The Two Cultures Revisited: Can the Left Bridge the Gap

Colleen Flaherty’s recent piece on the Steven Salaita affair observes that Salaita’s supporters, both on campus and off, derive overwhelmingly from the “soft” academic disciplines— the humanities and social sciences — while the administration is strongly backed by those in STEM fields. Flaherty points out other instances of tensions between the “two cultures”, connecting these to C.P. Snow’s widely discussed book on the subject.

Most academics have stories of more or less dramatic instances of the “two cultures” fissure. Here’s mine: about a decade ago, I served as an official observer for Yale graduate students’ union recognition election. The first ballots to be counted were those from the liberal arts departments around central campus. The results were overwhelmingly in favor of the union.

But as votes arrived from further out — most notably, those from science buildings and the medical center — it  became clear the drive would fail. This was no surprise to those who, in working to build support in prior weeks, had found a solid wall of opposition there.

For those of us who are sympathetic to Noam Chomsky’s belief that science and rational discourse are “tool(s) of emancipation,” the failure of these and other campus initiatives to achieve support in the sciences is distressing.

Those most at home with the scientific method should, according to Chomsky and others, be the most willing and able to critically examine the claims by those in positions of authority and recognize (as in the Salaita case) their patent dishonesty and fraudulence.

In the past, Nobel Prize winners Salvatore Luria, Linus Pauling, Owen Chamberlain and, most prominently, Einstein saw their radicalism as entirely consistent with and deriving from their commitment to science.

Now it is Stranglovian figures like Edward Teller at worst or bland establishment moderates like Steven Chiu or Harold Varmus at best who are taken as typifying science.

And that is at least part of the reason why the “two cultures” now seem particularly unbridgeable.


But the responsibility for the gap does not, unfortunately, reside entirely in the reactionary conformism of scientists. Equal blame must be placed on sectors of the academic left, whose hostility to science began to become an issue in the mid 90s, brought to attention through the work of Alan Sokal and his collaborator Jean Bricmont.

Also making similar observations was Chomsky whose 1995 essay Rationality/Science catalogs the anti-science, anti-rationalist views of “left allies.” These include the assumption that science is “dominated by the white male gender,” “limited by cultural, racial, and gender biases,” “thoroughly embedded in capitalist colonialism,” and “used to create new forms of control.” Moreover, science, according to them, “screens out feeling, recreating the Other as object to be manipulated . . . made easier because the subjective is described as irrelevant or un-scientific” by those for whom “to feel was to be anti-science.” Based on these indictments we must conclude “there is something fundamentally wrong with science” and learn to view Western “scientific endeavor (as) also in the world of story and myth creation,” along with other “stories and myths.”

While Chomsky’s patient demolition is, as always, worth revisiting, what Chomsky doesn’t address are some of the predictable consequences of these absurdities having become dominant in the academic left.

Among these is the difficulty, demonstrated in the examples Flaherty cites among others, in recruiting science departments in support of left campus initiatives. Scientists are no different from anyone else in being disinclined to join forces with those who have made no secret of their personal contempt for you. Furthermore, on a political level, it was eminently predictable that scientists, or for that matter, anyone with a minimal claim to sanity, would view any political tendency disavowing scientific expertise in public health, energy, environmental, agricultural, and transportation policy, as a serious danger, indeed, a menace, whether emanating from the left or right.

Finally, it was predictable that the right would eventually make easy pickings of a left willing to associate itself with the attitudes Chomsky itemizes. In particular, university administrations having as their main campus allies those in the sciences would be in a strong position to sell to their governing boards, the media and the public the increasingly heavy-handed crackdown on campus radicals belonging to those departments which, as Andrew Delbanco has written, “only make people laugh.”

 That the two cultures schism on the left has continued and even widened is a clear indication the warnings issued by Chomsky and a few others were heeded or had much influence. Also revealing is continuing influence in the academy of postmodernist icons who, as Sokol as Bricmont document, inspired much of the contempt for science in left academic circles: Kristeva, Lacan, Latour, Deleuze, and Guattari and now Lacan’s follower Zizek–remain sources of authority frequently cited and highly influential across a range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, their comical ignorance of science greeted with indifference and even with applause.

That said, it would be a mistake to view the irrationalist currents affecting the left as confined to the academy. Anyone who has been involved in retail political organizing can anticipate that a significant fraction of those expressing interest in many left objectives will be those who view political reality through the distorting lens of conspiracy theories involving 9/11 “Truth”, the Kennedy assassination, or chem trails. As the parent of a 9-year-old, the most problematic for me are “anti-vaxxers,” who allege a conspiracy of the pharmaceutical companies to cover up the side effects of childhood vaccines.

Those buying into crude conspiratorialism tend to be ridiculed by the academic left, who are quick to see them as the contemporary descendants of Richard Hofstadter’s paranoid style in American politics. But there is ultimately little practical difference between hostility to rationality and science that has its roots in les deux maggots or in 19th century farmbelt, populist know-nothingism.

Of course, scientists are only one of many constituencies who have become less supportive of the left agenda over the past decades and it would be mistake to reconsider our goals and tactics based on our failure to reach them. They are, after all, disproportionately among the economically advantaged 1% not to mention the beneficiaries of long standing connections to the national security state via Defense Department funding of basic research. For this reason, as was the case in the past, only a few will be able to resist a system in which their skills command top dollar and confer on them much prestige.

But that the left can no longer count on the participation of even a small corps of dissident scientists is problematic on two counts. First, any political tendency competing for power-presumably our ultimate objective-will need at least a few with technical expertise on public health, energy and transportation policy if it expects to govern responsibly. Their absence from within our ranks is a sign of our ultimate dysfunctionality. More fundamentally, it is troubling on deeper, philosophical grounds. For some of us, the most compelling reason for identifying with the left is that it offers the best explanation for the facts which are before our eyes. In that respect, it not only resembles science, it is its virtual twin. That so many on the left feel comfortable with the banishment of science and scientists from our ranks may have a lot to do with the our having become almost completely irrelevant as a political, moral and social force.




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9 thoughts on “The Two Cultures Revisited: Can the Left Bridge the Gap”

  1. John: Thanks for bringing this to my attention. My son who is a senior in high school is taking AP Pysics and Third Year Calculus and is considering a major in a stem field. This really caught me off guard but makes perfect sense. I remember a Monty Python skit from my youth which highlighted the sectarian nature of the left-but in this case the subject was sports. On the make believe quiz show, Che, Marx, and Lenin struggled to answers questions relate to British football, which I assume as an American, could have easily been answered by the man in the street. The same applies to high culture types that do not own, and are totally unfailar with popular television programs. In order to communicate and strengthen our numbers , and learn from others, we must be able to speak in the every day vernacular.

  2. Interesting thoughts. Some responses.

    1. The ‘left’ does not exist. Increasingly, ‘liberals’ are for race-to-the-bottom trade agreements, cheap-labor open-borders immigration policies, and gutting the real economy to bail out wealthy parasitic financiers. Oh, and they are for gay marriage. Most STEM types don’t identify with this. So?

    2. STEM types are under enormous pressure to conform. You say that they are part of the rich establishment – and many are doing pretty well – but it’s balanced on a knife edge. Say the wrong thing and you could be blacklisted, and increasingly, no matter how smart you are, there are 100 desperate people just as smart who would be happy to take your job. Flooding the labor market doesn’t just drive down wages, it increases the social power of the rich as well.

    3. But ‘liberals’ have also sold out. Work for a ‘liberal’ think tank or organization and you have to be very careful not to say anything politically incorrect or you could be the next person living in a garage. Like criticism of Saint Hilary or Saint Obama. Or anything criticizing our cheap-labor immigration policy: it is an established economic fact that rapidly increasing the labor supply drives down wages (see: John Maynard Keynes), but wealthy donors have such stranglehold on ‘liberal’ organizations that all that ‘liberals’ can do is complain about Republicans, mutter about somehow making Obama do the right thing (when hell frees over!) and gay marriage.

    What was that part in the bible about not complaining about the mote in your neighbor’s eye when there is a beam in yours?

  3. Chris Reed’s comment, that we have to learn to speak in the vernacular, is most telling. The Left today is confined to a few intellectuals in humanities departments who read unintelligible books and speak in stratospheric terms. When I worked in politics years ago, an old union shop steward told me no one would vote for Jimmy Carter because he spoke over their heads. I remember when I was in high school back in the late 60s, in a speech given by a member of the SDS at Yale, we were told that their attempts to organize factory workers against the war were a failure. The speaker’s talk was full of allusions to Marx and Lenin, but the speaker’s only real problem was with the military draft. He didn’t want to serve as those factory workers, or their sons, had served in Vietnam.

    It wasn’t hard to imagine why they couldn’t make headway with the proletariate, who viewed them as a bunch of snotty nosed elitists with a knowledge of theoretical Marxism, but no appreciation of the trials and tribulations of factory workers’ lives. “We have to learn to speak in the vernacular, indeed.” No, one needs to be from the vernacular, not the ivory tower.

  4. Wendell Berry’s “Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition,” does a good appraisal of E.O. Wilson’s “Consilience” with references to Snow’s “Two Cultures.”

    Wilson is well known for his work with ants, and in his “Consilience” he seems to see in the hierarchies and phenotypes of insects the future of mankind, whereas Berry sees Wilson’s appraisal of the coming “new man” with horror.

    Also, people working in the tech sector put in some ungodly hours, working slavishly in service to present and future technology, are paid well and so complain little.

    People who work in technology largely accept their working conditions as necessary and inevitable. Doug Henwood had a guest on his radio program that studied tech workers ( I can’t remember her or her book’s name). The workers largely felt independently responsible for their own successes and failures and were against unions, they being a violation of the “new order”.

    1. The Henwood interview: “A Company of One: Insecurity, Independence, and the New World of White-Collar Unemployment”, by Carrie M. Lane

  5. As noted in your post, scientists and technically oriented people are tied to the conservative attitudes and agendas through the sources of funding for their activities. Aside from that the immense weight of hierarchical structures in science are a deterrent to expressions of exceedingly radical concepts in any area and the abandonment of the current suicidal military-economic policies is painted by the most influential media as too radical to contemplate. No doubt science needs great caution in plunging into radical concepts to remain a coherent and reliable pragmatic structure but, currently, the fundamental coherence in economics today is responsible to monetary dispersal and those in charge of that are not particularly fascinated with the liberal agendas. The USA is particularly captured with the “every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost” concept which is not kind to general human welfare and, at end, points to make the planet uninhabitable. Somehow the technological and scientific sectors are schizophrenic on this issue and seem to be terribly short sighted as to final outcomes.

  6. I am not a regular reader of your blog. I ran into this article on counterpunch and thought I’d make a comment.

    On the one hand, the subject of the article is important, grappling with why it is that people in the scientific and technical fields are, in the main anyway, so politically conformist. On the other hand, the article is built around at least a couple of conjectures that strike me as false. And fairly obviously so.

    1. You seem to believe that people who have a high level of expertise in a scientific field will necessarily think more logically and scientifically about topics far outside their field of specialization.

    I would say there is no reason to believe this, compartmentalization being such a major feature of human psychology. People can function at a very high level (logically, rationally, analytically) in some narrow technical field and be totally irrational, batshit crazy outside of that.

    2. You seem to believe that people who promulgate so-called “conspiracy theories” are somehow anti-science.

    This is really a very strange idea. You allude to the body of independent research that has been carried out into the jfk assassination and 9/11 but show no sign of being familiar with any of it.

    Because the aforementioned literature tends to be hypertechnical! (Actually a bit too much so for my taste.) In the JFK case, very technically capable people have analyzed things like ballistics and acoustics and shown in a very rigorous technical manner that the official story cannot possibly be true.

    9/11 is similar. Go to and look around. The notion that these people are anti-science could not be further from the truth!

    So I am very puzzled at how you arrive at the idea that people in scientific and technical fields have a low opinion of political protest because political protest is dominated by people who are into “conspiracy theories” and thus, somehow anti-science??!!

    Now, granted, maybe that is what they believe. (As you seem to…) But assuming that is the case, then WHY do they believe it? That might be an interesting starting point to look at this “two cultures” phenomenon.

  7. This blog post strikes me as false. It is littered with conclusory statements about “irrationalist currents” in describing Zizek and the like. One of the seminal works on this point is Alain Badiou’s “Being and Event” in which he argued that mathematics is not objective–giving continental philosophy an advantage over analytic philosophy. Anyway, I am convinced that, pragmatically, the issue is more one that was articulated in passing in Locke and Spender’s “Confronting Managerialism,” that the problem is that the leftist elements in the humanities spent most of their time in the late 20th Century critiquing the rightist elements of the humanities, without engaging economics (and sciences, etc.) outside the humanities. Anyway, case in point here is the recent spat between Chomsky and Zizek, in which Chomsky ended up looking like a dismissive fool (in spite of a few stupid, tired arguments about Cambodia from Zizek). A better path forward is to see how people like Zizek, and especially Pierre Bourdieu, have picked up currents articulated by Thorstein Veblen a century ago, and note that Veblen had a theory about how engineers could be key to (leftist) social transformation.

  8. The people I know who are trained in physical or technical sciences (compared to humanities and soc. sciences) are far more likely to be hold themselves (and individual accomplishments) in high esteem compared to non-scientists. Whether due to self-selection or if this is learned I cannot say for sure, but I suspect the latter. Now, it’s a common fictional trope for the previously disenfranchised science “nerd” to brag and mock the common people around them, because some day “you’ll all be working for me.” Our culture has been singing the praises of scientific and technical genius elitism for as long as I can recall, so it should not be surprising that these folks are more likely to think accordingly .

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