Re-reading–not Misreading–C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures"

By Chris Mooney | March 24, 2009 1:59 pm

I am sure that by now Discover Blogs readers have seen the ads for the May 9 conference being held at the New York Academy of Sciences to celebrate, and muse upon, the 50 year anniversary of C.P. Snow’s famed “Two Cultures” lecture and argument. Your faithful bloggers helped organize this event; Discover is our media partner, and fellow blogger Carl Zimmer is on one of the panels. The date was chosen because it is the actual anniversary of Snow’s famous 1959 Cambridge lecture that was later published in book form–or, close enough. Technically the lecture was on the 7th, but we needed a weekend. cp snow

Last Sunday, though, the New York Times book section scooped all of us Snow celebrants with this essay by Peter Dizikes. It’s an interesting take, but hardly exhausts what can be said about Snow and his influence; in fact, as someone who spent months last year reading Snow’s works, which feature prominently in Unscientific America, I have to say I mostly found it a let-down.

Dizikes gets one main thing right: Not enough people read C.P. Snow. We tend to understand him in cliché, rather than in depth. I mean, everybody knows the “Two Cultures,” right? It’s physicists versus Shakespeare. Nerds versus snobs. And so on.

Dizikes rightly points out that Snow intended a great deal more than that with his lecture/essay, and that everybody should read it in the original. I’ll second the point and once again flog the Cambridge edition. But then things come apart in Dizikes’ essay, in my opinion.

Dizikes wants to make two main points: 1) Snow’s “two cultures” analysis was biased toward science and anti-literary (which is kinda true, although don’t forget that Snow himself was a very successful novelist); and 2) that wasn’t the real point of the lecture anyway. Or as Dizikes puts it, “it is misleading to imagine Snow as the eagle-eyed anthropologist of a fractured intelligentsia, rather than an evangelist of our technological future.”

Dizikes then goes on to describe, and critique, Snow’s admittedly over-idealistic vision of a scientific workforce spreading the fruits of technology to the developing world–science saving us all, basically, rich and poor alike. Dizikes calls the 1959 lecture “irretrievably a cold war document” and says we’ve seized upon Snow’s memorable intellectual dichotomy because there’s no way anybody today would go for his bleeding-heart, internationalist remedy. We’re cherry-picking Snow, taking what we like and ignoring the rest.

There’s some truth to this, but I believe Dizikes ultimately misreads Snow, and in a significant way. Alas, I can’t fully articulate the point without scooping myself, as I have an essay coming out about this too. But suffice it to say that there is, for Snow, a very real and integral relationship between his “two cultures” analysis on the one hand, and his policy prescriptions on the other. And while the policy prescriptions may now read as outdated, the two cultures argument remains extremely relevant to many current policy problems, once understood properly.

Dizikes’ mistake, I think, is here: “So why did Snow think the supposed gulf between the two cultures was such a problem? Because, he argues in the latter half of the essay, it leads many capable minds to ignore science as a vocation, which prevents us from solving the world’s ‘main issue,’ the wealth gap caused by industrialization, which threatens global stability.” Well, not exactly. Snow did think countries like his own (Britain) were going to need a larger scientific workforce. And he was right in predicting that they would develop such workforces. But Snow was hardly saying everybody needed to become a scientist.

On the contrary, he was arguing that the people running the society–the policymakers–had to understand science, rather than merely cleaving to a literature-centered, classically trained mindset. This was so that they would not be clueless in the face of vastly significant science policy decisions. These would certainly include the role of science in international development, but are hardly limited to it.

The point is that to Snow, divided minds lead to bad policies–particularly with respect to science. He was highlighting a communication problem that went far beyond the academy, into the halls of government and that touched significantly upon international affairs.

To fully see the full ramifications of this point, I recommend that those who are really interested in Snow should read his “Two Cultures” lecture in the context of his other writings, which can be found in Public Affairs, New York: Scribner, 1971. Alas, there’s only one expensive one to be found on Amazon at the moment, so I won’t bother linking. Go to a library, burrow into the stacks! (Hey, that’s what I’m doing right now.)

In any event, as the Snow anniversary approaches we will keep blogging on this topic, so there’s more to come. And again, you can read Dizikes’ essay here.

Comments (12)

  1. mk

    Hi Chris.

    Just wanted to share something that I was most positively influenced by:

    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/

    I’m sure you’re familiar with it. Wonder if it’ll be discussed at the conference.

  2. It’s not just important for the people “running” the country to understand science but it’s even more important for the common people of the country to understand its significance, especially the religious ones.

  3. David Bruggeman

    “On the contrary, he was arguing that the people running the society–the policymakers–had to understand science, rather than merely cleaving to a literature-centered, classically trained mindset.”

    While it’s possible that policymakers were assumed to be of the ‘other’ culture in 1959, I suspect that’s less true today.

    I’d argue that policymakers need to understand both cultures, and aren’t necessarily grounded in either. Not so supportive of the thesis of Unscientific American, but not really undercutting it either.

  4. Hi MK,
    Oh yeah, way familiar with the “third culture” concept and grew up reading “third culture” writers. This could put me back on my soapbox…

    Ashutosh,
    I think Snow would have agreed with you.

    And David,
    Historically, yeah, the policymakers were much, much more the literary “other” in Britain in 1959 than they are today. And I don’t disagree that policymakers should understand both, but science tends to create a lot more policy issues, and require a lot more policy management, than literary studies…

  5. mk

    “This could put me back on my soapbox…”

    Interesting. How so?

  6. Hi MK,
    I’ve been scooping myself too much lately, so suffice it to say, we have a pretty serious treatment of the “third culture” in Unscientific America….

  7. mk

    OK then… will check it out.

    Cheers.

  8. Sorry to be totally lame…I am in a weird zone for the next 3 months, bursting with the arguments from our new book but not wanting to shout them all out until the book is on the shelves….

  9. Jon Winsor

    I haven’t picked up this book for years. Reading it again now…

  10. David Bruggeman

    “And I don’t disagree that policymakers should understand both, but science tends to create a lot more policy issues, and require a lot more policy management, than literary studies…”

    I think the responses to what science does or does not create are handled differently by the two cultures, and politicians are obligated to balance the concerns of each.

    Aside from content differences, there are different perspectives embodied by the two cultures (and here’s an area where riding the line between description and stereotype gets difficult). However, and I think Snow gets to this in his work, if you explore how the two cultures think about the world in some detail, similarities start to emerge. Ethics and values would be one kind of similarity (in that actions in each culture are derived from them). If you want to run with Jonah Lehrer’s ideas from Proust Was a Neuroscientist you have another avenue for similarity – answering similar problems, but in different ways.

    Ultimately, I’m concerned of treatments in this area looking for correctives (giving one culture a leg up, evening the playing field, etc.) rather than exploring some kind of synthesis or rapprochement.

  11. Jon Winsor

    By the way, here’s another argument from the Plato side of the Raphael painting (the kind that would provoke a pile-on at PZ Myer’s blog):

    http://nigelwarburton.typepad.com/philosophy_bites/2009/02/keith-ward-on-idealism-in-eastern-and-western-philosophy.html

    Keith Ward is an Oxford prof–Seems kind of like an English Charles Taylor. It’s interesting that Charles Taylor cut his teeth, so to speak on Hegel–very different from the Anglo-American tradition, as Ward mentions in this interview.

  12. Jon Winsor

    Well, I just listened to it again–He doesn’t quite make the point about Hegel being different from Anglo-American philosophy, but more makes the point that idealism (which would include Hegel) is out of vogue in the modern academy …

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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