Column: Can good manners, and good science, help bring us together?

  • Frame-breakers smash a loom in Britain in opposition to the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution in this 1812 illustration. Wikimedia Commons

  • Bill Nichols. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 1/8/2021 10:10:30 PM
Modified: 1/8/2021 10:10:15 PM

You have probably heard of Donald Trump’s plans to skip and, if possible, upstage the inauguration of his successor, Joe Biden. Years of tweeted lies and insults have not prepared us for this affront to proper comportment. Maybe Democrats in the House will sponsor legislation requiring presidential candidates to complete a year of study in an accredited finishing school.

Back in 1976, I published in The American Scholar an attempt to calm an academic debate that also featured bad manners. My essay, “Skeptics and Believers: The Science-Humanities Debate,” did not smooth tempestuous seas at the time. But now that a version of the old debate has moved into our public sphere, it might make sense to try again.

The Believers in my essay were confident, polite defenders of science and technology. The Skeptics were often rude about where some of this new knowledge and power might lead us. I had tried unsuccessfully to join the debate as a Skeptic, which led to my essay.

In a faculty seminar at Denison University, we’d been considering what the Apollo program might tell us about the origin of the moon and, ultimately, the universe. I asked if we might want to devote some time to considering the political and military implications of the Apollo program, too.

As I put it in 1976, the physicist who led our seminar said, “without even a hint of rancor,” such matters did not interest him, and he would not participate. I’ve been blessed by forgetting exactly what I said, but it was not polite. Our seminar went on to talk about the Apollo program as “pure” science. We had no science-humanities debate.

Disagreements about science, technology and the humanities arose repeatedly in 19th century England. Early examples, written during the economic and social upheaval of the First Industrial Revolution, are Thomas Carlyle’s 1829 essay Signs of the Times, and Timothy Walker’s response two years later, Defence of Mechanical Philosophy.

Carlyle claimed society should guard against acting as though the powerful machines that grew from scientific discoveries were the ultimate measure of human possibility. Walker’s response is a statement of faith: “We do entertain an unfaltering belief in the permanent and continued improvement of the human race, and we consider no small portion of it, whether in relation to the body or the mind, as the result of mechanical invention.”

But Walker doesn’t really take hold of Carlyle’s sensible claim that technologies can bring us something less than unalloyed human progress, requiring us to judge carefully their impact on our lives. He focuses, instead, on the shrill and angry language Carlyle uses.

The measured, confident tone of Believers and the angry language of Skeptics feature in this debate as it runs on into the 20th century, reaching a crescendo in an exchange often called the “Snow-Leavis Controversy,” which began at Cambridge University in 1959.

C.P. Snow was a trained scientist who had become a novelist, and his 1959 Cambridge lecture, “The Two Cultures,” called out the scientific ignorance of literary intellectuals. To establish his authority for doing so, he describes his own background: “By training I was a scientist: by vocation I was a writer. That was all. It was a piece of luck, if you like, that arose through coming from a poor home.”

In 1962, the British literary critic F.R. Leavis responded to Snow in a lecture, also at Cambridge, much of which was a personal attack on Snow marked by brilliant — though unmannerly — invective that was probably damaging to both of their reputations. (One example, as reported by the Columbia Spectator: Leavis refers to Snow as “portentously ignorant ... intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be ... utterly without a glimmer of what creative literature is, or why it matters.”)

What began as a scholarly debate among “elites” has recently entered a grassroots world, where celebrity sometimes establishes authority. Despite being an undergraduate science major, I was a Skeptic for many years, drawn to the warnings of Carlyle, Leavis and others. What gradually made a Skeptical Believer out of me was the growing importance of modern ecology, which tries to understand how everything in nature, including human civilization, is interrelated. Humility and uncertainty seem to me built into ecological science, an awareness that nobody can ever fully understand everything.

When ecologists and others began to warn about climate change, they had me. What they were saying seemed based in science, increasingly visible to non-scientists, and consistent with warnings from Skeptics like Thomas Carlyle and our own Henry David Thoreau, who worried about our human impact on the rest of nature. Republicans who turned their back on the science of human-caused climate change well before Donald Trump moved into the White House were not true Believers in my book.

Then their response to the COVID-19 pandemic revealed Republicans are not all Skeptics either. True, some ignored scientific advice on masks and distancing when it violated their sense of individual freedom. But many were immediately enthusiastic about the vaccines being developed by scientists. And when Trump contracted the virus, he turned to the latest medical science rather than nostrums he’d recommended to others.

Many have tried to understand what holds the Trump base together, beyond fear of their tweeting leader. We’ve heard about white grievance, anger at educated “elites” and fear of cultural decline, irreligious tyranny, “socialist” economics and the “breakdown of law and order.” Without denying the influence of any of those fears, I wonder if bad manners might be a glue that helps to hold them all together.

Refusing to attend your successor’s inauguration might be more than evidence of childish immaturity. It might be a way of telling millions of followers that good manners are a weakness when you’re dealing with a snooty, educated elite. It might be a strategy for keeping politically powerful fear and hatred alive. And it might help a bungling businessman raise money.

It’s reassuring to know President-elect Joe Biden plans to listen carefully to Dr. Anthony Fauci, who seems forever patient and polite. Both of them are sure to remind us of the healing power of science and, maybe too, the healing power of good manners in a society nearly torn apart by rancorous charges and counter-accusations.

Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at Nichols@Denison.edu.




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