The Two Cultures Divide That Matters is Between "Rich" and "Poor"

By Chris Mooney | May 8, 2009 8:15 am

Stefan Collini says it. Nature says it. Andrew Maynard says it.

In sum, having now read through many, many 50 year anniversary reactions to Snow’s original “two cultures” essay, I’m detecting an intriguing theme. A lot of people seem to think (and it’s hard to dispute) that the most relevant message from the lecture today is actually contained in its least known section–namely, Snow’s focus at the end of his speech on the importance of science in addressing the plight of the poor, disadvantaged, and undernourished of the world.

Snow did, after all, later write that he wished he’d retitled his essay “The Rich and the Poor.” And of all the “two cultures” gaps that we might conceivably postulate, there’s no doubt this one is still very much with us.

Snow was, above all, a great scientific humanitarian, and our world has just as much need of those now as it ever did.

Comments (7)

  1. Jon

    From the Nature article:

    Snow would not have approved of the narrow-mindedness of some researchers who consider the significant costs of their work to be no more than their due from society, nor of their blind resentment when its value is questioned.

    This could be a problem. It’s one thing for Paul Krugman to ask for a “bold, smart populism” against elites, maybe in the manner that Krugman himself goes after silly arguments in his graduate school seminars. Judging from the reactions from conservatives, this tactic has seen some success, since they’ve felt the need to go out of their way to complain about it–perhaps getting what little political capital they can get by ragging on peoples’ supposed ill manners (apparently ridicule is something only conservatives are entitled to).

    But I think it’s another thing entirely for someone like PZ Myers to actively offend people who don’t have the education that he has, on things that he and his people haven’t studied that closely. I think it’s possible that this could produce a backlash if it gets out of hand.

  2. Jon

    I guess what I’m saying is that you don’t have to agree with your opponents to understand them. And the inability to understand opponents, I think, is a good part of what drove the right down the tubes.

  3. Check Larry’s blog on how not a single scientist was represented in the two cultures article in New Scientist. Disappointing.

  4. Michael

    The difference between the rich and the poor is often not exactly education, but rather knowledge. The poor, as a rule, generally have less access to knowledge, and less of an ambition to acquire knowledge. No wonder, considering the number of very rich and ignorant people in the US. Paris Hilton is no Mensa champ, but she is nevertheless rather wealthy, and a good deal of the wealth came from her own notoriety instead of a considerable inheritance. This sad situation is repeated throughout our culture, ad nauseum.

    Until we put a value on knowledge and critical thinking in our schools and in our culture, the divide between the rich and poor will only grow wider.

  5. Also, the rich ironically often are not knowledgeable in spit of having better access to knowledge.

  6. From what I’ve read, economists these days have a pretty good idea of what make a society richer. Stealing from a brand-spanking-new Macroeconomics textbook from a couple of my favorite economics bloggers, you need:

    Property rights
    Honest government
    Political stability
    A dependable legal system
    Competitive and open markets

    Knowledge is not the difference between rich and poor, at least not at the global scale (which is what Snow was talking about).

    I do agree that we need more critical thinking, but there’s probably just as much fuzzy-headed thinking among rich people in this country as among poor people.

  7. MadScientist

    The “rich vs poor” has been a popular theme throughout much of the past century, and especially so after the South and Central American nations banded together and said “hey, we’re people too, and we’re poor”. I think people need to be educated and reduce the growth rate of their populations; in fact a gradual decrease in population is desirable. People also need to be educated or trained in crafts and also be able to find jobs. There are a few great confounding factors which I see everywhere: (1) established corruption and (2) a strong desire not to learn (or in general not to change) and (3) established counter-productive attitudes which can only change slowly over a number of generations. Taking an example which may be familiar to many through the news, let’s have a quick look at Iraq. When Dubbyah said it would be easy – we’ll walk in and walk out in matter of weeks or months, I said that was nonsense; for any stability we would need to be in there for at least 20 years and try to change the attitudes of an entire generation through education. Corruption is endemic and will be difficult to eradicate without taking marshal Tito’s approach (which we don’t want to do because that brings up other problems). People are resistant to doing things differently because “this is how we’ve always done it”, and of course you have the religious rivalries in which the general attitude is to kill more on the other side if they kill anyone on your side.

    Now coming back to the USA and the problems of rich vs poor; the ‘rust belt’ and ‘motor city’ I think have shown the extremes since the 1960’s. Unemployment is high and some people simply take to blaming anyone and everyone else for their problems and this results in ganging up on anyone who doesn’t look like ‘they belong’ and there have even been a few murders recently because of that. Do these people have an opportunity to learn different skills or apply their skills to different jobs? Even if they did, who would employ them? Should some entity come to town and say “I’m trying to set up this business and I’m looking for people who can do the job”? How do we develop a more equitable USA?

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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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