For decades the sciences and the humanities have fought for knowledge supremacy. Both sides are wrong-headed, by Massimo Pigliucci,
Whenever we try to make an inventory of humankind’s store of knowledge, we stumble into an ongoing battle between what CP Snow called ‘the two cultures’. On one side are the humanities, on the other are the sciences (natural and physical), with social science and philosophy caught somewhere in the middle. This is more than a turf dispute among academics. It strikes at the core of what we mean by human knowledge.
Snow brought this debate into the open with his essay The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, published in 1959. He started his career as a scientist and then moved to the humanities, where he was dismayed at the attitudes of his new colleagues. ‘A good many times,’ he wrote, ‘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 the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?’
That was more than half a century ago. If anything, the situation has got worse. Throughout the 1990s, postmodernist, deconstructionist and radical feminist authors (the likes of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Bruno Latour and Sandra Harding) wrote all sorts of nonsense about science, clearly without understanding what scientists actually do. The feminist philosopher Harding once boasted: ‘I doubt that in our wildest dreams we ever imagined we would have to reinvent both science and theorising itself’. That’s a striking claim given the dearth of novel results arising from feminist science. The last time I checked, there were no uniquely feminist energy sources on the horizon.
In order to satirise this kind of pretentiousness, in 1996 the physicist Alan Sokal submitted a paper to the postmodernist journal Social Text. He called it ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’. There is no such thing as a hermeneutics of quantum gravity, transformative or not, and the paper consisted entirely of calculated nonsense. Nevertheless, the journal published it. The moral, Sokal concluded, was that postmodern writing on science depended on ‘radical-sounding assertions’ that can be given ‘two alternative readings: one as interesting, radical, and grossly false; the other as boring and trivially true’.