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See Inside September 2009

An Update on C. P. Snow's "Two Cultures"

A new column that examines the intersection between science and society provides an update on the historic essay



Matt Collins

Earlier this summer marked the 50th anniversary of C. P. Snow’s famous “Two Cultures” essay, in which he lamented the great cultural divide that separates two great areas of human intellectual activity, “science” and “the arts.” Snow argued that practitioners in both areas should build bridges, to further the progress of human knowledge and to benefit society.

Alas, Snow’s vision has gone unrealized. Instead literary agent John Brockman has posited a “third culture,” of scientists who communicate directly with the public about their work in media such as books without the intervening assistance of literary types. At the same time, many of those in the humanities, arts and politics remain content living within the walls of scientific illiteracy.

Good reasons exist for this phenomenon. In the first place, while we bemoan the lack of good science teaching in our public schools (the vast majority of middle school physical science and math teachers, for example, do not have a science degree), scientific illiteracy is not a major impediment to success in business, politics and the arts. At the university level, science is too often seen as something needed merely to fulfill a requirement and then to be dispensed with. To be fair, the same is often the case for humanities courses for science and engineering majors, but the big difference is that these students cannot help but be bombarded by literature, music and art elsewhere as a part of the pop culture that permeates daily life. And what’s more, individuals often proudly proclaim that science isn’t their thing, almost as a badge of honor to indicate their cultural bent.

There is another factor, one that was on display at the World Science Festival in New York City this summer, which helps to undermine the role of science in society. Amid events on the cosmos, modern biology, quantum mechanics and other areas at the forefront of science, I participated in a panel discussion on science, faith and religion.

Why would such an event be a part of a science festival? We accord a special place to religion, in part thanks to groups such as the Templeton Foundation, which has spent millions annually raising the profile of “big questions,” which tend to suggest that science and religious belief are somehow related and should be treated as equals.

The problem is, they are not. Ultimately, science is at best only consistent with a God that does not directly intervene in the daily operations of the cosmos, certainly not the personal and ancient gods associated with the world’s great religions. Even though, as physicist Steven Weinberg has emphasized, most people who call themselves religious tend to adhere to only those bits and pieces from scripture that appeal to them, by according undue respect for ancient religious beliefs in general, we nonetheless are suggesting that they are on par with conclusions that have been drawn from centuries of rational empirical investigation.
Snow hoped for a world that is quite different from how we live today, where indifference to science has, through religious fundamentalism, sometimes morphed into open hostility about concepts such as evolution and the big bang.

Snow did not rail against religion, but ignorance. As the moderator in my panel finally understood after an hour of discussion, the only vague notions of God that may be compatible with science ensure that God is essentially irrelevant to both our understanding of nature and our actions based on it. Until we are willing to accept the world the way it is, without miracles that all empirical evidence argues against, without myths that distort our comprehension of nature, we are unlikely to bridge the divide between science and culture and, more important, we are unlikely to be fully ready to address the urgent technical challenges facing humanity.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "C. P. Snow in New York."

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