David Brooks and "Scientific Concepts"

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I know, I know: another David Brooks column? After my last stab at Brooks' popularization efforts - which received a bit of positive feedback - I've been keeping my eye on his column space (from the other side of NYT's pay-wall) to see if the issues I highlighted might resurface. They've continued unabated on his blog, but he seemed to turn back to politics in his column - until last Monday.

The post is called "Tools for Thinking," and its similar in many ways to his "Palooza" posts in that it's more of a grab-bag of recent goings-on in the sciences than a coherent expression of Brooks' own thoughts. As I emphasized in my last post, I don't necessarily think this is a bad approach in principle, though in Brooks' case I wanted to think about (a) why he's increasingly reaching into the cognitive and social sciences, (b) what kind of "popularizer" this makes him, and (c) how his social-scientific turn reflects the state of "science and society" in the States.

Brooks' "Tools for Thinking" are drawn from a recent symposium of the Edge World Question Center. As many of you will know, Edge.org and its founder John Brockman have been a major node of scientific intellectualism for decades. I'll try to say more about Edge in a subsequent post, since I think they're fascinating - among (many) other things, they've self-styled as a sort of gangster-superhero squad ("The Digerati"), complete with Watchmen-esque pseudonyms (Brockman is "The Connector" - seriously, check it out).

More germane for my purposes, though, are two points on "popularization" that connect Brooks and Edge, points that subtend his recent column on their latest "World Question" - which, for the record, was suggested by Steven Pinker, elicited over 150 "expert" responses, and reads as follows: "What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody's Cognitive Toolkit?" (More on the concepts underlying the question itself - things like "Scientific Concept," "Cognitive Toolkit," "Everybody" - in a minute.)

For now, as I said, there are two points I'd like to highlight:

(1) Brooks' "New Humanism" (unveiled here, though a feature of much of his recent writing and speaking, including his upcoming event at Harvard, on which I'll report in a week) has interesting parallels with Brockman's "Third Culture." Both insist optimistically on the power of the natural and human sciences to help define the nature and meaning of human life, and, in doing so, both are meant to be in dialogue with the humanities and, to a certain extent, a replacement for or at least reimagining of traditional religious frameworks for understanding and grounding human experience.

(2) The two men represent radically different "personae" at the boundary between expert science and the lay public (sorry to reify these categories, but I'll get back to them in a minute). Specifically, I think they come to the intersection from very different places. Brooks is an avowed moderate, defender of (certain) traditional values, and social-media skeptic; Brockman, on the other hand, is a self-styled "maverick," a member of the avant-garde and digital salonnière. These differences (a) reflect the variety of identities within science popularization and (b) manifest themselves in very different visions of what a humanistic movement based on scientific research might look like.

A word on Brooks' column and the Edge symposium on which it's based. In response to Pinker's question, 164 "scientific concepts" were contributed as candidate hammers and forceps for our "cognitive toolkits." The list is fascinating in its own right: the concepts, like their contributors, run the gamut from the expected ("Ecology") to the surprising ("Kayfabe," an insider-term in professional wrestling), with plenty of terrible neologisms and acronyms thrown in ("PERMA," "Pragmamorphism," and "The Dece(i)bo Effect" only begin to scratch the surface).

Brooks himself recommends a few - including "Path Dependence," "Einstellung Effect," and "Supervenience!" (emphasis original) - before reflecting on the theme of "emergence," which he suggests is itself an "emergent" property of the discussion. On his blog, he highlights a few more, recommending the symposium as a whole for what it reveals about "the epistemological climate in this subculture."

"Subculture"? A strange term, at first blush, for a laundry list of the world's most important social and human scientists, interspersed with successful authors, musicians, and "cultural impresarios." But I think he's captured something. What Brockman is proposing - his "third culture" - is not "science for the people," nor is it a movement in which anyone and everyone is encouraged to get involved. It's not even, as far as I can tell, a worldview - where Brooks hopes that "scientific concepts" might alter our everyday temper, Brockman - "the Connector" - is focused on (re-)fashioning a cultural elite - an avant-garde.

In his 1991 essay on "The Third Culture," he put it this way:
Throughout history, intellectual life has been marked by the fact that only a small number of people have done the serious thinking for everybody else. What we are witnessing is a passing of the torch from one group of thinkers, the traditional literary intellectuals, to a new group, the intellectuals of the emerging third culture.
He's following C.P. Snow, who in his "Two Cultures" lamented the “gulf of mutual incomprehension” between scientists and "literary intellectuals" while clearly siding with the scientists (a process of identity formation helped along by what was widely perceived as sneering treatment by F.R. Leavis, the beau ideal of "traditional literary intellectuals").

There's an important difference, though. While Snow's famous formulation was also meant to suggest a "third culture," that third way was aimed at a specific problem: what he called in the fourth part of his lecture "the rich and the poor." The divide between the sciences and the humanities was not, for Snow, a metaphysical pissing-match about who defined the meaning of human life - rather, it was about helping humans who were suffering from material wants in the real world.

How does this relate to Brockman and to Brooks? Well, both of the latter seem more concerned (to me) with "meaning," and their actions at the boundary between science and society - Brooks the columnist, Brockman the connector - suggest this preference. The two represent, in a certain sense, the two sides of TED, ideas broadcast on the web but presented at semi-private gatherings in California: Brooks is the leveler, distilling new ideas for consumption; Brockman is the peak-raiser, bringing bright minds together and driving things forward.

The difference, in terms of their respective "philosophies of popularization," is one of both ends and emphasis. Snow hoped to alleviate poverty, Brooks is trying to make science a part of our self-understanding, and Brockman wants to empower a (third-) cultural elite to do the same. Obviously they might each share portions of these visions - I'd be interested to hear Brockman respond to Brooks, for example - but I think the difference, especially between Brooks' ostensible populism and Brockman's seeming elitism, is a crucial one.

On the 50th anniversary of Snow's Lecture, Seed Magazine asked whether we were "beyond" the binary or not (video here). It's in this vein that I see both Brooks and Brockman operating - they both want to get past the divide, though in different ways and for different reasons. The question I'm left with - and this is to get back to some things we've been thinking about as a group - is, if there's to be a "third culture" that fuses traditionally scientific and humanistic ways of knowing, of whom is it comprised?

In his original formulation, Brockman named 23 "intellectuals" of the third culture. All are practicing academics: most are scientists, though a few are philosophers thereof. Apropos of recent discussions of the boundaries between both scholar and citizen, scientist and historian, and the relationship between the two, does demarcating such a group make sense? My take is that both Brooks and Brockman see themselves as integral to their vision of the "New Humanism"/"Third Culture," but it's unclear (to me) what language we might adopt to describe their positions relative to the knowledge they aggregate or enable.

Is the goal to raise the peaks and disseminate the results, or to raise the valleys and widen the conversation?

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