Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Two Cultures

My title here is a phrase strongly associated with a controversy stirred up by CP Snow back in the Space Age, when many in the West feared we were falling behind the Soviets in science and technology. For the English and the American upper class, part of this worry was related to the bias of their higher education systems toward non-technical subjects. What Snow observed was that as our culture matured, the most highly educated people in the humanities tended to know scandalously little about science; and likewise, those with the greatest technical knowledge tended to be rather uncultured.

Snow was well aware that there were always and would always be exceptions to this general tendency. In fact, Snow himself was one of those exceptions, being both a respected novelist and a student of physics (he earned a doctorate in the subject). So the many takedowns of the Two Cultures idea you may find online that say, point to JBS Haldane--look, a mathematically minded scientist who could write! who knew Greek! who wrote history!--as proof there aren't two cultures, are completely missing the point. Haldane and Snow were exceptional. Snow didn't argue that it was impossible to inhabit both cultures--being who he was, how could he?--only that it was not the norm.

In speaking of Snow, we should also acknowledge how much his piece is of its time and place: Part of Snow's thesis, an important part, was his particular attack on the English school system as a source for the split between technical and cultural knowledge. (He actually holds up the American university system as a positive counterexample.)

However, the basic conflict he is observing goes much farther back, to the very beginnings of the modern world and the conflict between the ancients and the moderns in the 17th century. That conflict was essentially a conflict between ancient wisdom and modern, mostly scientific knowledge. Swift's Battle of the Books was a satiric look at this conflict which came down, as we might expect from a literary man who hated math, pretty heavily on the side of ancient wisdom. Over the long haul, though, science has mostly won this battle--shaping and changing our world to an extent that even Swift could hardly have imagined.

And, worse still from Swift's point of view, science is increasingly the arbiter of truth in our society.

But not the only one. Anyone taking a look at say, the controversies over global warming can see that science often has an uphill battle against "common sense" when its truths are inconvenient. Science is, no doubt, still the servant of our desires; though a servant upon whom we are as dependent as Wooster is upon Jeeves.

And yet our universities are--still!--filled with people who smilingly admit to incompetence in basic mathematics; who don't know anything about science aside from the fact that its advances sometimes harm the environment; people who criticize science but who cannot distinguish the real thing from ridiculous parody. If Bertie Wooster were a doctrinaire ingrate as well as an ignorant fool, he'd be the model for many of our present day humanities professors. But such a character could never win even the provisional sympathies of any reader.

Such a response to science does little honor to the tradition that Swift defended. As was the case in Snow's day--the worst offenders in the two culture business are on the side of the humanities. One is far more likely to find an articulate and cultured scientist than a scientifically knowledgeable humanities type. There are more Goulds and Lewontins and Orrs out there than there are George Levines.

Which is a shame. Because there are also scientists out there who have very little knowledge of or respect for the Western tradition who now want to explain it all for us. Who don't seem to appreciate that you cannot explain "it all" without a conception of what "it all" is. Who don't seem to realize that there simplistic explanations have been around for a long, long time, and have been roundly and soundly rejected by those to whom the phenomenon in question is most familiar.

One of the things I hope to see in future is a generation of humanities and social science people who embrace science but are not in thrall of it.

Sadly, I haven't seen much that looks much like that, though.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Our Runaway Economy

I was intrigued by the dueling opinion pieces by Paul Krugman and David Brooks in this past Friday's NYT (02.12.2011). Down the right edge Paul Krugman makes his Keynesian, technocratic case for government intervention, in the fat bottom piece David Brooks extols the Germans for defending "values," "effort," "self-control," "merit," and "enterprise" in resisting that same intervention.

While Krugman's knowing, arrogant tone have long since worn thin on me, he's still a) an actual economist and b) has so far been consistently right on how this crisis would play out, as opposed to, say, folks like Niall Ferguson, who have been just as consistently wrong.

Brooks is of course right when he says that there is a political cost to the "value blindness" inherent in the purely technocratic calls for crisis intervention right now. When irresponsible governments get "bailed out" it does call the legitimacy of the status quo into question (thus, the tea party movement).

But, as Brooks acknowledges over and over again, we are in a crisis, and crises like these demand decisive actions that may or may not comport with your general morality.  What crises demand is action, not actions contingent upon something else happening. If, as agreed, we have a crisis, then we need action to stave it off. It's as if I saw a car beginning to roll freely down a hill: my first action is not to seek out the driver to make him or her promise to use the handbrake in future. My first action is to see if this person was also irresponsible enough to leave the door unlocked.

Is it fair that I should have to do this? No. It's what you do to prevent a calamity.

And that gets to one of the funny little things about living in a complex society--questions like "Is this fair?" or, more generally, "Does this comport with how I conduct myself or my family life?"--are often the wrong sorts of questions to be asking. Why? Because the point of the system isn't to be fair. The system wasn't made to retell the story of Pilgrim's Progress or Horatio Alger. And this has always been the case with how the managers of that system have made their decisions.

Capitalism over the last 100 years or so has gone through some interesting developments--it's interaction with the more inclusive democractic political system has become both fruitful (witness, the postwar economic boom in the West) and more fraught (witness, the post-1980 shift in reward structure, the Occupy Wall Street movement). For people like Brooks the story of our economic system--the deserving are rewarded and the undeserving punished--is more important than tending to the technical function of the system because of that now very strong interaction between democracy and capitalism.

But the fact is, that story is a lie and always has been a lie. Are there strategies that you can find out about that are likely to lead to success in our system? Yes, certainly, particularly when it is working well. Do those strategies necessarily have something to do with deservingness by some other yardstick (moral, utilitarian)? No.

A crisis is not a time to try to shore up tired old lies: it is a time when we ought to be being a bit more honest with ourselves. If "virtue rewarded and vice punished" is what you are looking for from your economic system, capitalism is not your baby--we can condition the competition and power plays of capitalism so that we reach this outcome more often, but we have to do it. It won't do it itself. It isn't designed to do so.

And there are absolutely no economic rewards for virtue in and of itself. If your virtue turns out to be economically non-viable, you don't get an economic reward. The moral/political realm and the economic realm are separate. They interact constantly, but we should really stop encouraging people--as Brooks is urging--to think they are the same thing.

This is really part of a collective growing-up we've got to do, akin to discovering that your parents were not the paragons of the virtues they so strongly urged on you. A crisis is a time for a bit more truth. Let's acknowledge that preventing the calamity and the virtue of the people rescued from it are two separate issues to be dealt with in their own proper occasions. So lets see if that driver's side door is open, shall we?