Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of a lecture by C.P. Snow on The Two Cultures.
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the law of entropy. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: 'Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?'Not much has changed in fifty years. We still live in a society that is at best scientifically illiterate and, at worst, anti-science.
I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, 'Can you read?' — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.
Tomorrow I'll be on my way to New York City to attend a conference on The Two Cultures in the 21st Century. The meeting was organized (in part) by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. It begins with a keynote address by E.O. Wilson followed by four symposia on ...
- The Two Cultures in Historical Perspective: From Aristotle to "Science Wars" and the "Third Culture"
- How to More Effectively Communicate Science Issues to the Public
- Restoring Science to Its Rightful Place in Politics
- A Better Future through Science Citizenship
We all have our stories and our examples of the problem. The one I like to tell is the story about a group of knowledgeable adults at a cocktail party when something mathematical comes up in the conversation. Chances are someone is going to brag about how much they feared math in schools and how little they know about the subject. This will undoubtedly get murmurs of sympathy from many people.
Now imagine that the group was discussing modern literature and I said something similar; "I hated literature in school, I never 'got' the point of these modern writers and why they are so famous. Literature was way too hard for me so I stopped taking literature courses as soon as I could." Do you think there would be murmurs of sympathy and understanding? I doubt it. The group would probably think I'm stupid.
The two cultures problem will only be solved when the proper response to someone who claims to be an idiot in mathematics is the same as to someone who claims to be an idiot about art and literature.
The other problem is when people claim to be knowledgeable about science when they aren't. Chris Matthews of MSNBC has the right idea when he attacks Rep. Mike Pence (Indiana-R) ["You Want to Educate Americans About Science; Do You Believe In Evolution?"]. We can't allow people to pretend they know about science when they reject the core principles of science. If you are ignorant about science then you are ignorant, period.
Today's issue of New Scientist has an article on Science and art: Still two cultures divided? .