2 Comments »Posted on Wednesday 6 May 2009 at 6:23 pm by Jessica Bland
In Education, Happenings, Musings

CP Snow’s proclamation of a rift between the two cultures of arts and science is fifty years old this week. His Rede lecture in 1959 caused a global response in both the media and academic circles. Last night, The Royal Society in London held a public debate assessing the relevance of Snow’s comments to today’s cultural landscape. The debate was recorded and is available online here.

I was lucky enough to attend in person, quite a thrill for a science communication geek; Melvin Bragg was chairing, and Marcus du Sautoy, John Denham, Sian Ede and Stefan Collini sat on the stage with him. The directors of The Science Museum, Natural History Museum and South Bank Centre spoke from the floor.

But, from the opening speeches, it was clear that each of them had interpreted the theme of the evening quite differently. This does not have to be a problem in a debate, but it was in this one. We spent an hour arguing about culture, but the notion of what a culture is seemed to be different for almost everyone. And so, or as well, why science might be distinguished from the arts also seemed to be different for everyone. Why this is might have made for an interesting discussion. Instead, we ended up with some cross-purpose interchanges, which achieved very little. Stefan Collini summed this up well, saying that the topic of two cultures is just a vehicle for whatever particular grievance people have about science.

What Snow meant by two cultures was very specific. He argued that the academics in science and literature occupy separate spheres with very little interaction. Moreover, in England, the scientific sphere was seen as inferior to the literary sphere. This was, according to Snow, due to the stubborn remnants of the prevailing attitude of a previous age; a clever boy would go to Oxford to study Classics. A slightly less clever boy would move into the sciences.

Snow saw science as providing his country with a secure and prosperous future. But if science continued to be stigmatised with intellectual inferiority, this future would not be possible. New science and technology would be developed elsewhere. Leaving England with Shakespeare scholars, but little else. The Times reviewed his lecture the day after its first presentation. Their argument backs up this interpretation of Snow’s position. At that moment, Britain’s fall from empire to island was of huge public concern. Any way to aid a graceful fall was of interest. The Times article points to science and technology as just such aids. It argues that Britain should bolster funding in science education and research. The country should fight to retain its position as world leaders in this field, fending off the threat from the new planned economies in Russia and China.

In ‘The Two Cultures’, Snow demarcated science from literature as a device for promoting science: for promoting a certain kind of academic pursuit that he felt was dangerously overlooked. The cultural division, even the very mention of culture is slightly beside the point. It is a vehicle for Snow’s complaints about science’s funding, science education and society’s appreciation of science.

In this way, the discussion yesterday at the Royal Society echoes Snow’s original point. Admittedly, it explored how science and literature are professional cultures, how they are perhaps one joint culture of human curiosity and why science is not part of our current definition of ‘culture’. But these uses ideas about culture were mainly frames for complaints about the status of science funding, science education and society’s appreciation of science.

Although these complaints followed similar themes to Snow’s, their content had moved on. Today, some scientists are accorded higher social status than classicists. But state-funding of science is more widely questioned. School education now addresses scientific controversy and concentrates on creating citizens who are aware of the processes and practices of science. And there is wider access to university science courses. Yet, science numbers at A-level are still dropping. Questions at the debate did not centre on whether everyone can recite the second law of thermodynamics – Snow’s example of the lack of scientific literacy he found amongst his peers. They were instead concerned with our current buzz phrases: dialogue between scientists and the public and deliberative models of science policy making.

These are the same complaints we hear at philosophical, political and media-related discussions of science. They were just framed around a notion of culture. And this framing confused the conversation. The mutual rhetoric tangled together distinct issues so that questions and answers missed each other’s points. And Denham, as the politician in the corner, was even able to squeeze in a speech from his swine flu-related soap box.

It was a shame that the hype surrounding the anniversary of Snow’s lecture did not lead to anything new. But then his lecture was not, at its time, about anything new. It was a vehicle for his insightful analysis of problems faced by British science. Last night, unfortunately, the idea of culture was again just such a vehicle.

  1. 2 Comments

  2. Be interesting to see if Bragg says anything about this event on his newsletter or elsewhere. He’s good at dissecting what went right and wrong with events.

    By Tim Jones on Thursday 7 May, 2009 at 11:07 am

  3. Bragg’s interest in dissection of the limited scope of the discussion was to introduce the topic of Arsenal in his newsletter.

    What was lacking was any attempt to articulate what the aims of either culture (or all cultures) should be. Maybe Arsenal passions point to the difficulty of achieving such common purpose.

    By Peter Semler on Wednesday 13 May, 2009 at 11:44 am

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