Two Cultures or None?, Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond

Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond

Université de Nice



The best way to understand the situation of science today is to go back over the road we have taken in the past decades. When I recall myself as a young researcher thirty years ago, I am amazed by how optimistic we all were. We had no doubt that science would soon solve every serious theoretical problem facing disciplines at the forefront of scientific research, like particle physics, nor did we question its ability to find a solution to the serious material problems hampering mankind (it was the time of Nixon’s “war on cancer”). We were convinced that scientific development would proceed indefinitely, drawing on ever greater human and material resources. Today, we have to admit that such expectations were in fact delusions. Science suffers from a serious loss of credit, both in a literal and figurative sense: while its political and economic support is weakening, its cultural reputation is under attack.  Meanwhile, the triumphant self-satisfaction of institutional scientific discourse has given way to anxious predictions of catastrophe, which are probably just as naive as the former. Faced with the uncertainty that threatens the future of science, we blame either the politicians (“because they do not — no longer? — understand the economic role of basic research”), or the public (“for surrendering to a new wave of anti-science and irrationalism which questions the very role of scientific knowledge in our culture”).


Thus, we more and more frequently hear passionate pleas for a wider and more consistent development of scientific culture (or, in Anglo-Saxon parlance, public understanding of science), calling on the media, the educational system and researchers to play a more active role to this end. This endeavour represents progress over the past, when scientists felt that leaving the laboratory to address laymen was a dereliction of duty and left the responsibility of sharing out knowledge to retired academic “mandarins” and media professionals, while nonetheless complaining about the perverse effect of poorly controlled popularisation. Yet, the new stance is not free from ambiguities. My following remarks will highlight two of them.


First, as the expression “public understanding” clearly shows, we act as if the problem was merely related to the understanding of knowledge. In other words, we want to believe that if the public does not approve of, or support, the development of science as in the past, this is due to the fact that they do not understand it. Yet, we should probably and more wisely acknowledge that the question is not so much about knowledge as about power. Surely, our fellow citizens would like to understand genetic manipulations or nuclear energy, though they would rather be in a position to do something about them by choosing the directions of research and exerting their decision-making power over the development of the technosciences. In other terms the problem, which goes well beyond the framework of this essay and underlies this whole conference, concerns nothing else but the possibility of extending democracy to scientific and technical choices, which, we have to admit, bypass current democratic procedures. By posing this strictly political question, we go beyond the framework of the “public understanding of science”, since the problem here is not only the sharing of knowledge but first and foremost the sharing of power.


My second remark is the following: in using the expression “public understanding of science”, we automatically divide humanity into the “ignorant” lay public, on the one hand, and “us”, the knowledgeable scientists, on the other. Yet, one of the main features of our times is precisely that such a dichotomy does not exist anymore. We scientists are not basically different from the public, except for the very narrow field of our specialisation. Faced with problems like genetic manipulation or cloning, for instance, I am exactly — or almost exactly — in the same position as the layman. Even in the field of nuclear energy, while my competence as a physicist certainly allows me to appreciate the dangers of radioactivity, it does not shed any light on the risks entailed by nuclear power plants — which have more to do with plumbing and concrete than with the structure of the atomic nucleus. Such a misrepresentation of reality, which is a legacy of the 19th century division of people into scientists, holders of a general and universal knowledge, and the ignorant and undifferentiated public, to whom knowledge had to be conveyed, should be abandoned. It is high time we scientists showed a little more modesty and admitted that our knowledge is really very limited.


Indeed, in a very deep sense we do not even understand our own science: not only do we master only a very limited part of its content, but we also have no knowledge at all of the context in which it is produced. Nowadays, scientists — the actors in research — have a much too poor understanding not only of the knowledge they produce but also of its social framework. Here looms the question of “the two cultures”. George Porter tells us[1] that, in spite of differing interpretations, Snow[2] did not look with favour on the separation he saw emerging between the two cultures. On the contrary, he felt that this state of affairs was highly deplorable. Yet, I believe that Snow’s initial thesis is both not very convincing and still too optimistic. Not very convincing because the very idea of the existence of two cultures is contradictory: the word culture can only be thought of in the singular; like the French Republic. It is “one and indivisible”.


What, in fact, could we call a fragmented culture if not a non-culture? The distinguishing feature of culture is precisely its ability to express and develop organic links between all the dimensions of human activity. This is why modern science indeed belonged to culture at its birth from and within the European civilisation, almost four centuries ago – as Paolo Galluzzi reminds us[3]. Yet, after remaining organically linked to culture for a period, science has since evolved towards full autonomy and is now completely alienated. In other words, the point I am trying to make is that today there is no “scientific culture” anymore. The problem is thus much more serious than that entailed by a simple quest for more efficient means to disseminate a scientific culture supposedly owned by scientists and that only needs to be conveyed to the lay public. The problem is thus the (re)insertion of science into culture, and this requires a profound change in the very way science is done.


Asserting that there is no longer culture in science has quite a provocative impact. In order to accept such stance, one must recognise that of the four centuries that make up the history of modern science, this century has seen unprecedented developments. In order not to sound too abstract, and since I cannot develop a more detailed analysis, I will limit myself to giving a few examples which, I believe, are emblematic of the situation.


Let us start with the practice of science as seen from the inside.


1) The end of the linear model. The classical belief that science develops in a linear fashion, following a cumulative and natural progress of knowledge, is now radically questioned. During the past decades, we have witnessed surprising events of historical hysteresis, such as the revival of interest in areas of research which we had come to consider as completely closed. Brought up with the idea that only subnuclear physics or astrophysics were subjects of interest or prestige, physicists of my generation were greatly surprised to witness the revival of a discipline which only shortly before had been shelved as “19th century science”, and thus completely obsolete. I am thinking of fluid mechanics and, more generally, non-linear dynamics, which are undoubtedly among the most active and interesting fields in physics research today. We had to rediscover scientific developments dating back almost a century, developments that we had completely forgotten about, and reread authors, like Poincaré, who did not belong to our professional background any more. Similar phenomena have occurred in other sectors of research as well. To remain in the realm of physics, though, the recent revival of the philosophical and epistemological debate on quantum physics — which was very active in the 1920s — provides a similar case in point: jumping back over half a century during which such debate was considered closed, we have had to rediscover sources that had too quickly been shelved as obsolete. Clearly, the end of the linear model of research progress poses serious problems for the scientific community, since it makes obsolete all researcher training models based on studying contemporary science alone.


2) Professional dequalification. I believe it can be reasonably argued that the average quality of scientific research today is lower than in the past. If anything, it shows disquieting methodological aberrations. Looking at just some of the events that have appeared in the papers in the last few years — I am thinking for instance of “cold fusion” and “water memory” — shows that these aberrations are not individual epiphenomena, the weird result of local slip-ups but, quite the opposite, the symptoms of a generalised tendency. Those of us who act as referees for scientific journals are well aware of the poor methodological, experimental and conceptual quality of articles submitted for publication.


3) Loss of relevance. Even more serious than the increasing mediocrity of scientific production is its loss of relevance for the near future. It is highly instructive for researchers to take a look at the contents of the (best) journals in their field of research published thirty years ago, and ask themselves what kind of posterity each article has had. We have to admit that most papers have not left any interesting legacy. The problem is not so much with the individual contributions of researchers, but rather with the subjects of research themselves. I realise that some of these themes, while they are neglected today, might experience a resurgence of interest in the years to come. Nonetheless, the vast majority of today’s scientific production is on the way to losing its meaning, if for no other reason than its lack of visibility. This conclusion is supported by experimental evidence: in analysing citation rates, specialists in scientific bibliography (see, for instance, the publications of the Institute of Scientific Information) have shown that at least two thirds of scientific articles are never quoted (except of course by the authors themselves in their reports or their other articles). As to articles which are actually cited, their visibility is quite short-lived: bibliographies of both primary (research) and secondary (synthesis) scientific literature go back an average of four-five years, rarely more; beyond this limit, there is no memory. It is not clear, on the other hand, how the change under way in publication forms and information storage could make up for such apparently unavoidable obsolescence.


Yet, the most serious aspect of scientific deculturisation is to be found outside scientific research, at the interface between the scientific world proper and society at large. Here again I am going to give just a few examples, which can be easily generalised.


1) The contaminated blood scandal. Two or three years ago, France went through a very heated social, political and legal debate triggered by the so-called contaminated blood scandal, and the controversy is not over. As you may know, French health agencies were found guilty of not fully exerting their power of control over the quality of blood, which resulted in the transmission of AIDS through blood transfusions to several patients, haemophiliacs in particular. While very intense, the legal, medical and scientific debate stemming from this scandal remained very superficial, due to a lack of a deeper historical knowledge of the problem. For this is indeed a very old problem, as is shown in a remarkable book by Marie-Angèle Hermitte[4] analysing the long-standing relationship between blood transfusions and legal experience. As the book points out, the first lawsuit against doctors for the results of blood transfusion dates back to 1668: more than three hundred years ago! Shortly after Harvey discovered blood circulation, doctors tried the transfusion of animal blood to man. Needless to say, such experiments generally turned out badly, due to obvious immunological problems, but also to poor control of infection. With justified caution, in 1670 the Parisian Parliament prohibited doctors and surgeons from practising blood transfusions. Other interesting cases related to blood transfusion remind us of the AIDS problem today. At the end of the last century, for instance, blood transfusions were practised in more aseptic conditions, with better final results. Yet, they often resulted in the transmission of syphilis, providing us with another instance in which a sexually-transmitted disease was indeed spread by blood transfusion, bringing about several lawsuits and the establishement of a fascinating body of jurisprudence. When studied in detail, such cases are rich in complex information about the role of justice in relation to research, and about the ideology of the relations between science and society. Undoubtedly, had the scientists, civil servants, doctors, politicians and lawyers involved in the contemporary debate had a better knowledge of the history of blood and law, we would have been able to better tackle the problem, if not prevent it from happening altogether.


2) The science wars. Recently, there has been much talk in France and the English-speaking world about the science wars, the open conflicts that, revealed and amplified by the “Sokal affair”, have set several “hard” scientists against sociologists and science historians. A number of physicists — including the eminent Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg — have taken part in this dispute with surprising ferocity. Quite obviously, the Sokal “hoax” has given them the opportunity — a long-sought chance, one is tempted to say — to express their violent rejection of any attempt at studying science as a social activity, within its political, economic and ideological framework. For such scientists, these studies show nothing but unacceptable “relativism”, which undermines the very validity of scientific knowledge. Yet, when analysing their arguments, one is struck by the basic naiveté with which these experts — certainly quite prominent in their own fields — treat social and human sciences, or even philosophy and history. When criticising social scientists for making excessive metaphorical use of the discoveries of certain “hard” sciences, “hard” scientists — even though sometimes justified in their specific criticism — often show a misunderstanding of the specific nature and methods of sociological, historical and philosophical research that is far greater than the misunderstanding of physics they criticise their colleagues for. It is the old story of the pot and the kettle… This example quite dramatically shows the basic lack of culture of the scientific world. And the situation is all the more serious since “hard” sciences have an economic and, above all, ideological weight which, today more than ever, needs a critical counterweight based on the development of social and human sciences, whose disqualification would prove very dangerous.


3) Unkept promises. And while we are talking about culture, and therefore memory, it is surely appropriate to look back at past decades remembering the promises made by or in the name of scientists. We physicists have a certain advantage over other researchers, in particular over the biologists who are now at the forefront of research. The golden age of physics is far behind us and we can see things from a distance (old aristocrats, as the prince of Salina in the Leopard by Tomasi di Lampedusa knew well, are more lucid than young bourgeois…). In particular, it is interesting to review what physics promised in the 1950s and 1960s and then trace a parallel between declarations then made by physicists and those made today by biologists. We promised nuclear power would provide free energy for all. Basing their opinion on experts’ views, popular magazines of the time seriously predicted that before the end of the century everyone would have a small nuclear reactor in their own home and car (sic), and that large-scale thermonuclear fusion would be mastered. Obviously, anyone can see we are not even close to achieving these goals. As to biology, if we review the claims made at the end of the 1960s, with Nixon’s war against cancer, we are forced to realise that thirty years later reality has once again evolved quite differently from predictions. Some caution would thus be advisable when talking about the much advertised future prospects of gene therapies and other bioengineering miracles. Reflecting on the past could help us to be a little more modest and stop us from making rash promises, which might in turn change the attitude of the public. It is rather thoughtlessly that scientists complain because the public does not understand science, reacts badly to innovations and shows “irrational” fears are quite superficial indeed. They forget that society remembers promises made in the past, especially when they are not kept.


The present situation calls for a radical change both in scientific practice and in the scientific profession. I would remark in passing that the word “researcher” is quite new; in the past there were only “scholars”, whose activity consisted not only in doing research, but also in teaching, disseminating and applying science. It was only during this century that researchers have emerged as people exclusively dedicated to the production of new knowledge, and therefore free from the problem of teaching it or finding applications for it. This evolution in the organisation of intellectual work repeats, with the same results, earlier developments in industry: specialisation, fragmentation, hierarchisation.


After a few decades of surprising productivity gains (I am deliberately using the language of economists) we are now reaching a phase when the counterproductive effects of the division of labour have become obvious. There is therefore an urgent need to reunite the different tasks that make up the work of a scientist, so that each one has to share knowledge as well as to produce it. This implies training scientists so that they can be researchers and also carry out these other tasks. Besides, we must make sure that we do not confuse the sharing of knowledge with the promotion of the image of science. Indeed, many of the initiatives for the dissemination of science taken in France or even at a European level, though perfectly praiseworthy at the outset, end up taking an essentially apologetic propagandist turn. But we cannot put science back in the heart of culture if we shun any critical perspective.


The first step is to define new ways of training researchers. Paradoxically such new approaches could be defined on the basis of old practices from other sectors. For how can we train new professional scientists without providing them with a basic understanding of the history of science — and above all of their discipline — as well as of philosophy, sociology and the economics of science? The tasks they are currently faced with in their profession as well as the social responsibilities they can no longer avoid demand that they have a broader conception of scientific activity. We cannot go on behaving as if science were different from art, philosophy or literature; that is, as if it could be taught independently of its history.


Defending the idea that science must be put back in the heart of culture and that, to this end, it must come to terms with its history, might expose us to the accusation of being a devotee of the past. Yet, having an active interest in the past does not necessarily imply nostalgia; quite the opposite. If we want to take new initiatives, with new objectives, we need to gain a better understanding of our history. The example given by Paolo Galluzzi about the great Encyclopedia from the end of 18th century is fairly emblematic: right in the middle of a new scientific revolution — involving chemistry — its main supporters had to reconsider the history of their discipline. There is nothing backward-looking in such an interest in history: quite the contrary, it expresses a desire to take stock of the situation, to understand where one is in order to progress more lucidly.


It might be too late. There is no certainty — and I do not say this lightly — that we will be able to make the necessary changes. Indeed, history shows examples of great scientific civilisations coming to an end: Greek science only lasted a few centuries, the great Arab science, to which we owe so much, lasted a few centuries and then stopped, letting others take up the reins. We even had great civilisations where science as we know it was not recognised and esteemed as a fundamentally important activity. In this respect, a comparison between the Roman and Greek civilisations shows a completely different relationship with knowledge, as does a comparison between the Indian and the Chinese societies. Thus, nothing proves that in the centuries to come our civilisation, which is now global, will keep science on the same footing it has held for the past few centuries. It may happen that science becomes so efficient (the so-called “technoscience”) that its practical efficiency will gain the upper hand over its intellectual dimension. Such a development is perfectly possible, even plausible given the present situation. If we reject this prospect and insist in keeping the speculative dimension of the scientific endeavour, safeguarding its nature as a great adventure of the human mind, then we will have to change direction in order to remain in line with the direction traced out over the last few hundred years. I believe Europe is fairly well placed to do so. A specific feature of European culture is its ready access to a still fertile past, unlike other civilisations across the Atlantic or the Pacific. Such fertility and complexity appear evident whenever one visits a city like Rome, where the statue of Giordano Bruno towering over the Campo dei Fiori square lives side by side with a church like Santa Maria degli Angeli. Giordano Bruno was burnt alive by the Inquisition in 1600. After only a century, though, in 1700, the Roman Church commissioned the drawing of a great sun-dial on the floors of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Since the meridian line was the basic instrument of astronomy, this proves the historical complexity of the relations between science and society. The same can be seen by walking in Prague, where you can cross Kepler, Boltzmann and Einstein one after the other, or around Paris, where you can go from the tomb of Descartes in Saint-Germain des Prés to the Curies’ laboratory at Sainte-Geneviève through the …École Polytechnique, the Panthéon with Foucault’s pendulum. For Europeans, scientific culture is not an abstract and distant concept. It is right there. Do we dare revive this beauty just fallen asleep?


This article is based on a lecture given at the Euroscientia Conference, Rome, 1997, which has been published in “Science and technology awareness in Europe: new insights” EUR-OP, Luxembourg 1998.