Culture Nature

Intellectuals, science, and the English Channel

Something Todd Swift said pointed me to an article in the Guardian about the lack of public intellectuals in Britain, written by Agnès Poirier, a French journalist working in London. It’s worth reading just for the culture-clash exhibited in the comments.

I noticed that the unspoken assumption, from both sides of the argument, was inevitably that an intellectual is a philosopher, a cultural theorist, a littérateur and not, for example, someone like Richard Dawkins.* So I started digging around for this quote from C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures:

I remember G. H. Hardy once remarking to me in mild puzzlement, some time in the 1930s, “Have you noticed how the word “intellectual” is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition which certainly doesn’t include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me? It does seem rather odd, don’t y’know.”

The point being, of course, that Hardy was a mathematician, Rutherford (no relation), Eddington and Dirac were physicists and Adrian was, Wikipedia informs me, a physiologist. Three of them won Nobel prizes. I remember being very struck by that quote when I first read it, and I still think Snow’s basic point about the wilful scientific ignorance of those in the humanities is a good one, even if some of the other things he says in the essay don’t stand up very well. Indeed Wikipedia led me to an essay by Roger Kimball titled “The two cultures” today, published in 1994 in the New Criterion. Kimball does an excellent and largely deserved demolition job on Snow’s essay, but in the process demonstrates exactly the depressing indifference to science that Snow was complaining about.

Snow’s argument operates by erasing or ignoring certain fundamental distinctions. He goes to a literary party, discovers that no one (except himself) can explain the second law of thermodynamics, and then concludes triumphantly: “yet I was asking something which is about the equivalent of Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?” But, as Leavis notes, “there is no scientific equivalent of that question; equations between orders so disparate are meaningless.” The second law of thermodynamics is a piece of specialized knowledge, useful or irrelevant depending on the job to be done; the works of Shakespeare provide a window into the soul of humanity: to read them is tantamount to acquiring self-knowledge. Snow seems blind to this distinction.

“A piece of specialized knowledge, useful or irrelevant depending on the job to be done”. It just makes me want to cry. An insight into the fundamental workings of the universe reduced to a tool, a mathematical spanner, something of no possible interest to anyone who doesn’t need it to do a job. An indirect and second-hand insight into ‘the soul of humanity’ meanwhile is of such obvious value that it apparently goes without saying.

Such arrogance. Not just the intellectual arrogance that is willing to dismiss physics as just a tool for getting jobs done, but the arrogance to assume that ‘self-knowledge’ is of more value than the attempt to understand everything that exists. This isn’t an argument, it’s just an assertion of self-importance.

And yes, I do know that scientists are sometimes just as arrogantly dismissive of the value of the humanities. For the sake of even-handedness, and because it amuses me, here’s a quote from Dirac: “In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it’s the exact opposite.”

* Just a note to say that when I wrote this, Dawkins hadn’t yet published The God Delusion; he did write articles about atheism but was primarily known as a writer about evolutionary theory.

Nature Other

Learning algebra

Something Kevin said sent me towards an article in the Washington Post about the uselessness of algebra to normal life, and the ensuing mouth-frothing response in the comments over at Pharyngula.

Two things I’d say. It rather makes me despair to see people talk about algebra as though it was advanced mathematics. Algebra is hardly even a branch of mathematics; it’s just a notational tool to allow you to move beyond arithmetic. It’s not quite true to say that it’s impossible to do any maths more advanced than arithmetic without algebra; the ancient Greeks managed without, for example. But it’s certainly completely central to the way maths is done today. Unless you think that high school should be satisfied with achieving no more than basic literacy and numeracy, passing a one-year course in basic algebra is not an outrageously high standard to hold for high-school graduation. Depending what you think a high-school diploma should stand for, it might even be an outrageously low standard. Judging by the article, this girl who couldn’t graduate because she didn’t pass algebra actually didn’t have basic numeracy skills, which means both that she shouldn’t be qualifying high school and that the school system has competely failed her.

The other point I’d make about the ‘I’ve never needed to use maths since I left school’ argument is that we all forget a large proprtion of what we learned in school unless we use it frequently. I did maths to quite an advanced level at school; I did two maths A-levels, which, for non-UK readers, meant I got as far as complex numbers, basic calculus, polar functions, basic mechanics, some statistics including things like Poisson distributions.

I can’t actually do any of that maths anymore. But having done it does mean that I’m not intimidated by equations; that I know what a standard deviation is, and a tangent and a function, and what binary numbers are, and what calculus is useful for so on. It’s not enough to enable me to do anything much, but understanding the concepts makes it easier to read popular science books, for example, or to make some kind of judgement about how useful a statistic is.

I also think that as a result, I’m much more comfortable than I would otherwise have been doing the kind of maths that *does* come up in everyday life. It’s good that schools teach a bit more than the students will really need, because hopefully that means the important suff will have a chance to really get properly absorbed.