Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Two Cultures in New York City

 
Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of a lecture by C.P. Snow on The Two Cultures.

He said,
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?'

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.
Not much has changed in fifty years. We still live in a society that is at best scientifically illiterate and, at worst, anti-science.

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
Carl, (I Got Your Two Cultures Right Here), Zimmer will be there.

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? .


20 comments :

  1. You know, I keep hearing people complaining about this Two Cultures thing, but it rings completely false to me. I know many non-scientists (my siblings include film producers, writers, and artists, I have friends who are poets, writers, artists, musicians, businesspeople) and never once has anyone talked about scientists' illiteracy. Never once has anyone bragged about not being math oriented. Non-scientists are interested in my work, as I am interested in theirs. Poets reference thermodynamics, classical musicians download the Astronomy Picture of the Day, writers email me to ask about the biology of decomposition.

    It's interesting that almost every time someone (a scientist) complains about the Two Culture problem they illustrate it with a "cocktail party" scenario. Cocktail parties, I think, are quintessentially 1950s artifacts. Has anyone under the age of 50 really gone to a "cocktail party" recently? To me this strongly suggests that the Two Cultures problem is mostly imaginary, and mainly consists of people who read Snow parroting his complaints. Or, perhaps, it represents the same people he complained about decades ago, but doesn't represent the vast majority of people nowadays.

    (Disclaimer: I said this once to a friend who suggested that it wasn't simply an age division, that the Two Cultures were more sharply divided in England than in North America. I don't know how true that is.

    Also, I am not for a moment claiming that every artist has a profound scientific understanding, just as many scientists are in fact semi-literate. Anecdotes about meeting an artist with no interest in science are just that, anecdotes, and don't mean much.

    All I'm saying is that Snow's claims don't remotely reflect my own experience. )

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  2. Is the divide as extreme in North America as in the UK?
    The university system in the US that allows people to take courses in both scientific subjects and arts subjects might plausibly mitigate against the worst effects seen in the UK where those interested in arts or sciences are effectively completely separated from about the age of 15 or 16.

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  3. iayork asks,

    Has anyone under the age of 50 really gone to a "cocktail party" recently?

    I'm sorry if the metaphor escapes you and you've never been to anything like a cocktail party. If it makes you happy, think of it as conversation at a singles bar or a business luncheon.

    I'm astonished that you have never encountered the problem. Have you ever heard of postmodernism (in the broad sense)?

    Are you aware of the fact that some people are Young Earth Creationists, believe in homeopathy, and refuse to vaccinate their children?

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  4. MartinC asks,

    Is the divide as extreme in North America as in the UK?

    No, it seems to be much worse in North America. In Europe there seems to be more respect for science and scientists.

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  5. First let me state

    It is important for 21st century nations to promote science to ensure prosperity.

    However:

    The view that everyone needs to know the laws of thermodynamics etc. is unrealistic and absurd. Students should be taught science but to expect adult working people with busy lives to remember high school science is ridiculous.

    There is a certain arrogance to this and a bit of preaching.

    It is like hearing a preacher telling you he knows whats good for you and what knowledge you should seek.

    I'm shocked that such a condescending individual got invited to a party.

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  6. Larry asks: Are you aware of the fact that some people are Young Earth Creationists, believe in homeopathy, and refuse to vaccinate their children?Of course I have. I don't think this has very much to do with Snow's point. (Yes, I've read Snow; also John Brockman's Third Culture and several other responses to Snow.) There are kooks now, there always have been kooks, there always will be kooks. Snow's whole point was about mainstream culture, not kooks. For all the noise that Creationists, homeopathy advocates, and so on make -- those people are not mainstream culture.

    When I go to business luncheons (I don't go to singles bars, and I don't imagine you do either [I read your wife's blog], so neither of us knows what they talk about there) I don't hear anti-vaccine rants, I hear people talking about their kids' shots. I don't hear people ranting about the Young Earth, I hear people talking about dinosaurs and fossils. I don't hear people talking about homeopathy, I hear people talking about picking up some medicine at the pharmacy on the way home.

    And I'll bet that's what you hear, too, when you go to business luncheons and "cocktail parties". It's not what you read in the comments on your blog, because kooks self-select to rant on blogs, and it's not what you hear on the media, because the media like noise and weirdos. Perhaps you're letting yourself get a distorted version of the real world.

    If you want to make the point that there are marginalized loons who don't believe in science, then obviously, sure, there are. That's nothing to do with Snow's argument.

    Once again: Obviously, I've met kooks who are anti-science. But for every kook I meet, I meet dozens of people who are as matter-of-factly interested in science as they are in painting, literature, or philosophy. Believing that the one noisy kook represents mainstream culture is cherrypicking data.

    My point about the "cocktail party" phrase stands, by the way. It's an outdated metaphor, just like the Two Cultures. I think it's really telling that people who complain about Two Cultures so often use the cocktail party metaphor.

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  7. billybob writes,

    The view that everyone needs to know the laws of thermodynamics etc. is unrealistic and absurd. Students should be taught science but to expect adult working people with busy lives to remember high school science is ridiculous.That's an interesting comment.

    What else would it be ridiculous for working adults to remember? Here's a list. You can answer yes (ridiculous) or no (important).

    1. The causes of World War II.
    2. Who wrote Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
    3. What's the difference between Judaism and Christianity. .
    4. Where Africa is.
    5. How your country is governed.
    6. What's the difference between socialism and capitalism..
    7. The difference between a verb and a noun.
    8. Who Michelangelo was.
    9. What is safe sex.
    10. How do you say "thank-you" in a foreign language.

    Most people think that you have to learn and retain quite a few non-scientific bits of information in order to be considered literate.

    But when it comes to science, it's "ridiculous" to expect an adult to remember the basic principles.

    Isn't that strange?

    There seem to be two separate cultures. One of them is important and the other one isn't.

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  8. iayork says,

    My point about the "cocktail party" phrase stands, by the way. It's an outdated metaphor, just like the Two Cultures. I think it's really telling that people who complain about Two Cultures so often use the cocktail party metaphor.

    I'll be thinking about you on Saturday evening during The Closing Reception. That's a time when people get a drink from the bar and stand around talking and eating little snacks.

    You don't get out much, do you? :-)

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  9. Larry, it's striking that the example you use to prove that "cocktail party" is a common term, doesn't actually use the term "cocktail party". Probably because it's an outdated, obsolete term. You've made my point for me. (If you really think that I was claiming people don't get together for drinks any more, then you've missed the point horribly.)

    My point: Claims about the Two Culture problem are very often couched in language and concepts from the 1950s and 1960s, when for all I know this was a huge problem. The world has moved on, but the Two Culture folks are still fighting the battles of the 1950s, with the terms of the 1950s.

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  10. And thank you iayork. I'm going to take your advice and attempt to woo the next chick I meet at Happy Hour on the finer points of the biology of decomposition.

    On the off chance that she immediately walks away, I'll say to the back of her head "Ha! You're so 1950s!"

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  11. The questions

    1. The causes of World War II.
    2. Who wrote Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
    3. What's the difference between Judaism and Christianity. .
    4. Where Africa is.
    5. How your country is governed.
    6. What's the difference between socialism and capitalism..
    7. The difference between a verb and a noun.
    8. Who Michelangelo was.
    9. What is safe sex.
    10. How do you say "thank-you" in a foreign language.

    The answers would depend on the individual and where they live. I am not sure I understand what your point is, are you saying there is specific information all must know beyond what is required for them to function in their society?

    Why do you think that you know what people should know? In the past some have claimed that a burning bush or golden tablets gave had all the answers I thought we were past this but maybe not.

    I see a Monty Python skit here.

    The ministry of what you must know.

    What is the difference between

    - all must know god
    - all must know science

    other than you respect science and consider religion as idiotic.

    Is science a useful tool or an
    ideology?

    My question.

    A scientist goes to a party and a lawyer begins talking about
    law only to find out that the scientist does not understand the legal system of the country. Should the scientist be miffed when the lawyer writes an article about the incredible lack of knowledge about the law of the land that scientists show?

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  12. Larry said,
    "No, it seems to be much worse in North America. In Europe there seems to be more respect for science and scientists."
    I can't speak for the situation in North America but the situation in Europe varies depending on which country you are talking about. I grew up in Ireland and then spent 15 years in the UK after I graduated and regard both of those countries as similar in their attitudes to Science and the Arts. Ive since lived in Sweden for six years and found the attitudes different and more appreciative towards the sciences.
    In the UK/Ireland situation, however, the divide between Arts and Science is not one that is reflected in the population at large - it is really one specifically associated with those of an elite University background.
    This are the subgroup that ends up in the positions of power and influence (media etc) and as such the 'two culture' divide is still particularly apparent.
    I'd be interested to hear the thoughts of others from a UK background on this question.

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  13. billybob refuses to answer my questions but asks one of his own,

    A scientist goes to a party and a lawyer begins talking about law only to find out that the scientist does not understand the legal system of the country. Should the scientist be miffed when the lawyer writes an article about the incredible lack of knowledge about the law of the land that scientists show?

    The scientist should be embarrassed.

    Of course if it were you, billybob, you would probably say it was ridiculous for a working adult to have to remember silly stuff like how the legal system works.

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  14. Answers

    1. The causes of World War II.

    irrelevant because we never learn

    2. Who wrote Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

    irrelevant

    3. What's the difference between Judaism and Christianity.

    there is a difference? irrelevant

    4. Where Africa is.

    not a practical need but nice to know

    5. How your country is governed.

    need to know

    can't trust those politicians

    6. What's the difference between socialism and capitalism.

    need to know

    7. The difference between a verb and a noun.

    need to know

    8. Who Michelangelo was.

    irrelevant

    9. What is safe sex.

    only if you are getting some

    10. How do you say "thank-you" in a foreign language.

    irrelevant

    None of the above questions are about science except maybe safe sex a bit.

    Why does the average plumber/planner/candlestick maker need to know the Second Law of Thermodynamics?

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  15. billybob:
    The assumption here is that knowledge is a good in and of itself.
    Do you disagree?

    ReplyDelete
  16. "Why does the average plumber/planner/candlestick maker need to know the Second Law of Thermodynamics?"

    Aside of what Devin said...


    It sure as heck helps them from sinking their entire savings on a free energy scam.


    Now to elaborate on Devin's point.... here's why it's important: Life is unpredictable.

    We don't have our lives planned out. The future is wide open for all of us. As such, there is a certain amount of information currently not needed for us to push our little cogs down the assembly line and slurp up our protein ration for the day.

    And yet, because the future is unpredictable, so a broad range of knowledge suits us for those moments when destiny calls. "Gee, I didn't know thermodynamics would come in handy back when I was in college. But then again, when I was in college I never would have guessed I'd get a chance to be a Jeopardy contestant.' 'Wow, back when Dad taught me how to drive a stick shift, I thought "when am I going to use that?!? All my cars are automatic. That was until I had to get my buddy to the hospital when he had a seizure!" "Of what use is learning who Michaelangelo was? I thought it was irrelevant all my life. That is, until I randomly met the Italian Ambassador and had a chance for my daughter to get a recommendation for her scholarship application."

    Now, general knowledge may not be useful to you, BillyBob, as you might have a job and a life where it doesn't come in handy. It SURE has in my life. I cannot tell you what amazing monetary and career dividends my broad knowledge in unrelated fields has paid. And the best thing about it is that I never knew any of this would pay off so handsomely when I learned it... I just loved to learn.

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  17. to Devin: there is no good or evil
    just shit happening

    so you understand I am a nihilist
    and the word good means little to me

    to Siamang: knowledge might help but is not necessary

    just came from an evening with an engineer for a major multinational
    corporation

    we had a few to many

    he very smart has a an undergraduate degree from a German University and masters from U.S. University

    I popped the question... no not about gay marriage but about the second law

    he had forgotten the details but had a bit of an idea

    so... what do you expect from the average person?

    get realistic specific knowledge fades when not used. CD Snow was being arrogant and pompous. Wants to be science pope? oops really one to many I will shut up now.

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  18. There's a good example of the UK two cultures divide on Melanie Phillips blog. She's a British neocon who, when she isn't getting here knickers in a twist over the dangers of 'teh muslems' writes ridiculous antivax and anti atheist pieces for the spectator and the daily mail.
    http://www.spectator.co.uk/melaniephillips/3587356/the-secular-inquisition.thtml
    I suppose the problem with the two cultures divide is that scientists generally won't try to argue about the merits of particular literary figures if they are not familiar with the author. On the
    other hand non scientists on the other side of the divide, such as Phillips have no such reticence in jumping into a debate about biological theories about which they have absolutely zero knowledge or understanding and furthermore get offended when their ignorance is made apparent.

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  19. Tomorrow I'll be on my way to New York City Hey Maybe you can finally buy me that lunch you owe me ;)

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  20. Quoting billybob:
    "Why does the average plumber/planner/candlestick maker need to know the Second Law of Thermodynamics?"


    So that when creationists misrepresent it to attack evolution, he will recognize the deception. The absence of even the most basic of scientific understanding (not just basic laws, but even basic definitions of what words like "science" and "theory" mean) is one of the reasons that so many plumber/planner/candlestick makers get fooled by these charlatans.

    ReplyDelete