Culture and the scientific renaissance

Book review: Science Is Culture: Conversations at the New Intersection of Science + Society Edited by Adam Bly

Price: US$10.87; NZ$26.99
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial; Original edition (October 12, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0061836540
ISBN-13: 978-0061836541

Adam Bly is the founder of Seed Media Group. He created the on-line magazine, Seed, and other web sites to capture the 21st century scientific renaissance. But at the same time these have had to counter the antiscientific movement which has been trying to prevent this cultural shift.

Bly suggests that despite the obvious success of science and its benefit to humanity this cultural shift has yet to be bedded in “We are on the cusp of this renaissance, not in the midst of it. For all that science has contributed to our lives in the past half-century, it hasn’t yet universally changed the way we think. And it won’t unless we understand and address why.”

Despite widespread denial of a science-religion conflict Bly suggests that this conflict is a reason the scientific renaissance has yet to flourish. “Because science and religion are at war, embroiled in a battle that has not strengthened either side; it has served only to strengthen the bases, not convert the masses. (And the base for religion is a lot bigger than the base for science!). That’s not to say the “culture war” has not been an intellectually useful exercise; it has. But religion will not overturn science and science will not overturn religion; both are too fundamentally rooted in society.”

This book aims at strengthening then appreciation of science, without destroying religious. He suggests we educate children “to embrace the scientific method. . . . . . We should be reminded always that we have the right to question everything – that changing our minds with new evidence is a virtue not a cause for condemnation.” As he sees it “science should precede faith but not seek to overturn it.”

Aesthetic appreciation of science

And part of this appreciation is aesthetic. Quoting Richard Feynman’s response to an artist friend who criticised the dullness of scientific investigation: “A science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

So the discussions explain these aspects of the cultural role of science. In general he has paired scientists with non-scientists to explore ideas of interest to them and to all of us.

  • Biologist Edward O. Wilson and philosopher Daniel C. Dennett discuss the history of science and philosophy, the study of consciousness and religion, and approaches to ethics. (“Evolutionary Philosophy”).
  • Novelist Rebecca Goldstein discusses consciousness, gossip, story telling and the pursuit of knowledge with psychologist Steven Pinker. (“The Problems of Consciousness”).
  • Marc Hauser, an evolutionary psychologist, and documentary film-maker Errol Morris discuss the science of morality in “Morality”
  • Activist film-maker Laurie David discusses climate issues with Stephen Schneider in “Climate politics.”
  • Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers and linguist Noam Chomsky discuss their common interests – the study of deceit and self-deception in “War and Deceit”.
  • Historian Peter Galison discusses models of the universe and its origins with theoretical physicist Paul Steinhardt in “The Physics of infinity.”
  • Artist Natalie Jereijenko discusses progress, the nature of science and how to think like a scientist with physicist Lawrence Krauss (“Who Makes science?”).
  • Anthropologist Spencer Wells and writer Will Self discuss the evolutionary results of urbanisation and what it means to be human (“What is Human?).

Worth following up

And that is only 16 of the participants – 8 discussions. Altogether there are 22 such discussions. With an average length of 15 pages each discussion is short enough to read in a single sitting. And as a collection the reader is free to delve into the book at any point, selecting the discussion of interest at the time. This makes it easy to read. But the prominence and original thinking of the participants also make these discussions stimulating and thought-provoking.

The Goldstein – Pinker discussion motivated me to buy Rebecca Goldstein’s novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.” And I enjoyed it.

I suspect other readers will also use this collection as an introduction and will follow up authors in a similar way.

So a great book for the intelligent browser. And as a bonus – each discussion is illustrated by full-face, black-and-white portraits of the participants.

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