, I’ve tried a bit of Dickens”, rather as though Dickens were an extraordinarily esoteric, tangled and dubiously rewarding writer, something like Ranier Maria Rilke. In fact that is exactly how they do regard him: we thought that discovery, that Dickens had been transformed into the type-specimen of literary incomprehensibility, was one of the oddest results of the whole exercise. […]

Remember, these are very intelligent men. Their culture is in many ways an exacting and admirable one. It doesn’t contain much art, with the exception, and important exception, of music. Verbal exchange, insistent argument. Long-playing records. Colour photography. The ear, to some extent the eye. Books, very little, though perhaps not many would go so far as one hero, who perhaps I should admit was further down the scientific ladder than the people I’ve been talking about – who, when asked what books he read, replied firmly and confidently: “Books? I prefer to use my books as tools.” It was very hard not to let the mind wander – what sort of tool would a book make? Perhaps a hammer? A primitive digging instrument?

[Snow, Charles P. “The two cultures.” (1959): pg. 6-7]

To be honest, I have a hard time comprehending why the argument exists. If I were to transpose it to my place and time, it would be like complaining that Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Michael Ondaatje are shockingly ignorant of basic physics, while if you were to quiz famous Canadian scientists about Canadian literature you’d eventually drag out a few mentions of Farley Mowat. I… don’t see the problem? Yes, it would be great if more people knew more things, but if you want to push the frontiers of knowledge you’ve got to focus on the specifics. Given that your time is (likely) finite, that means sacrificing some general knowledge. It would be quite ridiculous to ask someone in one speciality to explain something specific to another.

If we forget the scientific culture, then the rest of western intellectuals have never tried, wanted, or been able to understand the industrial revolution, much less accept it. Intellectuals, in particular literary intellectuals, are natural Luddites. [pg. 11-12]

The academics had nothing to do with the industrial revolution; as Corrie, the old Master of Jesus, said about trains running into Cambridge on Sunday, `It is equally displeasing to God and to myself’. So far as there was any thinking in nineteenth-century industry, it was left to cranks and clever workmen. American social historians have told me that much the same was true of the
U.S. The industrial revolution, which began developing in New England fifty years or so later than ours, apparently received very little educated talent, either then or later in the nineteenth century. [pg. 12]

… do we understand how they have happened? Have we begun to comprehend even the old industrial revolution? Much less the new scientific revolution in which we stand? There never was any thing more necessary to comprehend. [pg. 14]

Yep, that’s Snow trashing authors of high fiction for not having an understanding of the Industrial Revolution. It’s not an isolated case, either; Snow also criticises Cambridge art graduates for not being aware of “the human organisation” behind buttons [pg. 15]. He might as well have spent several paragraphs yelling at physicists for being unable to explain why Houlden Caulfield wanted to be a gas station attendant, he’s that far from reality.

Which gets us to the real consequences of Snow’s divide, and how he proposes heading them off at the pass.

To say we have to educate ourselves or perish, is a little more melodramatic than the facts warrant. To say, we have to educate ourselves or watch a steep decline in our own lifetime, is about right. We can’t do it, I am now convinced, without breaking the existing pattern. I know how difficult this is. It goes against the emotional grain of nearly all of us. In many ways, it goes against my own, standing uneasily with one foot in a dead or dying world and the other in a world that at all costs we must see born. I wish I could be certain that we shall have the courage of what our minds tell us. [pg. 20]

This disparity between the rich and the poor has been noticed. It has been noticed, most acutely and not unnaturally, by the poor. Just because they have noticed it, it won’t last for long. Whatever else in the world we know survives to the year 2000, that won’t. Once the trick of getting rich is known, as it now is, the world can’t survive half rich and half poor. It’s just not on.

The West has got to help in this transformation. The trouble is, the West with its divided culture finds it hard to grasp just how big, and above all just how fast, the transformation must be. [pg. 21-22]

So we need to educate scientists about the works of elite authors, and those authors about the work of scientists… because otherwise Britain will become impoverished, and/or we’d end poverty faster?! That doesn’t square up with the data. Let’s look at what the government of Namibia, a well-off African country, thinks will help end poverty.

  • Improving access to Community Skills Development Centres (Cosdecs) in remote areas and aligning the curriculum with that of the Vocational Training Centres.
  • To improve career options and full integration into the modern economy, there is need to introduce vocational subjects at upper primary and junior secondary levels. This will facilitate access to vocational education and labour market readiness by the youth.
  • Improving productivity of the subsistence agriculture by encouraging the use of both traditional and modern fertiliser and by providing information on modern farming methods.
  • The dismantling of the “Red Line” seems to hold some promise for livestock farmers in the North who were previously prevented access to markets outside of the northern regions.
  • Consider establishing a third economic hub for Namibia to relief Khomas and Erongo from migration pressure. With abundant water resources, a fertile land and being along the Trans Zambezi Corridor, Kavango East is a good candidate for an agricultural capital and a logistic growth point.
  • Given persistent drop-out rates especially in remote rural areas, there is need for increased access to secondary education by addressing both the distance and the quality of education.
  • Educate youth on the danger of adolescence pregnancy both in terms of exclusion from the modern economy and health implications.
  • Given the established relationship between access to services, poverty and economic inclusion, there is need for government to strive towards a regional balanced provision of access to safe drinking water, sanitation, electricity and housing. [pg. 58-59]

I don’t see any references to science in there, nor any to Neshani Andreas or Joseph Diescho. Britain’s the same story. But who knows, maybe an author/chemist who thought world poverty would end by the year 2000 has a better understanding of poverty than government agencies and century-old NGOs tasked with improving social conditions.

There’s a greater problem here, too. Let’s detour to something Donald Trump said:

Trump: “The Democrats don’t care about our military. They don’t.” He says that is also true of the border and crime

How would we prove that Democrats don’t care about the military, the US border, or crime? The easiest approach would be to look at their national platform and see it those things are listed there (they’re not, I checked). A much harder one would be to parse their actions instead. If we can find a single Democrat who does care about crime, then we’ve refuted the claim in the deductive sense.

But there’s still an inductive way to keep it alive: if “enough” Democrats don’t care about those things, then Trump can argue he meant the statements informally and thus it’s still true-ish. That’s a helluva lot of work, and since the burden is on the person making the claim it’s not my job to run around gathering data for Trump’s argument. If I’m sympathetic to Trump’s views or pride myself in being intellectually “fair,” however, there’s a good chance I’d do some of his homework anyway.

Lurking behind all of the logical stuff, however, is an emotional component. The US-Mexico border, the military, and crime all stir strong emotions in his audience; by positioning his opponents as being opposed to “positive” things, at the same time implying that he’s in favour of them, Trump’s angering his audience and motivating them to being less charitable towards his opponents.

That’s the language of hate: emotionally charged false statements about a minority, to be glib. It’s all the more reason to be careful when talking about groups.

The non-scientists have a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly optimistic, unaware of man’s condition. On the other hand, the scientists believe that the literary intellectuals are totally lacking in foresight, peculiarly unconcerned with their brother men,
in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to restrict both art and thought to the existential moment. And so on. Anyone with a mild talent for invective could produce plenty of this kind of subterranean back-chat. [pg. 3]

If you side with either scientists or elite authors, this is emotionally charged language. At the same time, I have no idea how you’d even begin to prove half of that. Snow’s defence consists of quoting Adam Rutherford and T.S. Elliot, all the rest comes from his experiences with “intimate friends among both scientists and writers” and “living among these groups and much more.” [pg. 1] Nonetheless, that small sample set is enough for Snow to assert “this is a problem of the entire West.” [pg. 2] Calling scientists or elite authors a minority is a stretch, but the net result is similar: increased polarisation between the two groups, and the promotion of harmful myths.

Yes, Snow would go on propose a “third culture” which would bridge the gap, but if the gap doesn’t exist in the first place this amounts to selling you a cure after convincing you you’re sick.

What’s worse is that if you’re operating in a fact-deficient environment, you’ve got tremendous flexibility to tweak things to your liking. Is J.K. Rowling a “literary intellectual?” She doesn’t fit into the highbrow culture Snow was talking about, but she is a well-known and influential author who isn’t afraid to let her opinions be known (for better or worse). Doesn’t that make her a decision maker, worthy of inclusion? And if we’ve opened the door for non-elite authors, why not add other people from the humanities? Or social scientists?

This also means that one of the harshest critics of C. P. Snow is C. P. Snow.

I have been argued with by non-scientists of strong down-to-earth interests. Their view is that it is an over-simplification, and that
if one is going to talk in these terms there ought to be at least three cultures. They argue that, though they are not scientists themselves, they would share a good deal of the scientific feeling. They would have as little use-perhaps, since they knew more about it, even less use-for the recent literary culture as the scientists themselves. …

I respect those arguments. 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. [pg. 5]

He’s aware that some people regard “the two cultures” as an oversimplification, he recognises the problem with dividing people in two, and his response amounts to “well, I’m still right.” He’s working with such a deficiency of facts that he can undercut his own arguments and still keep making them as if no counter-argument existed.

I think it is only fair to say that most pure scientists have themselves been devastatingly ignorant of productive industry, and many still are. It is permissible to lump pure and applied scientists into the same scientific culture, but the gaps are wide. Pure scientists and engineers often totally misunderstand each other. Their behaviour tends to be very different: engineers have to live their lives in an organised community, and however odd they are underneath they manage to present a disciplined face to the world. Not so pure scientists. [pg. 16]

Snow makes a strong case for a third culture here, something he earlier said “would bring more disadvantages than it’s worth!” He’s seeing gaps and division everywhere, and defining things so narrowly that he can rattle off five counter-examples then immediately dismiss them (emphasis mine).

Almost everywhere, though, intellectual persons didn’t comprehend what was happening. Certainly the writers didn’t. Plenty of them shuddered away, as though the right course for a man of feeling was to contract out; some, like Ruskin and William Morris and Thoreau and Emerson and Lawrence, tried various kinds of fancies which were not in effect more than screams of horror. It
is hard to think of a writer of high class who really stretched his imaginative sympathy, who could see at once the hideous back-streets, the smoking chimneys, the internal price—and also the prospects of life that were opening out for the poor, the intimations, up to now unknown except to the lucky, which were just coming within reach of the remaining 99.0 per cent of his brother men.

Snow himself mentions Charles Dickens earlier in the lecture, a perfect fit for the label of “a writer of high class who really stretched his imaginative sympathy.” And yet here, he has difficulty remembering that author’s existence.

It’s oddly reminiscent of modern conservative writing: long-winded, self-important, and with only a fleeting connection to the facts. No wonder his ideas keep getting resurrected by them, they can be warped and distorted to suit your current needs.

Something for the Reading List

For nearly a decade, I have been researching and writing about women who dressed and lived as men and men who lived and dressed as women in the nineteenth-century American West. During that time, when people asked me about my work, my response was invariably met with a quizzical expression and then the inevitable question: “Were there really such people?” Newspapers document hundreds, in fact, and it is likely there were many more. Historians have been writing about cross-dressers for some time, and we know that such people have existed in all parts of the world and for about as long as we have recorded and remembered history.

Boag, Peter. “The Trouble with Cross-Dressers: Researching and Writing the History of Sexual and Gender Transgressiveness in the Nineteenth-Century American West.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 112, no. 3 (2011): 322–39. https://doi.org/10.5403/oregonhistq.112.3.0322.

Human beings have a really distorted view of history; we tend to project our experiences backward in time. Just recently introduced to the term “transgender?” Then transgender people must have only recently been invented, in the same way that bromances never existed before the term was added to the dictionary. Everyone is prone to this error, however, not just the bigots.

A central argument of my book is that many nineteenth-century western Americans who cross-dressed did so to express their transgender identity. Transgender is a term coined only during the last quarter of the twentieth century. It refers to people who identify with the gender (female or male) “opposite” of what society would typically assign to their bodies. I place “opposite” in quotation marks because the notion that female and male are somehow diametric to each other is a historical creation; scholars have shown, for example, that in the not-too-distant past, people in western civilization understood that there was only one sex and that male and female simply occupied different gradations on a single scale. That at one time the western world held to a one-sex or one-gender model, but later developed a two-sex or two-gender model, clearly shows that social conceptualization of gender, sex, and even sexuality changes over time. This reveals a problem that confronts historians: it is anachronistic to impose our present-day terms and concepts for and about gender and sexuality — such as transgender — onto the past.

In Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past, I therefore strove to avoid the term transgender as much as possible. It is central to my study, however, to show that people in the nineteenth century had their own concepts and expressions for gender fluidity. By the end of the nineteenth century, for example, sexologists (medical doctors and scientists who study sex) had created the terms “sex invert” and “sexual inversion” to refer to people whose sexual desires and gender presentations (that is, the way they walked and talked, the clothing they wanted to wear, and so forth) did not, according to social views, conform to what their physiological sex should “naturally” dictate.

I wish I’d known about this book earlier, it would have made a cool citation. Oh well, either way it’s long since hit the shelves and been patiently waiting for a spot on your wishlist.