Examples? Pundits have depicted the euro zone as a Procrustean bed, appropriate since Greece reclines at the epicenter of the crisis. U.S. tax, immigration, foreign and energy policies have all been, at one time or the other, appropriately or not, characterized as Procrustean beds. Like most clichés, Procrustes and his sturdy bed show up whenever someone, usually a bureaucrat, starts talking about standards -- tests, audits, tracking, set asides -- or anything anyone doesn't want to do, like paying taxes or wearing burkas. But for all of that, there's a deep tension between how we measure and analyze the world and how we actually live in it. In 1959 C.P. Snow, a now deceased British physicist and novelist, gave a lecture (which students of my generation, Procrustean victims all, invariably had to pretend to read) called "The Two Cultures." Snow bemoaned the fact that literary types didn't understand -- refused to master -- science and that scientists didn't read their Dickens, thus creating in that age of Sputnik, a gap between the two great fields of human thought. This would lead to no good, declared soon-to-be Baron Snow, blaming schools and teachers. (He specifically knocked the British fixation on Greek and Roman; he thought Germans and Americans were getting it right.) He, of course, was the jowly synthesis to his own antitheses.
Since Snow's day, the kind of math necessary to penetrate hard sciences like physics has flowed into what were once considered social sciences, most notably economics, and even onto the shingled shores of biology. Today, no one becomes a scientist or engineer, not to say an economist, unless they can handle the kind of serious math to which calculus is a mere soupçon. Combine that math with computers, and you've got quantitative finance, not to say modern engineering. Obviously, much can be said about the powerful penetration of mathematical thinking into nature; though whether we (you, me, Snow) count as part of nature is a philosophical puzzler the quantitative gang regards as irrelevant. But the omnipresence of complex math, embedded in fantastic technologies and systems that, alas, occasionally seize up, has accentuated the gap between those who "understand" what's happening and those who don't have a clue, don't care or would rather make it up themselves. In some cases, such as global finance, the former is vanishingly rare. The tools outstrip our ability to comprehend, or to even explain it to ourselves in a common language. This complexity creates opacity -- and the belief that somewhere, say on a Swiss mountaintop, an all-seeing elite gathers around a fondue pot.
Baron Snow was a clumsy novelist, but he was on the right track: Many quantitatively skilled folks still don't get around to reading "Bleak House," can't write and dismiss anything that can't be jammed into Procrustean models. But he didn't fully foresee the challenge to language, and through language politics, that advancing science and mathematics would pose. Physics has long struggled to explain spooky quantum principles without math, though it's surprising how many physicists have labored to capture it for a general (if tiny) audience in prose. Economic policymakers now face the same problem, though the issues are much more personal and political. Jobs. Risk. Wealth. Inequality. It doesn't help that many economists have opted for models that reduce souls to utilitarian inputs and outputs. It doesn't help that illiteracy about basic science, including economics, grows. But the danger remains that these two cultures -- science and the humanities, math and language, technocracy and democracy -- threaten to turn everyday failures into a clash of civilizations.
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