Plus ca Change

by Kieran Healy on May 26, 2007

Steven Pinker reviewing Natalie Angier’s _The Canon_:

bq. Though we live in an era of stunning scientific understanding, all too often the average educated person will have none of it. People who would sneer at the vulgarian who has never read Virginia Woolf will insouciantly boast of their ignorance of basic physics.

C.P. Snow, 1959:

bq. A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s? I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read?-not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.

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derek 05.26.07 at 8:58 pm

I strongly suspect Pinker was consciously ehoing Snow. And, on the scientific snob side of the two cultures though I may be, I actually don’t know of anyone on the literary side who does this. They tend to at least pay lip service to the need to know basic physics.

Admittedly, this usually means they admit with an embarrassed grin that they don’t know, and rarely that they take the trouble to correct the situation, but at least they don’t boast, and haven’t done for years as far as I can see. I credit Melvyn Bragg and other conscious popularisers to some extent for this, at least in the UK.


joeo 05.26.07 at 9:09 pm

Pinker’s review says that the book sucks and he hopes everyone will read it.


Hidari 05.26.07 at 9:18 pm

Following on from Derek’s point, has anyone, ever, anywhere, actually encountered someone with an arts background who ‘insouciantly boasted of their ignorance of basic physics.’ (emphasis added)


Lester Hunt 05.26.07 at 9:19 pm

Though I, as a humanist, think it is important to try to be scientifically literate, I don’t believe I agree with Snow’s analogies. I have learned what the second law of thermodynamics is several times over the years, and forgotten subsequently forgotten it every time, because I never have any occasion to use it. On the other hand, I have thought about “Romeo and Juliet” many times since the first time I read it, because it deals with issues that are raised by my own experience as a human being. Shakespeare is about human life, and I am living a human life, while thermodynamics is about something else. One is about things you have to think about just because you are human. The other is not. Thus being ignorant of Shakespeare is worse than being ignorant of the second law of thermodynamics.


Hidari 05.26.07 at 9:20 pm

Actually, come to think at it, has anyone ever been ‘sneered at (as a) vulgarian’ if you were to admit that you had never read Virginia Woolf? Has anyone ever met anyone who has been sneered at for not reading Virginia Woolf?


Jonathan 05.26.07 at 9:31 pm

What is vulgar is the missing cedilla. Just kidding.

Kieran, do you agree with Pinker?


Mark G 05.26.07 at 9:35 pm

Simon Schaffer, a fairly well-known historian of science, has argued that the whole Two Cultures thing has long been overblown. Apparently his speech was made in the context of a conflict quite specific to Cambridge between conservative literature dons and leftist scientists in favor of social planning.

I was at a lecture once where Schaffer expressed a wish that the phrase “The Two Cultures” be banished from the English language. And the discussion on this blog suggests that he may have been on to something.


dsquared 05.26.07 at 9:38 pm

Love the way that Pinker can’t resist getting a little bit of his own propaganda in:

(For those afraid to ask: pencil “lead” is carbon; hydrogen fuel takes more energy to produce than it releases; all living things contain genes; a clone is just a twin.) (emphasis added)

“one of these things is not like the others”


tom s. 05.26.07 at 9:39 pm

Hidari – are you telling me you’ve never read Virginia Woolf? I sneer in your general direction.


Z 05.26.07 at 9:40 pm

Well, Pinker himself was sneered at because he used a gross misinterpretation of Woolf in The Blank Slate (or so I am told anyway, I haven’t read Woolf; you may sneer). By the way, if Pinker tried to score some cheap points with this oblique reference to Woolf, it doesn’t cast him in a very good light (I say if because I read this story about him misinterpreting Woolf recently, so it might be my brain trying to make sense of a coincidence).

To answer your challenge Hidari, I have met many people who will openly boast about their inculture and disdain for some forms of scientific knowledge, in my case towards mathematics. Interestingly, in my necessarily anecdotal experience, it rarely comes from “literature oriented” persons, as Pinker suggests, but more often from engineers or scientists who have an aggressive stance against mathematical abstraction. I always interpreted it as a perhaps understandable reaction to the probably exagerated amount of abstract mathematical knowledge that was inflicted upon them during their training. Which brings me to a larger point: I would assume that a lot of this “culture war” “I bet you can’t even write down the equation of an hyperbola; I bet you haven’t even read Shaw” actually stems from distinction strategies originating in the specialization process within higher education (but probably already moderately present as early as high-school).


Z 05.26.07 at 9:51 pm

Thanks to Mark G, I see that some guy named Simon Schaffer articulated my vague proposition and had the outrage to back it up with an analysis of those distinction strategies in Cambridge at the time. I bet that this Schaffer doesn’t even know what a modular form is.

Loved the “just a twin quote” as well. I guess animal human chimeras are “just mongrels”.


Kieran Healy 05.26.07 at 9:52 pm

I’d forgotten about the Woolf thing — I think it was “Louis Menand”: who got him on that one.


notsneaky 05.26.07 at 10:11 pm

What about sneering at people because they HAVE read something? I do that all the time. You wasted your time reading THAT? I could tell just by smelling the cover it was vulgar. Like Flaubert. I sneer at anyone who’s read Flaubert. I sneer and roll my eyes at anyone who’s read Flaubert and thought it was good.


Z 05.26.07 at 10:18 pm

That is where I read it at least, and damn that was an entertaining read. I regret the young Pinker sometimes, the one from wich I learned so much about inflectional morphology and the syntax of grammar errors among kids.


Z 05.26.07 at 10:32 pm

Well, Radek, you can start and sneer at me for having read The Blank Slate.


Walt 05.26.07 at 10:46 pm

I’ve read Virginia Woolf and can identify the second law of thermodynamics. I am your rightful king.


KCinDC 05.26.07 at 11:16 pm

I’ve never read Louis Menand, and I always mix him up with Pierre Menard.


notsneaky 05.26.07 at 11:47 pm

I think the consensus that is emerging is that one should sneer at people for not having read some books, and sneer at them for having read all the other books. So constant universal sneering is the way to go. Punctuated by an occasional “talk to the hand” gesture.


Henry (not the famous one) 05.26.07 at 11:50 pm

In response to z at 10: As one of those who realized, when I tried to progress from basic calculus to set theory in my freshman year at college, that I was not cut out to be a mathematician, I think that the “disdain” for mathematics has more to do with a realistic appraisal of our limits than anything else. We simply don’t understand the terminology and concepts and couldn’t hold up our end of a conversation with someone in topology, or numbers theory or other specialties we don’t even know exist.

But while you may get some defensive hostility from engineers and others, the attitude among the general public seems to me to be far more respectful, although no less fearful. There is, for good or bad, a body of somewhat romantic books about mathematicians—and sometimes mathematics—written for those of us who will never, even if we started over at age ten, ever grasp the math involved. Among them are the books on the solving of Fermat’s Last Theorem, the biographies of Erdos, Ramanujan and Nash, and works on chaos and string theories.

I say for good or bad because, while they introduce the public to some of the more esoteric subjects in current mathematics, they also underscore just how broad the gap is between our understanding and their highly technical, often completely incomprehensible work. And romantic because many of these works focus on eccentricity and madness—with the suggestion that these geniuses have somehow pulled back the veil and seen something so profound about the nature of things (or whatever number theory actually is about) that they are utterly changed, and yet still unable to communicate what they saw—a mystical experience, something like what Dante described in Canto 34 of Paradiso.

Without suggesting that you mathematicians are a separate species—insert the old jokes about Hungarian mathematicians here—what common ground do you have with us Morlocks when it comes to discussing your work?


Lee 05.27.07 at 12:26 am

Dsquared, could you explain why “clones are twins” is not on par with “living things contains genes” as a simple fact?


notsneaky 05.27.07 at 12:40 am

Re: 19

“Once when lecturing in class he [Lord Kelvin] used the word ‘mathematician’ and then interrupting himself asked his class: ‘Do you know what a mathematician is?’ Stepping to his blackboard he wrote upon it:

integral from – infinty to + infinity of exp(-x^2)dx = sqrt(pi).
Then putting his finger on what he had written, he turned to his class and said, ‘a mathematician is one to whom *that* is as obvious as that twice two makes four is to you.'”

–S. P. Thompson, Life of Lord Kelvin

from here:


dsquared 05.27.07 at 1:13 am

per 20, quite easily. If clones were simply twins, there would be no particular scientific problem of creating clones; in fact there is, because clones are highly susceptible to a lot of problems related to the genetic damage intrinsic to the cloning process. Also, it is trivially true that it is not possible to make a twin of an animal that is already alive, but it is possible to make a clone of an animal that is already alive. All this issues are currently live among scientists and bioethicists, and it is, IMO, absolutely typical of Pinker’s general character and ethics that he would try to pretend that his own particular opinion on the subject is as uncontroversial as the view that graphite is carbon.


Seth Finkelstein 05.27.07 at 1:42 am

dsquared, I think you’re misreading the context of that “just a twin” remark – I believe it’s aimed at those who think a clone is some sort of souless duplicate of a person’s divine aspect, as opposed to a prosaic biological genetic copying. I don’t believe he’s aiming that remark at errors in carrying out the copying process.

Remember, there’s still a lot of people who haven’t even come to terms with evolution yet (there’s “Two Cultures” for sure!)


Lee A. Arnold 05.27.07 at 1:45 am

Well Dsquared I also wonder about “hydrogen fuel takes more energy to produce than it releases” — of course this is true also of ancient green plants into petroleum, and hydro into electric. And in fact, uh, any physical process… (Dear Pinker: It is the FORM of the poison to us that matters more, and the biosphere’s capacity to “sink” the energy-consumption waste.)

What I find very telling is that almost all arts-and-humanities people, who may admit they don’t know much about science, still BELIEVE the universe is essentially mathematical. The successes of physics and chemistry suggest this, but it does not constitute a proof. Yet, from before C.P Snow, the one culture has thoroughly subverted the other.


Seth Finkelstein 05.27.07 at 1:48 am

Ah, I hadn’t seen this when I wrote the preceding comment. THIS is the context of the “clone” remark:

“And a newsmagazine condemns the prospects of cloning because it could mass-produce an army of zombies.”

He’s saying that’s a complete misunderstanding of clones. It’s obvious coming from bad science-fiction.


"Q" the Enchanter 05.27.07 at 2:10 am

The attitude Pinker’s on about is probably a function of the idea that an inordinate interest in science leads ineluctably to scientism. (And everyone knows scientism is bad.)


wood turtle 05.27.07 at 2:24 am

I think you should cut the people in the hard sciences a certain amount of slack. They simply may have not had the extra time to soak up literature. Each one of their classes typically involves 3-4 hours of lecture and an equivalent amount of lab time. Then there are all the supporting science and math courses they are supposed to take, and that doesn’t leave much room for liberal arts or a lot of free time for reading.


Neil 05.27.07 at 2:33 am

it is trivially true that it is not possible to make a twin of an animal that is already alive


Not so, twinning generally via splitting of the zygote. A zygote is already alive.

A clone is not just a twin, but for quite different reasons than the ones given. For one thing, clones do not share mitochondrial DNA; identical twins do.


Patrick 05.27.07 at 2:34 am

I just had an entertaining conversation over beer with some comp lit/english students during which they loudly proclaimed that Science (with the capital “S”) ‘presents itself’ a certain way was for that reason an overreaching totalizing discourse that needed to be opposed…

Of course, it quickly became apparent that these individuals didn’t actually know anything about scientific practice and theories. In fact, they scoffed at the idea that they needed to know them in order to critique it: they were refuting Science, but not any particular scientific utterances.

It seems to me that this kind of nonsense is pretty common in certain areas of the humanities: people who criticize the “pretensions” of science without knowing anything about the subject.


Jim Harrison 05.27.07 at 2:43 am

Lotsa liberal arts folks are interested in the sciences. The problem is, they always pick the same three or four topics to get interested in—relativity, chaos, the uncertainty principle, and Schrodinger’s cat. The stuff that explains most of what goes on in our world—chemical thermodynamics, the periodic table, Maxwell’s equations, population genetics—just isn’t sexy enough.


Dick Harmer 05.27.07 at 2:55 am

Re: #29

Yeah, people mistakenly believe that scientists think like neoclassical economists.


Seth Finkelstein 05.27.07 at 2:57 am

By the way, to Lester Hunt / #4 – a certain amount of mathematics, not calculus, but probability and geometric series, is stuff where many people will have occasion to use it in normal life.

I think it’s a fair objection that “describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics” is not something useful for most people. However, “describe why playing the lottery is a bad bet” is something many people could use very directly. Even better is “describe why carrying a balance on credit cards is an extremely poor idea (pun intended)”.


Lester Hunt 05.27.07 at 3:13 am

Seth, I think you are absolutely right. The ability to do math — and more importantly to think in mathematical ways — is an absolutely crucial part of having a well-trained mind. The inability to think that way is just what’s wrong with the minds of some of my humanist friends. In the Snow quotation he was talking about basic physics, which as you seem to agree, is a very different sort of thing. Not crucial in the same way at all.


Jon H 05.27.07 at 3:39 am

I’m inclined to think this is more common amongst professional artsy types with something of a name for themselves, than among the general populace.

Kind of like the attitude toward literature blogs shown by Richard Shickel or Richard Ford, scorn and willful ignorance.

I’ve no doubt these are the kinds of people a Pinker or Snow finds himself hobnobbing with at high-level academic soirees, but I’m not sure they’re particularly relevant.


nick s 05.27.07 at 3:41 am

I honestly think that history-of-science has a greater public penetration now than in a long time, thanks to people like Schaffer who have done a great job of bringing it to a wider audience. Part of it is slightly gimmicky — the ‘history of a mundane item’ subgenre has spawned too many fourth-gen knockoffs of Longitude — but that and pop-science has a well-established place.

Now, history of science and pop-science isn’t Ccience. But given the incredible specialisation of professional science these days, you’ll still find people reading Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe or Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker. Outside pockets of the US, I’d guess that most educated people in the developed world have a sense of the basic principles of natural selection; that they have a basic sense of what DNA does, etc.

Picking up on what others have said, that can create a narrow focus on ‘sexy science’, but that applies to popular understanding of most fields.

In that context, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is even more of an odds-narrower today than it was when Snow cited it.

I arrived at college to read EngLit with an unusual qualification: a maths A-level. (I have forgotten more maths than I remember today, alas.) But my peers never boasted of their scientific ignorance: like me, they tended to be regretful and inquisitive towards their weaknesses, and science-student friends provided an informal education.

(As for ignorance of literature: well, it exists, but as a different cultural signifier, in Lodge’s ‘Humiliation’.)


seth edenbaum 05.27.07 at 3:59 am

I won’t bite so much as nibble on this one.
A lot of this thread has been taken up with a discussion of whether or not or how Steven Pinker twists logic to make rhetorical points and to defend positions that others think are absurd. That is the discussion turned from one of science as such and its relation to the humanities to a discussion of attitudes biases and egos within the scientic field: the stuff of literature.
Science is technical expertise. No more or less. I’d like more scientists to read Shakespeare. He has a lot to teach. I spent the day listening to a researcher bitch about egos, fads, power politics and grant proposals. She’s disgusted, of course.

“Yet, from before C.P Snow, the one culture has thoroughly subverted the other.”
Dream on.
Then again


John Quiggin 05.27.07 at 4:58 am

kcindc, me too, and I still can’t tell which is which.


Anthony 05.27.07 at 5:35 am

#27 – wood turtle: One of my history professors said that the engineering students in his classes tended to either get a strong A or a C- in his classes. The C- engineers were the ones who consciously did the minimum work required to pass the class, and the A engineers were the ones who took the class seriously.


Joel Turnipseed 05.27.07 at 6:24 am

Something no one here has mentioned… Pinker was, if nothing else, spot-on about the poor use (abuse, really) of metaphor that passes for ‘clever’ in too much writing these days.

More to the points of this thread: even though I am a writer, I think less-and-less about whether my daughter will read Kafka or Woolf than whether she’ll be able to understand recursion or the integral. I figure she’ll get to the lit part, but the math (and logic and physics and chemistry) takes hard, persistent work.

But then: I was raised a curious beast: my (beloved and departed) grandfather was an economist who thrust Hofstadter’s Goedel, Escher, Bach and a TI-59 on me when I was ten–and then proceeded to tell me stories from Kafka and Beckett, which he’d picked up from his brother, Donald (who’d preceeded Charles Van Doren in Columbia’s Cutting Fellowship). That is… there’s never been, in my family, anyway, any such dichotomy as “Two Cultures.” (Well, there is, but they’re ‘drunk’ and ‘sober.’)

As for whether Shakespeare or Newton is more important for living life… I dunno: how many people have you seen wipe out when going around a corner too fast in snow? Torque a wrench too much or too little? Or, as others have pointed out, make exceptionally stupid decisions based on a lack of understanding of compound interest or basic probability? To stick to the old man’s lessons: way, way too many people still need to learn about the ideas of “marginal utility” and “sunk costs.” And if more people read the “Statistical Abstract of the United States” as their toilet reading, political discourse would improve by leaps and bounds.

Finally… (sorry, Dave) sometimes all this learning really comes down to a matter of paying attention! I had a roomate in college for a couple of years–a grad student in theoretical physics–who called me “LFT Man” because, as I watched him attempt build a bunk on moving day, I took over from him in disgust and immediately added a hollow tube to the ass-end of the small, cheap ratchet he was using on his lag bolts: finishing in moments what he had labored at in anguish. “Did you learn that when you were a mechanic in the Marine Corps?” “No, dumbass, I learned it in AP Physics.” “Dude, you are now ‘LFT Man.'” Friends, still, after almost two decades…


derrida derider 05.27.07 at 7:09 am

I think it’s a fair objection that “describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics” is not something useful for most people.

Ever notice how much tiring doing housework is? That’s a consequence of the Second Law.


Seth Finkelstein 05.27.07 at 7:19 am

“… wipe out when going around a corner too fast in snow …”

I remember, when taking a driving lesson, thinking

“Hmm … mass … acceleration … rotation … INERTIA!”

But then, I had wanted to be a physicist, so that was atypical.

I believe that sort of knowledge has to be demonstrated directly – abstract equations just don’t do it justice.


Jon H 05.27.07 at 7:24 am

“I’d like more scientists to read Shakespeare. ”

I bet more science & technology people act in community theater productions of Shakespeare than English lit majors.


Jon H 05.27.07 at 7:28 am

“In that context, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is even more of an odds-narrower today than it was when Snow cited it.”

People may not study up on the Second Law itself, but they may run into an explanation of it while reading about some larger subject.


talboito 05.27.07 at 8:17 am

Anyone who thinks “the ability to do math” correlates in any significant way with the ability to make good financial decisions (involving math or otherwise) has never been a Financial Advisor.

I imagine the same is true for decisions in other domains. Certainly logicians act nor more “logically” in their decisionmaking.


Anarch 05.27.07 at 8:28 am

I think it’s fair to say that academics or those inclined towards academia, in general, tend to be rueful towards other disciplines they haven’t mastered. Not so much the general populace.


bad Jim 05.27.07 at 8:38 am

It’s telling that biological knowledge is never used as the cultural discriminant. It’s got a short shelf life; the answers some questions would elicit might track the age of the respondent better than their academic specialty. Small feathery T. Rex cousins, anyone? Kinky spider sex?

[Disclosure: I’ve never read Virginia Woolf, nor am I afraid of her. I read War and Peace twice; I still think Pierre was a klutz.]

Adventures in torque: trying to take the lug nuts off the left rear wheel of a 1965 Chrysler station wagon. Then, only a year or two later, using a six-foot (2m) length of pipe as a cheater to try to budge the left front axle nut of a VW Bug. Two of us managed to lift the other end of the car off the ground.

Left-hand threads. How could I have forgotten?


abb1 05.27.07 at 9:00 am

Everybody read about the big bang, black holes and relativity (Einstein was number one on the NYT bestsellers list a week ago). It’s just marketing; no one has figured out how to make money off popularizations of thermodynamics yet.


bad Jim 05.27.07 at 9:08 am

In re Clones v. Twins: besides the MtDNA, the prenatal environment. The mom, like. Dad even.

I’m not sure my blonde, blue-eyed twin cousins didn’t share a soul (since the soul is present at the instant of fusion of spematozoon and ovum) until after their first husbands.


Freddie 05.27.07 at 11:50 am

More to the points of this thread: even though I am a writer, I think less-and-less about whether my daughter will read Kafka or Woolf than whether she’ll be able to understand recursion or the integral. I figure she’ll get to the lit part, but the math (and logic and physics and chemistry) takes hard, persistent work.

So does “the lit part”! It takes hard work, careful analysis, mental discipline, a responsible mind, clarity of thought…. I’m so, so tired of having what I love to do, what I was made to do, reduce to such tired stereotypes and caricatures.


CKR 05.27.07 at 1:27 pm

The discussions of the Second Law in this thread illustrate the problem: it’s not relevant to “real life,” it’s something they may run into incidentally, basically something that these important people can’t be bothered with, most likely because they’ve never seriously looked at it.

Thermodynamics (which I, a chemist, hated on first acquaintance) is about judging boundaries: can this reaction work? Under what conditions? It is about limits. It gives the minimum conditions for what can happen. Making it happen is up to us. I think Shakespeare worked within this range of things.

Likewise, probability and risk theory are a part of everyday discourse since 9/11. How can we judge President Bush’s latest implicit accusations that the reporters questioning him are endangering their children without knowing how to estimate what the risks are?

Scientists are caricatured as putting “literature” in a box, and some of them do. But too much of the discussion above puts science in a box: reduce it to the Second Law and then declare that irrelevant.


SG 05.27.07 at 2:16 pm

z, I pretty much had the exact conversation described in the post with an economist just over a year ago in Australia. Her scorn (from an economist!) was for the lack of broad, liberal education of modern science graduates. I have a science degree but kind of agree with her, so tried to engage in the conversation in the manner which I thought suited it, by discussing a novel. I mentioned Solzhenitsyn’s description of classical engineers (from “The First Circle”, I think), and by God! The dead expression which came over her face at that point was quite astounding. Not, I might add, because she was sneering at me for having read Solzhenitsyn (a thoroughly worthy position to take, though I defend my decision to read this particular one of his works), but because she hadn’t and didn’t know who he was. Similar expressions crossed the faces of the 3 other “science” graduates at the table (but they were pscyhologists and young, so it’s okay).

So yeah, I have had Snow’s conversation, only I didn’t even have to ask about the 2nd law of Thermodynamics. Just had to accidentally quote some kulcha.


Ancarett 05.27.07 at 2:28 pm

I’m with hidari on this. I don’t know all that many people who are big on Virginia Woolf these days (which is sad). And a lot of people will attempt to get through Shakespeare by watching one of the film adaptations and reading the Cliff Notes. Actually thinking their way through Shakespeare requires a lot more work than many people, humanities OR science majors, are willing to give.

That said, my colleagues and students always look at me in disbelief when I tell them that I took the accelerated Calculus sequence as an undergraduate and was a geophysics major for three years before tossing all that science stuff away and becoming a historian precisely because I found that my heart was in reading Virginia Woolf or the early texts of the reformers instead of charting anticlines and synclines in a rock formation.


seth edenbaum 05.27.07 at 2:56 pm

“So does “the lit part”! It takes hard work, careful analysis, mental discipline, a responsible mind, clarity of thought…. I’m so, so tired of having what I love to do, what I was made to do, reduce to such tired stereotypes and caricatures.”

But the “work” is associated with an indulgence in pleasure if you’re a secularist or “spirituality” if you’re not, whereas science is the search for “truth.”
Better to put it this way: Literature is the memory of all the ways in which we are capable of deluding ourselves. It’s the history of error told as a warning and a comedy. It’s the history of self awareness and its lack. Science is a tool. The culture of science is the culture of optimism confidence arrogance the holy grail and the phrase: “mistakes were made.”
Analogies are how cultures are formed. The culture of science is of science as analogy, a rhetorical device used as a bulwark against criticism. And isn’t that how Pinker uses it?

The response to bullshit teleology that expands out of the mythology of science and not from science itself is to remind people that scientists are just as capable of delusion and irrationality as the rest of us. Do I need to remind any of you idiots of the number of schools of thought that the late 19th and 20th century deemed new revolutionary sciences? The only one’s left that do any harm are economics and politics. The rest are harmless outside the academy.

The end of nature is entropy. The “telos” of science is unity and order. They oppose each other.
Life is absurd. The study of any aspect of it is similarly absurd.

Harry B suggested I use the stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy where I found this definition of Methodological Individualism:

This doctrine was introduced as a methodological precept for the social sciences by Max Weber, most importantly in the first chapter of Economy and Society (1968 [1922]). It amounts to the claim that social phenomena must be explained by showing how they result from individual actions, which in turn must be explained through reference to the intentional states that motivate the individual actors.

We may find it necessary for the purposes of practical politics to use such vulgar descriptions of history as the above, but I sure as hell wouldn’t base my personal philosophy on it. It’s based on an assumption with no basis in empirical fact.
Plus ca change indeed


Gdr 05.27.07 at 3:12 pm

>>> I have learned what the second law of thermodynamics is several times over the years, and forgotten subsequently forgotten it every time, because I never have any occasion to use it.

You have many occasions to use the law. (Not “use” in the sense of “calculate a result”, but “use” in the sense of “help to understand something about the world”: the same sense in which you use the understanding of character and motivation that you have gained from Shakespeare.)

The second law says, very roughly speaking, that heat flows spontaneously from hot objects to adjacent cold ones, and not the other way. Any physical situation involving temperature differences has some feature that is understandable in terms of the second law: heating your house, refrigeration and air conditioning, sweating on a hot day, cooking, power generation, and so on. (And the second law will help you understand why creationists are frauds.)


Steve LaBonne 05.27.07 at 3:31 pm

First Law: You can’t win.
Second Law: You can’t break even.
Third Law: You can’t get out of the game.


seth edenbaum 05.27.07 at 4:53 pm

“creationists are frauds.”
Is Pinker a fraud? Where do you draw the line?

I’d like to think dualists and believers in AI are both frauds.
Is Rumsfeld a fraud? He can’t possibly believe what he says.


qingl78 05.27.07 at 5:07 pm

Hey Lester,

There is a company who is selling perpetual motion machines. Do you want to get in on this deal or do you want to short the stock? Neither probably, but let say that someone says that evolution is a fraud because of the second law of thermodynamics. Do you agree?

You may think that the second law has nothing to do with “real life” but it has a great deal to do with public policy like the Hydrogen fuel problem. If public policy is not “real life” then I’m not sure what is.

As for Shakespeare, I quite enjoy him and I never miss a greek tradgedy, however, I never think of them when I am resolving a real life situation, in fact I’m struck by how out of time they are. Most of these plays revolve around resolving your problems through death. Either killing or killing yourself. Neither I thought was very modern.

Warmest Regards


seth edenbaum 05.27.07 at 5:13 pm

“Most of these plays revolve around resolving your problems through death. Either killing or killing yourself. Neither I thought was very modern”
Both are of course the very definition of the modern.
And if you want to see a perpetual motion machine, I know a russian girl out in bay ridge.


abb1 05.27.07 at 5:52 pm

There is a company who is selling perpetual motion machines. Do you want to get in on this deal or do you want to short the stock?

Well, if this is, for example, a tidal-powered generator, then for all intents and purposes it is perpetual.


clew 05.27.07 at 7:28 pm

I have known people boast about their incompetence at math and calculation; one of them was pointedly above being able to calculate the volume of a cake-tin, another told me that science only dealt with problems we already know the answers to. They haven’t been the majority, but they do exist.

The majority feeling has been some combination of fear and exhaustion. Are there countries with more elementary teachers who don’t dislike math? Do those countries frighten their math students as badly?


Lee 05.27.07 at 8:12 pm

Thanks, Dsquared (at 22). I see what you mean, but still, it is a fact that the public is confused about what a clone essentially is. No doubt, there are serious ethical problems with our best attempts at cloning today, but my sense is that most anti-cloning folk are opposed to clones per se. And this is mainly due to ignorance (talk about zombies, souls, whatever).


sglover 05.27.07 at 8:47 pm

I strongly suspect Pinker was consciously ehoing Snow. And, on the scientific snob side of the two cultures though I may be, I actually don’t know of anyone on the literary side who does this. They tend to at least pay lip service to the need to know basic physics.

In my experience, it’s very common — in fact, pretty much the norm — to run across people who consider themselves educated, have degrees, and freely admit that if they ever took algebra, they’ve forgotten it. I think most of our political discourse exhibits a blithe’ disdain for elementary science knowledge.


Lester Hunt 05.27.07 at 9:00 pm

qing178: “There is a company who is selling perpetual motion machines. Do you want to get in on this deal or do you want to short the stock?”

Okay, I’ll admit that elementary physics can be useful in ordinary life. But I still say that familiarity with certain narratives (and the ability to interpret them) is like acquaintance with elementary math, in that it is inevitably and continually useful — and thus belongs in a different category.


fred lapides 05.27.07 at 10:51 pm

I have read Pinker. I have read Snow. I have read Woolf. And I have even read the Angier book that is being mentioned. Would be nice if some of you folks could comment on both the book and the Pinker review of the book instead of two cultures or Pinker


Walt 05.27.07 at 11:09 pm

The second law of thermodynamics is one of the most pervasive facts of life, more pervasive than death (which it explains) and taxes.

The second law is the physical expression of this: things fall apart. Your car doesn’t spontaneously fix itself. The streets don’t sweep themselves. Your house, your clothes, your body get dirtier and dirtier if you don’t clean them. Everything breaks down, becomes disorganized, disintegrates. The only thing that arrests this decay is the constant application of effort. That is the second law of thermodynamics.


the witch from next door 05.28.07 at 12:02 am

All this talk of CP Snow and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and nobody’s yet mentioned Flanders and Swann?

“Heat is work and work’s a curse
And all the heat in the universe
Is gonna cool down,
‘Cos it can’t increase
Then there’ll be no more work
And there’ll be perfect peace”

“Yeah, that’s entropy, man.”


roy belmont 05.28.07 at 5:18 am

“The second law of thermodynamics is one of the most pervasive facts of life, more pervasive than death (which it explains) “
This is why we know the sun will die, some day.
This does not explain, or even begin to suggest an explanation for how the sun came to be.
The probability that whatever caused the sun to begin to exist had a non-beginning, or of its being “eternal” is something that makes a kind of sense but as yet has no valid proof.
The probability that the same processes that gave rise to life on earth – random flux over vast stretches of time acting on matter to produce systems that increase in order – the probability that the processes that gave rise to life on earth have been at work in much greater degree of complexity for what amounts to eternity or near it on matter of infinite magnitude in the larger universe or more accurately universes – why my goodness it’s almost unthinkable!
And it’s too nearly religious as well. But there it is.
Entropy is fundamental but like death it’s only local.


Keith M Ellis 05.28.07 at 5:31 am

Thankfully, she does not try to render something called ‘the scientific method’ (a phrase that never passes the lips of a real scientist)

Ah, would that it were true.

because clones are highly susceptible to a lot of problems related to the genetic damage intrinsic to the cloning process.

You’re bullshitting here. You may or may not be aware of it, but you’re full of shit in the typical dsquared fashion. No one really knows what are all the problems with clones, but chief among them is not that there is genetic damage “intrinsic to the cloning process”. What genetic damage is “intrinsic to the cloning process”? Why are clones “highly susceptible” to it? I can’t work out a way in which your statement is even contingently true unless I allow the possibility that you know only enough about the subject to make universal assertions that are actually particular and you can’t tell the difference between the two. Anyway, if there are problems in the genetic material, it’s most likely the result of many accumulated mutations in that original’s cell line. Most of the problems, though, are thought to be related to the intracellular environment and its epigenetics.

Also, it is trivially true that it is not possible to make a twin of an animal that is already alive, but it is possible to make a clone of an animal that is already alive.

This assertion apparently relies heavily upon your personal and convenient definitions of the terms twin and clone.

It’s quite an accomplishment that you are able to manage to demonstrate less competency at biology than Pinker while equaling him in bad-faith rhetoric.


abb1 05.28.07 at 7:21 am

The second law of thermodynamics is one of the most pervasive facts of life…

I don’t think so; you hardly ever see a well-isolated system in real life, because of that huge nuclear reactor up in the sky.


Slocum 05.28.07 at 12:40 pm

All the talk of creationists and the second law of thermodynamics brings to mind this classic from ‘The Onion’:


Matt Weiner 05.28.07 at 1:08 pm

dsquared: “Also, it is trivially true that it is not possible to make a twin of an animal that is already alive, but it is possible to make a clone of an animal that is already alive.”

keith m ellis: This assertion apparently relies heavily upon your personal and convenient definitions of the terms twin and clone.

Well, the dictionaries tend to define twin as “either of two individuals born from the same pregnancy,” so on the most usual definition it is not possible to make a twin of somebody who is already born. (Presumably this definition only applies to organisms that aren’t typically born in litters.)


Henry (not the famous one) 05.28.07 at 3:17 pm

To illustrate that all things are connected (the Second New Age Law of Thermodynamics?), the Irish Election site featured in the next post offers the following reason to be cheerful for those depressed by Fianna Fail’s continued hold on power:

2 – Fianna Fail can’t survive the death of the sun. So within 4 billion years we can expect a change of government.

That proves it for me: the Second Law is something we all live with in our daily lives.


eudoxis 05.28.07 at 7:31 pm

Clones are just twins is a fine description. The objections to it don’t detract from the basic point Pinker is making, which is that, unlike the principle of cloning that ethicists and religious moralists seem to think they need to grapple with, clones already exist, naturally, in the form of twins and never give pause in the way that in vitro cloning does. Twins are perfect clones. Clones can be perfect twins even with somatic cell transfer techniques. Multiple clones can be made from the same person, you see, using oocytes from the same source. They can share a uterine environment and mitochondrial DNA. So, where clones are, usually, less related to each other than twins, the public should be more comfortable with the idea. The discomfort that is prevalent is still rooted in scientific ignorance and it generally takes the form of “it contradicts God’s will”.


Eli Rabett 05.28.07 at 11:20 pm

If I asked why thing fall, the response would be gravity, and even Lester Hunt would say, gee, I remember that, the Law of Gravity is a USEFUL THING. On the other hand if I asked why sugar dissolved into tea, how many would say, because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics? The problem is not that Lester learned and forgot the Second Law, the problem is that he never really understood what it means.

And of course, knowing the Second Law gives you insight into a lot of public policy issues such as siting power plants (why do you think people want to build them near cold water?) and biology. The First Law is also a USEFUL THING.


dsquared 05.28.07 at 11:23 pm

Twins are perfect clones

But not vice versa (and this is why Keith can fuck off as well). Clones, in the sense of animals like Dolly the sheep, are not made in the same way as twins, which is why they are almost always extremely unhealthy, because they have been made from genetic material which has been taken from cells that are subject to the normal kinds of damage intrinsic to being a living being underneath the Sun. They also don’t share mitochondrial DNA, and they haven’t been made at the same time with the same parents. All of which are the reasons that a lot of entirely sensible people, many of whom (gasp!) don’t even believe in God! think that there is an ethical issue with respect to reproductive cloning, and regard the idea that “clones are twins” as rather more controversial than “graphite is carbon”, and perhaps regard it as more than a little bit dishonest to toss off the two in the same sentence as if there were no question here.


dsquared 05.28.07 at 11:24 pm

If I asked why thing fall, the response would be gravity, and even Lester Hunt would say, gee, I remember that, the Law of Gravity is a USEFUL THING

the map is not the territory. Gravity worked for thousands of years before anyone came up with a law about it.


seth edenbaum 05.29.07 at 1:10 am

Eli Rabett, I’d rather have a government that I trusted understood the ambiguities of language than one that understood only the use of numbers. Techinical advice can be bought easily on the open market but wisdom comes at a premium. And again, this discussion [“Fuck off” etc…] has been about language and not numbers from the start.

I no more want a government of scientists than I would accept one of soldiers. And experts of all sorts not just military have become fond recently of expressing contempt for democracy. It’s beginning to piss me off.
Representative democraticies are run by generalists for damn good reasons, and there are more than a few assholes here who seem not to understand the logic underpinning the rule of law.
I blame all this on Methodological Individualism of course.

But I’m getting really fond of DD.


Matt Kuzma 05.29.07 at 1:54 am

Thus being ignorant of Shakespeare is worse than being ignorant of the second law of thermodynamics.

Have you ever salted your icy sidewalks or started a car engine or boiled water to cook food? When you put a towel on a puddle of liquid, will it soak in? You’ve gained an intuitive grasp of the second law of thermodynamics simply by living it, because it’s in every transfer of energy that happens around you from birth. You may not know how the second law of thermodynamics applies to those situations, but that’s because you’re ignorant. Similarly, I don’t need to know about Romeo and Juliet to fall in love or to feel trapped by social moors. I can get by fine without knowing anything about Romeo and Juliet or Shakespeare. It’s just a duller, dimmer existence.


Kieran Healy 05.29.07 at 1:57 am

to feel trapped by social moors

Like Jenny von Westfalen.


seth edenbaum 05.29.07 at 2:22 am

Never mind Romeo and Juliet, try Hamlet or Macbeth.
And Madre de Dios, I can’t believe I’m channeling Brad DeLong, try Thucydides.


Matt Weiner 05.29.07 at 2:33 am

Like Jenny von Westfalen.

Woulda said Desdemona, myself.


seth edenbaum 05.29.07 at 3:20 am

But that’s where Jenny got the reference.


john c. halasz 05.29.07 at 3:54 am

Well, my completely untutored understanding of the problem with cloning is that, when conception occurs naturally, genetic regulation cycles are set off, with, so to speak, signal importance for embryological development and continue on a sort of schedule determining their sequencing and timing through out the subsequent differentiation and reproduction of cells, such that, when the nucleus of a mature animal’s cell in implanted in a de-nucleated egg, the scheduling/timing mechanism is off, resulting in subtle or not so subtle deformations in embryological development. So it’s not so much that mature cells have accumulated unrepaired genetic damage, but rather that there is no way to detect and set the timing/scheduling of gene regulation cycles. So score one for D^2, who’s close enough to the facts not to be cloning around.

But my other comment is: was it really the case in the 1950’s that the typical fairly literate person didn’t recognize and basically understand the laws of thermodynamics? Was the understanding of basic biology, let alone theories or conceptions of information and its processing so little diffused that it would be considered exotic? I’ll admit that I don’t understand the intricacies of quantum mechanics or of Dirac’s equations for electron orbitals, but thermodynamics, information defined as order, entropy and negentropy, Maxwell’s “wee man”, Carnot’s work cycles, and the like all seem readily graspable and definitive for what nowadays “we” mean by physical reality, that it’s hard to believe that a reasonable facsimile of such knowledge was not, let alone is not, generally diffused culturally, apart from special pleadings. Are there really secret cabals of deconstructionists snobbishly defending their more-radical-than-thou posturings by remaining blissfully ignorant of such matters, all the while speciously citing Goedel’s theorem to justify their paradox-mongering?


roy belmont 05.29.07 at 4:43 am

The moon and the sun both occupy a near identical .5 degree arc of the observable sky, and they follow generally the same path across it.
Anyone looking at them would say they’re likely to be about the same size and, incidentally, probably going round the earth.
Science has shown us the counter-intuitive truth about this. Which then became so obvious it’s now the intuitive version and the old default is now counter.
Shakespeare does much the same for the complexities of human life. Othello’s not about race relations, Romeo and Juliet is much more than a love story, Lear more than a family drama.
The larger question about clones and the whole flotilla of life-tinkering technologies is about who’s using them as much as what it is they’re doing. There seems to be an order of high-function autistics leading the charge toward the technologies of immortality which I for one am not voting for.
At the same time we’re getting all kinds of counter-intuitive info about where and what we are that could be resolving toward wonderful self-knowledge, if the assholes weren’t jamming the concourse.
Not all of us can know everything about everything not even all the bits about the parts of everything that’s current human knowledge. We can share this stuff in ways that are inclusive – which is how we got this far to begin with – or we can license it and filter towaard exclusive qualified access.
This drive toward social polarity is functioning across the board now, people want an us and a them to belong to and to make war against the other on.
Science against religion. Science against the humanities.
A pox on all your houses. But we’re working on a cure.


Brad DeLong 05.29.07 at 4:43 am

Re: “Never mind Romeo and Juliet, try Hamlet or Macbeth.
And Madre de Dios, I can’t believe I’m channeling Brad DeLong, try Thucydides.”

It is terrifying and disgusting to reach such a point, is it not? :-)

Brad DeLong


eb 05.29.07 at 5:24 am

What about the Hamlet soliloquy that starts off with flesh thawing, melting, and resolving itself into a dew? Isn’t that about thermodynamics?


SG 05.29.07 at 8:01 am

Seth at #80, I think I agree with you but I should say, if you look at the list of people who oppose global warming, most of them are not scientists. (I would say the same goes for those who supported the Iraq war, but there are probably different reasons for this). Maggie Thatcher supported the Kyoto protocol and she had a science degree.

I think a few more scientists in power might have a positive influence on the world right now.


loren 05.29.07 at 1:45 pm

coming late to some very interesting strands of conversation. I’m not sure I agree with Roy about what Shakespeare does for the complexities of human life. But rather than make a clear case against his view, I’ll offer my anecdotal experiences and offer a halfbaked conjecture.

The scientists and mathematicians in my life have generally been kind, thoughtful, and extraordinarily well-read, although I’ve certainly met my share of the ‘mere technicians’ variety of lab scientist, and plenty too of those who uncritically accept a certain halfbaked metaphysical worldview and dismiss anyone of a more philosophical bent, and with contrary inclinations, as dumb and simply confused or ignorant about ‘the science’.

I’ve yet to meet a competent scientist who was seriously dismissive of the rule of law, although I have seen the tendency to be naive and overly optimistic about technical expertise somehow solving historically and conceptually complicated moral and political problems.

But I offer a tentative conjecture (I’ll give it no more weight than that), which is at odds with some of the views on offer here: historical and interpretive practices are, for whatever reason, far more intuitive to most of us than formal and quantitative reasoning.

I think this conjecture is roughly consistent with the position, expressed much earlier in the thread, that sophisticated and deeply informed critical interpretation takes a lot of care, and certainly a great deal of practice. But I wonder if — however rich and nuanced our interpretations — the practice of interpretation simply comes easier to most of us than the ways of thinking and debating that have come to dominate most of the sciences?

Even if most of us don’t have the time, inclination, or depth and breadth of literary experience and historical knowledge to really grapple carefully with, say, Harold Bloom or Jacques Derrida, most of us get the exercise in a way most of us probably do not with, say, problems in combinatorics or topology applied to computer network security or astrophysics.

My conjecture depends, of course, on us being, in some very deep way, interpreting animals, doomed or blessed (depending on your perspective) to find and forge meanings, and more typically inclined to do this than, say, make elaborate and difficult calculations about quantities and relations.

If that’s even remotely accurate, perhaps this is in part hardwired, as evolutionary psychologists could no doubt gleefully “explain” with elaborate just-so stories (“social intuition and language skills were more important when hunting in small bands …”), and intriguing but then heroically interpreted experiments?

Or perhaps it simply reflects a longstanding bias against formal and quantitative reasoning in education and popular culture? (although with shows like Numbers getting more than one season, and even Tom Cruise getting his math down in the latest Mission: Impossible installment, maybe this will change).


seth edenbaum 05.29.07 at 2:02 pm

Much more important that scientists’ expertise be seen for what it is. That would be enough. The problem stems partly from economic and cultural divisions in the country and partly from the sense that science or “scientism” of one sort or another is no longer socialized within the community but directs it.
It’s quite reasonable to see Utilitarianism not as the rule of law but the rule of others.
The conservative elite masks their [short term!] economic utilitarianism behind claims of individual freedom and the liberal elite states outright their best intentions. The conservatives lie or are deluded and claim a defense from the logic of historical precedent, liberals say outright that history is bunk.
History is not bunk. And the history of the world seen through any one lens to the exclusion of others even Methodological Individualism, is not history.
We see the acts and products of men as the products also of their era. Scientific discoveries are in some ways an exception, but in many ways are not. The desire for knowledge is not knowledge. Atoms and molecules are not emotions. The thought that anything in words can claim to continue from a previous logic as if both were mathematical equations is absurd. But that’s the logic that says that there are certain thoughts that once formed become a priori, become foundational and are therefore absorbed and ignored. “Reason” is now considered foundational to the degree that a middling American political figure who would be no more than a pompous Ubu of the center right in any other democratic country can publish a book called “The Assault on Reason” and not be laughed out of town. “Reason” has devolved from an ideal, a goal, into something of which we should all be capable: just like Al Gore Brad, DeLong and Margaret Thatcher.
See how things can shift if you pretend you’re outside of history?
No book ever should be read following exclusively the author’s intentions.
What’s the Rawlsian authorial voice!?

Maggie Thatcher scientist? sg you just made my point.


loren 05.29.07 at 2:05 pm

… having said all of that, I also suspect that there is a deep congruity between scientific reasoning and public argument (even about matters qualitative and interpretive, moral and historical). The act of persuading others about a particular moral claim, or interpretive stance vis-a-vis a sculpture or novel or historical event, seems to me to invite a sort of reasoning that is roughly scientific, at least in the following sense: we put a substantive claim and a line of reasoning up for public scrutiny and criticism. We then see what remains after that process, and whether a great many people remain convinced of our initial claim and how we got there. But I don’t think that’s an instance of the culture of science subsuming the characteristic practices and concerns of the humanitities, but rather of rather science requiring a fundamentally democratic principle of inclusive public argument, and of that principle becoming central to good scientific reasoning.


SG 05.29.07 at 2:08 pm

well seth, she had a science degree. Which makes her more a scientist than most of the scumbags advocating the invasion of Iraq.


seth edenbaum 05.29.07 at 4:41 pm

Of course Thatcher was both a scientist and a scumbag, who mixed lower middle class moralism and economic pseudosciece into a politics of contempt. She was a very confused woman:
“Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy.”
“There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.”
Good for a laugh before she got elected to anything.

And here’s where Loren and I get civil.
“I also suspect that there is a deep congruity between scientific reasoning and public argument.”
I’d have to say that there isn’t. The notion of divided government is based on the maintenance of prerogatives and not on reason as such. The Executive the Legislative and the Judicial exist in tension. The same logic defines the relations we prefer to see between unions to management, those we demand between prosecutors and defense attorney what I at least would prefer between the press to the government. None of these are predicated on our capacity for reason but on the assumption that reason may lose its way: that power corrupts. The relations are necessarily formal and adversarial so that an approximation of reason may be preserved.

The professionalization of intellectual life seen in this light is not a mark of resilience but of brittleness. Personally, I could do without Plato, but given his existence a world without Aristophanes would scare the shit out of all of us.

The logic, the ideology, of individual reason and rationality that people defend is based on a misunderstanding of the forms of government that they themselves would defend if asked; and they do so under the assumption the the only choice is between freedom or vulgar determinism (that this false dichotomy is so common is itself the result of events and history.)

The choice in fact is between an unfounded and therefore dangerous optimism and a pessimism based in empirical observation: and on the arts and history.
The great thing about art is that we can enjoy it even as we know the artist’s ideas are shit. I don’t read Eliot or Larkin to become like them but to remind myself not be become what they were. But still, they were only human, and they described what they saw and how they saw it well.

The tendency of history is towards determinism. Having a graduate degree in political science or philosophy is no guarantee against it. Just ask Prof. Immanuel Rath.
Me, I like the prefer the arts because artists are confidence men. And you can’t con a con.


seth edenbaum 05.29.07 at 4:58 pm

That last bit was too easy
(I was just defending my prerogatives.)


loren 05.29.07 at 5:30 pm

Seth, I’m certainly not endorsing a sort of global or final politics of reason: I’m open to the likelihood that there are disagreements that reason cannot (and perhaps should not even attempt to) resolve. I certainly don’t expect public argument to resolve every dispute, nor do I think it ought to. But I do think there is something deeply and appealingly democratic in the publicity that science, at its best, shares with an (admittedly demanding) ideal of civil, sincere, and informed public argument. At the end of the day we make our case to others who may argue plausibly, perhaps devastatingly against us, presenting alternative ideas and new evidence that force us to rethink our considered beliefs. That isn’t to deny the value of adversarial political and legal procedures as bulwarks against tyranny or chaos when reason cannot do useful work, or when we fail to live up to this rather demanding (sometimes absurdly so) ideal of public argument, instead resorting to rhetoric, deceit, or worse. But that way of putting things makes clear that I do hold out considerable hope for reason beyond the confines of scientific inquiry into material causes and effects in the world. I don’t think this commits me to belief that, with reason properly applied we can somehow step outside of history and grasp the true nature of all things. That is a scientistic conceit. But I think our critical reflections and causal stories — articulated within history, of course — can acheive a greater degree of distance from our circumstances than I think you believe possible.


loren 05.29.07 at 5:35 pm

… and I thought the lesson of The Blue Angel was: reason carefully before getting involved with a cabaret singer named “Lola” (but I might be mixing that up with a Kinks song).


seth edenbaum 05.29.07 at 7:17 pm

We’ll have to agree to disagree on the importance of being earnest. And The Blue Angel is more about pedantry than reason. Everyone lusts after Lola, but only one man ends up a fool.
Ray Davies’ relation to Lola in the song is more like Joe E. Brown at the end of Some Like it Hot:
“But… I’m a man!!”
“No one’s perfect”

A friend of mine tells stories about the man who owns the building next door to him: a rich sleazeball criminal defense lawyer. I’ve probably mentioned him before. He works mostly federal cases, drugs and guns. He wears $3000 suits and drives this year’s biggest Mercedes. He’s fond of loudly intoning statements like “I’m at the forefront of the defense of your civil liberties.” And Josh laughs, because he knows he’s right. The latest news is that the guy apparently has just taken his first pro bono case, and won’t shut up about it. “This black kid. The cops fucked him! He wasn’t even there! I got witnesses!” And then he talks about never caring about whether his clients are innocent or guilty. “I don’t do this shit! I don’t care, there’s no money!… But this kid didn’t do it!! I’m gonna get him off. Fuck the cops!”
And he’ll win too.
Josh has always liked this schmuck, because he’s always been likable as a schmuck. Now he likes him a little more. It’s nice when it happens but you can’t count on it.
And the guy’s still a sleazeball.


hellblazer 05.29.07 at 8:17 pm

Late to the discussion and posts above seem to have covered points I was going to make (see posts #10 and #40). So just as an afterthought: there’s something that’s always nagged at me when I run into Two Cultures debates/rehashes (and indeed when I skimmed through Snow’s essay several years ago). Namely, where would you place historians in this attempted dichotomy? And which schools of historians where?


Omri 05.29.07 at 9:39 pm

It should hardly be a surprise that Pinker would use sloppy rhetoric and hyperbole. It’s the NYT book section, for Pete’s sake.. Still, strictly speaking he is probably right. Take the set of people who would sneer at the vulgarian who has not read Virginia Woolf, and the set of those who insouciantly boast of their ignorance of basic physics. Both sets must each have a cardinality above zero, since there are 6 billion people out there. And their intersection is probably not much smaller than their union.

Their sizes are probably too small to merit much more discussion, though.


mattsteinglass 05.30.07 at 1:50 am

My elementary school had a super sixth-grade curriculum element on the 3 Laws of Thermodynamics, done in a sort of jumprope-chant rhythm, which rendered me permanently incapable of forgetting them. “The first (clap) law (clap) of thermo (clap) dynamics (clap): heat is work and work is heat.” We say “plus ca change”, but meanwhile, sometimes invisibly, progress occurs.


mds 05.30.07 at 4:52 pm

It should hardly be a surprise that Pinker would use sloppy rhetoric and hyperbole.

Indeed, I don’t think that’s actually surprising to many people in the life sciences.

Pinker: People who would sneer at the vulgarian who has never read Virginia Woolf will insouciantly boast of their ignorance of basic physics.

See, I would give someone more credit for acknowledging, in whatever form, their ignorance of a scientific discipline, as opposed to, say, holding forth authoritatively about evolutionary biology when one is actually an ignorant cretin about it. And of course, both sorts get tenure at Harvard, but at least the former doesn’t get tenure in a scientific discipline. Well, not usually.

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