Tuesday, May 26, 2009

David Dickson leads me to think about culture

David Dickson has an editorial in SciDev.Net on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of C.P. Snow's essay on the two cultures. That essay focused on the divide between the scientific and technological culture and the culture of the literary intelligentsia in Europe and the United States. I tend to think of his point in simplistic terms -- too many people who saw themselves as intellectuals didn't know anything about science and didn't understand modern (or any) technology. I think that point was and is valid.

Dickson points out that Snow had "originally intended to emphasise how a lack of access to science and technology was separating the rich from the poor.'
Both the strength and continued value of Snow's analysis lies in his advocacy that all societies, both rich and poor, should recognise and accept science as an important strand of their culture. It is this idea, for example, that underpins recent efforts in developed and developing countries alike to promote the public's understanding of science.
The shortcomings of this scientific determinism became apparent in the decades following Snow's lecture. In that period, political discourse became increasingly centred not on science's promises, but on its unacceptable side-effects — from nuclear weapons and environmental pollution to global warming and climate change.
It occurs to me that the "two culture" approach owes more to our dialectic tradition than to reality.

Today we talk about the culture wars, based on disagreements between two subcultures on issues such as the teaching of evolution and stem cell research. We also focus on tensions between Muslim and Christian communities. World War II and the Cold War may be seen in terms of a clash of democratic and faschist/authoritarian cultures. Oscar Lewis wrote about the "culture of poverty" implicitly contrasting it with dominant culture or culture that would promote economic success. There is a history within development theory of contrasting "modern" and "traditional" cultures.

It may be useful to think of culture in terms of memes. Many memes make up a culture. Individual memes arise, are diffused, and die out. The result is populations of countries that are not homogeneous culturally as well as cultural gradients rather than cultural boundaries. Framing the discussion in terms of memes leads one to question on the utility of individual memes, how acceptance of memes may be changed, and the degree to which mutual reinforcing memes cluster together.

Having said that, it seems to me that it may be useful to consider the sources of authority in cultural dialog. Scientific culture sees authority as rooted in replicated controlled observations, while technological culture sees authority as rooted in the functioning of applications of technological knowledge. This pragmatic view of authority may be contrasted with a view that authority is based on religious revelation or tradition.

Not surprisingly, in a blog focusing on knowledge for development, I have a strong preference towards observation based authority. At the least it seems to me that everyone should accept that if observation does not agree with belief, and observations are replicated to preclude observational error, then beliefs should be examined and my be seen as mininterpretations of the bases of belief.

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