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Science and Culture

October 27, 2010

Being in Liverpool there is a debate to be had about what is ‘culture’. I was reading Phil Redmonds blog about his suggestion that culture could be defined as ‘arts, literature and shared lifestyle’. Then goes on to comment about scientists….me included who said ‘hey wait a minute’ we think that science has its place in culture….

The British writer and scientist CP Snow talked about the split between scientists and othersin 1963…..”I believe the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two groups. When I say the intellectual life, I mean to include also a large part of our practical life, because I should be the last person to suggest the two can at the deepest level be distinguished … Literary intellectuals at one pole – at the other scientists … Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension – sometimes (particularly among the young) hostitility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding … This polarisation is sheer loss to us all. To us as people, and to our society. It is at the same time practical and intellectual and creative loss, and I repeat that it is false to imagine that those three considerations are clearly separable.”

I came across this paper the other day that addresses this issue:
Paul Grobstein. Revisiting Science in Culture: Science as Story Telling and Story Revising.

Journal of Research Practice
Volume 1, Issue 1, Article M1, 2005.
I have taken the liberty of quoting the introduction below-
Both “scientists” and “non-scientists” have a tendency to regard science and culture as different and parallel (if not competing) things, between which one can (or must) choose. In the story I will offer here, science is not conceived of as an alternative (either neutral or competitive) to culture but rather as a central component of a human culture more broadly understood–a component that existed long before the term ‘science’ was coined and will long outlast current understandings of science as a specialized or privileged activity that can be engaged in only by members of a self-perpetuating professional community.

My objective in developing a story of science as story is not to attack science but rather to encourage the same kind of critical examination of our understandings of science that science itself promotes in its examination of other phenomena. A critical perspective associated with the practice of science as story telling is, I will argue, the source of science’s demonstrable power. That perspective, turned on science itself, is needed for the continuing productive evolution of the distinctive and valued role science plays in human culture.

The needed critique of science is necessarily also a rethinking of the role of science in culture and hence of culture itself. It cannot be achieved without a very substantial blurring of the borders between those who think of themselves as scientists and those who think of themselves as something else. And the rethinking will, I believe, result in a further blurring of those borders in a way needed to make science an even more important contributor to the human culture, of which it is a part.”

Paul suggests and I agree, that we need to blur the boundaries between science and other disciplines and what better place to start than for scientists such as myself to meet exchange and collaborate with artists to produce new work that crosses and bridges the borders. Liverpool is a good place to do this, it has the edginess and otherness that makes these sorts of alliances more natural.

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