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Fifty years on - the Two Cultures revisited

Have we moved on since CP Snow?

Philip Strange 26 July 2009

Penetrating: Snow's observations are still relevant

Snow's debate must have raged vigorously at Oxbridge high tables but actually engaged only a very small proportion of the population

In the Cambridge novels of CP Snow, epicurean classicists and historians gorged themselves at high table while bonily ascetic scientists arrived late, wolfed it down without noticing whether it was fish or fowl, and dashed off back to the lab before the port and nuts.”

This was the preamble to Matthew Norman’s recent Guardian review of the restaurant, Time and Space, in London's Royal Institution. It was a damning critique and he concluded that the restaurant was perfect for Snow’s stereotypical scientist who cared little about food. We could argue about whether scientists do or don’t like food, but his amusing separation of the feeding habits of the two groups of academics was also a reference to a debate that began fifty years ago.

In Cambridge in May 1959, the scientist, novelist and politician CP Snow delivered his Rede lecture entitled “Two Cultures”, in which he highlighted the separation of two strands of intellectual activity, the humanities and the sciences. These two groups rarely interacted and each group had little knowledge of the other’s discipline – indeed, there was even an element of mistrust. He proposed that much would be gained by broadening the education system to reduce the divide.

This lecture apparently lead to much debate, but reading the lecture nowadays you get this horrible, cloying feeling of a bygone era with a closed, self-satisfied, ruling elite running the country – much the same as is depicted in Snow's novels. Because of this, the debate must have raged vigorously at Oxbridge high tables but actually engaged only a very small proportion of the population. Part of Snow’s argument was that science was important for progress, and this led to a vicious personal attack by the Cambridge literary critic FR Leavis. Leavis felt that Snow had it wrong and that it was major literature that helped interpret the complexities of life whereas science offered little in this regard. Despite the arcane nature of the initial debate, the phrase “Two Cultures” has nonetheless entered our language to denote differences between the humanities and the sciences. Fifty years on then, we should reflect on their current state.

Do the “Two Cultures” still exist in 2009 and, if so, are they still as separate? I fear the answer is yes, although not in the same way as Snow envisaged. In academic circles, despite a few attempts to bridge the gap, the sciences and humanities remain largely separate. Within the sciences, specialisation has driven scientists into multiple “cultures" which don’t talk much to one another because the language of the different camps prevents this. Most of these are separate from the humanities and there is still little influence or knowledge of humanities in the sciences and vice versa.

If we consider society more generally, there is little appreciation or understanding of science. In an age dominated by scientific issues, the majority of people, including politicians, are poorly informed about these issues and scientists themselves rarely stray outside their narrow area of expertise. The quality of public discussion of science issues is lamentably low, degraded further by crass science reporting in most newspapers and on television. Look at how the fear of the MMR vaccine, fuelled by fallacious evidence and extensive uncritical and misleading reporting in the media, has lead to a decline in herd immunity in the UK.

What can be done? Society faces serious threats, the foremost of these being global climate change, but bioterrorism and global pandemics should also be of great concern. We need to discuss these issues widely and spread some understanding of the science behind them. Any discussion will be sterile if it is carried out only within a small scientifically literate elite. We have to find ways to enable society to engage more with science; equally, scientific research needs to be informed and driven by the needs of society.

How can we engage people more in understanding and relating to these issues? In the UK, a less specialised education system could provide a basic scientific education is given to all. I don’t mean that we should teach detailed science to students specialising in humanities; rather, everyone should be given the chance to debate science issues and have some understanding of science methods and concepts. Similarly, students specialising in science should be given a chance to see how their discipline relates to society’s needs and look at some of the depictions of science and its effects in literature. Science should have a much higher profile in newspapers and in other news media and we need to see an improvement in the standard of science reporting. Accurate and full reporting of scientific issues in the media in a manner that treats people with respect would help people to feel engaged. Lord Drayson, the UK science minister, has instituted a consultation on these issues leading to a new campaign to raise awareness of science, “Science and Society in the UK”. I hope this is successful, but I am pessimistic of the success of changing attitudes where popular culture in this country seems to revel in wallowing in trivia.

How can we get scientists to come out of their bunkers and think about the needs of society? Scientists need to engage more with society’s requirements and cooperate in efforts to fight the issues such as global climate change that may threaten the very future of life on earth. Scientists will not organise this on their own, so bold government action will be required to mount coordinated efforts to attack the world’s problems. These are big issues and so governments will need to set up multi-disciplinary teams, including social scientists, and should channel research monies to these areas so that a major effort can be mounted. This may divert some scientists away from their favourite problems, which they may resent, but being part of a team fighting global threats may ultimately be very fulfilling. This is not a new idea; the precedent was set with the Manhattan Project and the Enigma code-breakers in World War II.

Will it work now? We need to try. We cannot afford the luxury of inaction.