A ‘Gulf of Misunderstanding’: Steven Pinker and the Two Cultures

by Jeroen Bouterse

Steven Pinker’s 2018 book Enlightenment Now is a reasoned defense of the values of the Enlightenment: of reason, science, humanism and progress. Pinker uses most of his space to demonstrate, positively, how the attitudes and institutions associated with Enlightenment thought have done good in the world. However, he has also woven through his book a clear motif of defense against ‘counter-Enlightenments’: the opponents of Enlightenment values.

These opponents are, among others, religious faith and some radical kinds of environmentalism. The anti-Enlightenment sentiments that Pinker deals with most extensively, however, are those of the so-called ‘Second Culture’: “the world-view of many literary intellectuals and cultural critics”, who have been criticizing the Enlightenment specifically for its devotion to the sciences. Pinker devotes an entire chapter to this Second Culture and its “high-brow war on science” (mostly overlapping with this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education). Treatment of science in liberal-arts curricula is

“pernicious […]. Students can graduate with only a trifling exposure to science, and what they do learn is often designed to poison them against it.” (395)

Pinker complains that science gets blamed for all kinds of crimes, such as 19th-century racism – which, if anything, is “the brainchild not of science but of the humanities” (398). Also, students are made to read Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn famously coined the notion of ‘paradigms’ in order to make the case that the assessment of progress in science depends on a shared set of assumptions. This way of thinking leads to the cynical conclusion that science does not converge upon the truth at all, says Pinker.

Intellectually, this is far from the best part of Enlightenment Now: Pinker’s definition of the other side is imprecise, his supporting data uncharacteristically anecdotal and one-sided. (Kuhn had a PhD in physics, and it is hard to find in his work any hostile remarks about science.) The reason Pinker can get away with this is that he seems to be stating the obvious: the existence of a divide between the sciences and the humanities that is not institutional but cultural has been accepted wisdom in Western culture for decades.

The Two Cultures: From indifference to hostility

The classic formulation of this divide between ‘the two cultures’ was made in 1959. In a famous lecture, the British scientist, novelist and public intellectual C.P. Snow lamented the lack of understanding between the scientific and the ‘literary’ culture. At first sight, Snow and Pinker have a lot in common, and indeed Pinker quotes Snow approvingly. Like Pinker, Snow thought highly of the capacity of science to deal with pressing global issues. Like Pinker, he connected this capacity not just to the relation between science and technology, but also to the culture and mentality of scientists. They represented social hope; they had “the future in their bones”.

There are differences, partly explained by historical context. Snow wrote during the Cold War, from a moderately left-wing perspective. His ‘two cultures’ model served as a stepping-stone in a larger argument, the upshot of which was that if Britain desired to keep up with the Soviets, it had better step up its endorsement of science and technology. Snow’s beef was not so much with religion or humanistic scholarship, but with the modernist literature of the early 20th century: the alienating writings of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, which in Snow’s mind distracted people from the social questions of the day.

The worst thing about the literary culture was not its hostility to science, but its indifference. When Pinker refers to Snow’s two cultures, on the other hand, there is an additional layer of military metaphors. The scientists and the others are not mutually isolated societies, but warring states. This layer is a remnant of the ‘science wars’ of the 1990s.

The opening salvo of these wars was the 1994 book Higher Superstition, in which two proponents of the natural sciences explained how science was under attack from “the academic left” (3). Paul Gross and Norman Levitt wrote that the prevalence of postmodernism, Marxism, multiculturalism, radical feminism and environmentalism in humanities and social science departments had deepened the rift between the two cultures Snow had identified. These influences had made academic humanists dangerous, in the same way that creation science and New Age ideas were dangerous. Moreover, these humanists had actually gathered the audacity to write about science – unconstrained, naturally, by genuine understanding:

“In order to think critically about science, one must understand it at a reasonably deep level. This task, if honestly approached, requires much time and labor. In fact it is best started when one is young. It is scarcely compatible with the style of education and training that nurtures the average humanist […]” (5)

Gross and Levitt redefined the second culture as part of a fifth column, working to undermine the status of real science.

Science Warriors and Science Studies

Of course, these worries did not come out of nowhere. The schools of thought Normann and Levitt identified existed; they did have anti-establishment inclinations, and they did tend to look upon science as part of this establishment.

Still, two points need to be made. First: anti-establishment thought and rhetoric are as much part of the Enlightenment as are reason and science. This should give pause to anyone who seeks to dismiss radical criticism in the name of the Enlightenment. Values that went together in the 18th century ancien régime, when science and rationalism served as sticks with which to beat the hegemonic status of the Church, might well be in conflict in the post-WW2 world, where science has itself attained a hegemonic status.

Second: many of the science warriors’ chosen enemies had in fact been making unprecedented steps towards a thorough understanding of science. More often than not, respect for science rather than condescension inspired their efforts. Sociologist David Bloor wrote that it would be paradoxical not to look at our own scientific knowledge scientifically. Anthropologists such as Karin Knorr-Cetina made a point of studying science empirically, by observing scientists at work. Historians like Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer sought to look at our own scientific culture ‘from the outside’.

All of these scholars employed the resources and methods of respectable disciplines, and adapted them to look at the heart of Western culture: to turn science into an object of investigation and study it methodically, critically, and empirically. Some of their projects were experimental and tentative, and some went uneasily far in reducing science to its social and cultural determinants, ignoring the question of how science got to be so good at what it does. But all of them represented genuine humanistic and social-scientific interest in science, just like Snow had been hoping for.

Rather than seeing the excesses of these nascent academic fields as concomitant to the herculean intellectual task they had set themselves, Gross and Levitt interpreted them as a declaration of war and responded accordingly. Other ‘science warriors’ followed. In order to prove a point about editorial and intellectual standards in the humanities, Alan Sokal famously tricked an academic journal into accepting a postmodern-y paper of which he did not mean a word. Steven Weinberg took this to show that “the gulf of misunderstanding between scientists and other intellectuals seems to be at least as wide as when C.P. Snow worried about it three decades ago”. (145)

The loss was theirs. In their mature form innovations in science studies turned out to have a lot on offer that has enriched our understanding of science. My own favorite example is Lorraine Daston’s and Peter Galison’s 2007 study about changing ideals of objectivity in science. There turns out to be nothing hostile, undermining or anti-scientific about turning our attention to the fact that even core scientific values and ideals can be explained by a close look at the historical contexts in which they developed, rather than as eternal verities. In the past decades, historians have provided contextual explanations for the developments of beliefs and institutions related to quantification, statistical methods, scientific materialism, research ethics; and much more. They have, in short, managed to make core features of science rationally understandable rather than miraculous.

By contrast, Steven Weinberg’s own recent history of science, for all its honest attempts at avoiding historical mistakes, is so attached to an essentialist, timeless definition of science that it fails to come up with any plausible explanations for its development. Its review by professional historian Steven Shapin is mostly a frustrated sigh: will these scientists never learn?

The case of science studies is one clear example where humanities and social science scholarship, whether or not you like its sobering tendencies, exhibits obvious innovative and progressive qualities. This belies Snow’s rhetorical dichotomy between forward-looking scientists and backward-looking humanists. This dichotomy survives now only because of the ease with which we can heap binary oppositions onto one another: we know that scientific culture is essentially progressive, so surely the other culture is reactionary? This assumption was false in Snow’s time and it is false now.

A Much-Needed Infusion

Pinker buys into the progressive-versus-traditional dichotomy completely. In a much-debated essay in the New Republic, he suggests that in order to solve their problems the humanities need “an infusion of new ideas”.

What Pinker means, it turns out, is actually an infusion of old ideas – a return to the values of the Enlightenment. It is the newer ideas – postmodernism, relativism, and political correctness – that Pinker finds repugnant, precisely because he believes they are opposed to core Enlightenment values.

Foremost among these values is reason. Reason is “nonnegotiable”, Pinker explains in his book:

“As soon as you show up to discuss the question of what we should live for (or any other question), as long as you insist that your answers, whatever they are, are reasonable or justified or true and that therefore other people ought to believe them too, then you have committed yourself to reason, and to holding your beliefs accountable to objective standards” (8).

This is unexceptionable, as a matter of practical ethics: when you join a conversation, you ought to commit to whatever it means to be in a conversation. At the same time, what this means is utterly negotiable: Pinker seeks to be ecumenical by using all of the good words – reasonable, justified, true, objective – but these concepts don’t always point in the same direction. Maybe our opinions are justified but not true; or true but not objective. Maybe they are objective, but our discussion has been flawed in a different way, for instance by excluding voices on an unreasonable basis – and we might find ourselves in disagreement about whether this is just an ethical issue or whether our flawed conversation renders our beliefs itself unreasonable.

Many fields in the humanities have, in the past half-century, been openly negotiating the concepts of reason, science, humanism and progress. Sometimes the results have been ugly; sometimes, postmodern rhetoric has (like Enlightenment rhetoric) been used as an excuse for sloppy thinking. Often, the result has been an attitude that is at once uncompromisingly reasonable and sensitive to postmodern interests. History of science is the case I happen to know best, but it proves the point pretty much by itself: the science warriors were wrong about the state and direction of scholarship in the humanities, and they have missed out on a much richer and no less enlightened understanding of science as a result.

There’s no shame in being wrong. But two decades later, there’s little excuse for echoing their belligerent rhetoric, or Snow’s 1959 lecture for that matter. That’s not where progress is.

Works Cited:

Paul R. Gross, Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, London 1994.

Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Penguin Random House: New York, 2018.

C.P. Snow, The two cultures and the scientific revolution. The Rede lecture 1959. Cambridge, 1960.

Steven Weinberg, ‘Sokal’s Hoax’ (New York review of books, 1996) in: ibid., Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries. Harvard University Press. Cambridge (Mass), 2001: 138-154.