The "Two Cultures" 50 Year Anniversary Conference

Over a year ago, we had an idea: We were doing a book that discusses the work of the British physicist-novelist C.P. Snow, and the 50 year anniversary of his world famous "two cultures" argument was coming up--May 7, 2009. Precisely 50 years earlier, Snow had delivered a lecture at Cambridge University lamenting the gap between scientists and humanists, or as he called them then, "literary intellectuals," and suggesting it was a grave threat to policymaking and to the future.

We believe this is still a deeply important and resonant argument, and so we got in touch with the New York Academy of Sciences about having a C.P. Snow 50 year anniversary conference. Many months of fundraising and planning later, here we are--it's happening on May 9, 2009 (we had to get to a weekend) and features some stunning speakers: E.O. Wilson, Segway inventor Dean Kamen, Ira Flatow, Lawrence Krauss, Jonah Lehrer, Ann Druyan, Kenneth Miller, Carl Zimmer, and many, many others.

The event is officially sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences, ScienceDebate, and the Science Communication Consortium. Click here for info.

We hope any Intersection readers interested will try to attend. Move fast--tickets are limited. And we will be blogging much more about the conference, and about C.P. Snow and his legacy, in the coming months.

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Huzzah! This is wonderful news! I work in a field that is particularly hard-hit by the Two Cultures problem, and I blame the problem (in my field) on overspecialization. An interesting observation: the Two Cultures problem is not as severe in Europe as it is in America (and, I suspect, Japan). European culture reveres art, so it's impossible for scientists to ignore art there.

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 10 Mar 2009 #permalink

Maybe I'm too heavily entrenched in 'one of the cultures', or maybe in my relative youth I just don't understand the historical context, but I never found Snow's observations to be all that poignant or even all that insightful. The only thing I took out of it was an increased desire for better science education -- the problem he described, to me, seemed to boil down to "scientists can't communicate, literary intellectuals can't understand". This seems mindlessly obvious (and has been obvious to me at least since seventh grade), akin to saying "poetry isn't the same as prose", and thus the importance of The Two Cultures is completely lost on me.

Wiki's no help in explaining *why* something so obvious is as influential as it is. Can someone elaborate?

Hi Brian,
I would urge you to reread the actual lecture if you can. I have an essay coming out explaining why Snow resonated so much, but suffice to say that there is vastly more in there than just a call for more education or communication.

As to why it was so influential: Snow confessed that the idea was "in the air" and my historical research has found other echoes of it. But one reason he had so much impact was that he had the perfect sound bite: "The Two Cultures." Another is that a huge and famous battle erupted between Snow and an eminent literary critic, F.R. Leavis, over Snow's arguments--a nasty spectacle which itself epitomized the Two Cultures divide. So suddenly people were weighing in not just on Snow, but on Snow vs Leavis. So it was good framing, eye-catching controversy, and also a very memorable argument....

European culture reveres art, so it's impossible for scientists to ignore art there.

But do the artists ignore science?

All over the world, scientists who are culturally illiterate are regularly confronted with the stigma of being Philistines, and there's no particular restraint observed in telling them so. I have yet to hear of anyone returning the favor, though, for those who can't even understand the most basic of mathematics. In fact, it's pretty much a point of pride in many circles to be uncontaminated by any acquaintance with such plebian matters.

You have to look outside of European culture entirely for real social admiration of physical scientists (India comes to mind) and even in Asia the Ruling Classes are above such things.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 10 Mar 2009 #permalink

What a great idea and great slate of speakers. It's a bit too spendy for me to go, unfortunately, but I'm really glad you're doing this.

Chris, thank you. I have read the original lecture (the reprint in "A Second Look"), and honestly didn't get much out of it apart from quotes (I've used his Shakespeare/thermodynamics example many, many times -- invariably when arguing with "literary intellectuals", as every scientist I've spoken to has been forced to read Shakespeare while the humanities grads don't even know how many laws of thermodynamics there are*) and the afforementioned call for better communication. Everything else I remember from it seemed impossibly obvious. I suspect I'm missing something incredible from it, which your essay will probably clear up. I look forward to reading it.

* The reason I mentioned seventh grade was that was when I realized my provincial curriculum required everyone to have complete English literature training but only the barest minimum of science and math to graduate. The same holds true for university degrees: Everyone needs intro English (which is literature, rather than composition, focused) except the most extremely specialized science/engineering programs, while the vast majority of BA students can avoid taking even one math class (and specialty survey classes exist for those who don't want to take a *real* science class). I can understand the English requirement if it focused on *communication*, but instead they're based off of deconstructing Shakespeare and finding the 'hidden meaning' in drug-induced poetry, which virtually all students have to do (and have to do well, if they ever intend to graduate). Meanwhile, we've got students graduating who barely know Newton's laws (I wish I were joking; I've tutored several!), know nothing of evolution, don't understand the first thing about math beyond arithmetic and *maybe* elementary algebra, and in many cases don't know the difference between a theory and a hypothesis. Several think science can be certain, and that "scientific proof" exists. I'm told that while the details vary, this same general standard is held at every nonspecialist postsecondary institution in Canada and the US that I've investigated. What we have here is a gross failure of the education system that leads to the perpetuation of poor understanding of science in the majority, which is a root cause of scientific marginalization.

Apologies for the rant. This has been one of my pet issues for over a decade. That was one of the main reasons my professor had me read The Two Cultures in the first place.

Chris and Sheril,

I applaud the efforts you have made to address the âtwo culturesâ issues! As a science educator I find a resistance to including humanities connections in the science curriculum and not just for logical reasons such as lack of time and state mandated testing. Any discussion that will help bring the âtwo culturesâ together is beneficial.

Two concerns:

1. âthis panel examines the scientific education of our next generation of citizensâ
Where is the science educator on this panel? No matter how many museum programs, weekend and after school enrichment programs, citizen science programs, summer programs, and great NOVA episodes we devise the reality is that most students are still getting their âscience educationâ in the traditional science classroom. Addressing the issues in those classrooms seems to be outside of the scope of this symposium but how will the realities of delivering good science education will still be addressed.

2. If a science teacher did want to attend this symposium $200 may be a bit steep considering the budget cuts in both public and private education that have been occurring lately.

If a science teacher did want to attend this symposium $200 may be a bit steep considering the budget cuts in both public and private education that have been occurring lately.

As always, the fee to attend is dwarfed by the travel costs.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 10 Mar 2009 #permalink

Two Cultures snobbery cuts in both directions. People on the science/engineering side look down on arts/humanities people as mentally weak; people on the arts/humanities side look on the science-engineering people as socially clueless dorks. I once taught a class that was supposed to address its topic in a "bridging" kind of way. I was the science/engineering teacher, and my partner was the arts/humanities teacher. Before every lecture we'd have dinner together and go over what we'd say. For the life of me, I never understand what she was talking about, and I'm pretty sure that she never understood what I was talking about. The resulting schizophrenic experience for the students was pretty jarring.

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 10 Mar 2009 #permalink

We don't set the price, but it takes a lot of money to pull an event like this off, so there have to be ticket prices. If you compare other conferences, I don't think you'll find that they're much cheaper. Also, the student prices we're offering are pretty cheap....

I want to respond to some of the other comments, but first I thought I'd get this in.

I would suggest "The Cambridge Quintet" by John Casti, a scientific fiction starring Snow, Wittgenstein, Schrodinger, Haldane and Turing. Snow's "The Physicists" is also very good. The two cultures issues does tilt on both sides, but I find many more humanities and social science people not understanding science compared to scientists not appreciating the humanities. How many humanities/science people have not heard of the Sokal affair? Now that's an issue that straddled both culture and came down on the side of the sciences.

A world from Italy.
To put it mildly, in Italy if you're not in humanities, you're not "into" culture. The equation art=culture is widespread (and so is math=not culture), and we had the president of the Central Bank (or somesuch) who was absolutely clueless about math, and bragging about it. In the scientific lyceum (highschool, I think) there are 1 or 2 hours a week of science (chemistry, biology, astronomy) much more or latin or italian.
Maybe we revere arts, but most of us (and a high percentage of PMs) despise science, purely and simply. What's better?

Now, I am definitely in the humanities side of the "culture" but I find a lot of the stereotypes on both sides to be painful. Still, whenever I see things about third culture and bridging the two cultures, often it is dominated by the science side. Now, I take this as a well-meaning move, particularly by people like Jonah Lehrer and E.O. Wilson who think a lot of the divide is based on nonsense; however, it often feels like the humanities people are barely being asked to come to the table.

IT is also alienating to heard things like the Sokal affair as proof of the vapidity of all the humanities instead of a specific sub-set of idiotic sociology (the journal was a sociology after all, not a journal of literary criticism).
I have also read a lot of people that Sokal sites in his books and sometimes I wonder if he wasn't quote mining. I generally agree with his thesis about extreme social constructivism.

Finally, you are going to have get more than science teachers on board... you need to get science and English teachers talking. For cross-departmental work in secondary schools it is assumed that English teachers work with social studies and science works with math. This makes some sense, but neurologically speaking grammar, syntax, and logic (which is actually part of my standards as a secondary teacher) are structurally closer to math skills than any others.

"But do the artists ignore science?"

Many contemporary artists do not ignore science, although a great deal of the intellectuals who teach art might being doing so but the also ignore a lot contemporary art. I can think of all kinds of writers (A.R. Ammons, Kurt Vonnegut, George Saunders) who came out of the sciences primarily and love(d) them.

I will say this, as far as the public is concerned, the majority of people in the education system at the secondary and at the none-university post-secondary level are woefully ignorant of both.

But isn't part of the problem in all this is BOTH sides overgeneralizing because of cultural stereotypes and competition for funding between the two curriculums.

As for, "What we have here is a gross failure of the education system that leads to the perpetuation of poor understanding of science in the majority, which is a root cause of scientific marginalization."

I agree, although I say really humanities education in the US isn't doing much better. If you look at the literacy rates and functional reading levels even amongst college graduates, they are declining too.

If we aren't careful, this two cultures won't be "humanities and sciences"--it will be "educated and uneducated" with some very angry marginalized sub-cultures blaming each other for problems that are bigger than either.

A few random comments:

1. There's a neurophysiological basis for the two cultures dispute, arising from the neurophysiological kludges required to get neurons to process time-sequenced information. It's greatly amplified by cultural factors.

2. For much of human history, artists have led the way in a number of sciences. For example, the first accurate anatomical drawings were done by Renaissance artists in Italy, such as Leonardo and Michelangelo. And they created those drawings for purely artistic reasons.

Similarly, almost all discoveries in metallurgy up until the 19th century were made by artists working on jewelry. When science advances their art, artists can be just as dogged, determined, and successful in science as scientists.

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 11 Mar 2009 #permalink

Speaking of the two cultures, linking to this interview is the Scienceblogs equivalent of bombthrowing (at least PZ would say so).

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 11 Mar 2009 #permalink