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‘The Two Cultures’: the division continues today

Corn at the market
Corn at the market

The Two Cultures in the Rede Lecture

In 1959, the writer C.P. Snow delivered the Rede lecture at Cambridge, titling it “The Two Cultures.” Snow was best known as a writer and novelist, but received an M.Sc. in chemistry from Leicester University and a Ph.D. in chemistry from Oxford in 1928.

He worked in the Cavendish Laboratory under Lord Rutherford, but after a setback in a paper on Vitamin A he had to recant, he turned to literature, writing a number of successful novels, with the first, Death Under Sail published in 1932.

Snow’s main point in his lecture is the vast gap between those in the sciences and those in the literary world:

Two polar groups: at one pole we have the literary intellectuals, who incidentally when no one was looking took to referring themselves as ‘intellectuals’ as if there were no others.[…] Literary intellectuals at one pole -- at the other scientists, and at the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension -- sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that even on the level of emotion, they can’t find much common ground.

Snow’s thesis was based on his own observations as a trained scientist who became a successful writer, and he gave examples of two circles of friends who could not really converse because of this vast gap. The literati and the scientists had different vocabularies, interests and manners of speaking that rendered them completely foreign to each other.

The lecture made such an impact that it was published as a booklet and referred to constantly. In fact at the beginning of my science career, professors were still discussing it, even in the US. Snow revisited his remarks four year later and acknowledged that there might be more than two cultures, or even two thousand cultures. It is plain that he had completely neglected the social sciences, including economics, in his analysis. Likewise, government and politics were omitted. But, if you simply divide people into scientists and not-scientists you have come pretty close to what he meant.

In reviewing the letters he received in the four year period, Snow noted that

A few, a very few, of the criticisms have been loaded with personal abuse to an abnormal extent…

He didn’t rise to the abuse other than to mention it in his “revisited” preface.

The Two Cultures in Today’s World

This review of Snow’s views may sound startlingly familiar. Of course, Snow acknowledged that his ideas had been batted about by others in the years before his lecture, but that at that exact moment the time was ripe for the impact his lecture had.

And what if he had given it today? Scientists still speak their own language, and do so as early as undergraduate school. Phrases like “asymptotic approach,” “DNA” and “Erlenmeyer” appear frequently in common discourse. While this may be young people having fun with their new language, it develops into a set of linguistic tics over time it begins to establish barriers.

At social gatherings today just as in Snow’s day, people talk with others in their own educational circle, because they find both the jargon and the thought processes of other less comprehensible. And this leads to the division between two cultures that is only encouraged by this trivial social behavior.

But more important than who you have cocktails with is the issue of public policy. Can those seeking to make laws and those seeking to influence laws have a thoughtful discussion if they not only don’t understand the issues but don’t even understand the vocabulary?

How can we have a sober discussion of issues involving science when almost no legislators have scientific degrees or training?

Issues of energy policy, public health and biotechnology all some up regularly and are debated by those with the loudest voices or the most money. Can discussions even be held on these issues without discussing the science? Do legislators seek expert opinions on these issues before formulating laws? Increasingly, the answer is “no,” because they have no way to decide how such policies can be debated.

What about in our schools? Are teachers equipped to hold thoughtful scientific discussions of issues that affect our lives? To a large degree they are not. And even in very good school systems, teachers are loathe to speak out when they see policies that violate basic scientific principles, because they fear for their jobs. In fact, I talked just last year with one very good teacher in a very good school system who admitted that he could not take the science based stance he should because his administrators wouldn’t approve.

While you would think that the Internet should help people become more informed, it is frequently the case that activists and ideologues have taken over causes and washed away any chance of discovery of actual scientific facts because the Internet megaphone is so potent.

In such instances, citizens are overwhelmed with information that may indeed be completely false, but repeated so loudly and frequently that it becomes difficult to discover what science actually says on an issue.

It is at that point that we realize that most people are not equipped to evaluate scientific-sounding claims and cannot distinguish real science from pseudo-science. Most have no idea how peer-reviewed research is conducted or what it means, with many taking refuge in the canard of “bought science,” despite the fact that bad science is generally weeded out in the review process.

New Year’s Resolutions

When confronted with scientific-sounding reports people need to consider where it is a press release or a legitimate paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. They can do this without any special scientific training, but need to exhibit healthy skepticism about new claims never heard before that don’t seem to build on existing work. And the citizenry in general needs to seek out opinions from legitimate scientists, rather than accepting sensational reports.

And scientists need to do much more to bridge the Two Culture divide and make it understood why science is the only way we can gain knowledge. The fact that there are two cultures does not mean this is an acceptable state of affairs and member of both cultures need to do a much better job of communicating their knowledge. And of course, educators need to recognize the existence of the two cultures and adjust curricula to help produce a scientifically literate society.

And finally, lawmakers need to have trustworthy staff scientists to advise them in formulating new laws. It just isn’t acceptable to hold legislative hearings and not seek out testimony of scientists expert in the field at issue.

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