Are there still two hopelessly divided cultures?

March 19, 1999

No: Simon Jenkins, The Times columnist "Snow drew a false dichotomy. There is one culture and science is a specialism within it in the same way that archaeology or mathematics or languages are all aspects of our culture.

"Separating off science in this peculiar way and calling it a culture on its own did science a great disservice. But the disservice became much more serious when it was hijacked as a dichotomy by the education service.

"And so although we do not have two cultures we certainly have two educations. The exercise in trying to get more people to study science that has now been going on for about a quarter of a century is almost a complete failure.

"By making huge slews of children do science well beyond the level they feel they need it, you lower the quality of entrance into science courses at universities and you produce tremendous hostility to the subject among young people.

"We are turning out far too many trained scientists, having conned them into believing science is a culture when, in fact, it's a sort of vocational training. All of them are unemployed, miserable and joining Save Our Science lobbies as a result."

Yes: John Carey, Merton professor of English literature, Oxford University

"The cultural divide still exists, but since the Snow lecture the general reader has learnt more about science than the arts establishment has.

"Broadcaster Melvyn Bragg and scientists such as Lewis Wolpert, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould have done an enormous amount to bridge the gap. Popular science writing and the public awareness of science have been transformed. But a lot of arts undergraduates are still pretty ignorant of science.

"In the introduction to the The Faber Book of Science I told an anecdote about an (English literature) seminar at Oxford where I was studying a Donne poem and the question of the way in which the blood got from one side of the heart to the other came up.

"Donne said he did not know. It was one of the mysteries of medicine at the beginning of the 17th century. I said, 'oh by the way, how does it?' and no one seemed to know about the circulation of the blood or the fact it was discovered by an Englishman not long after the poem was written. A bit alarming really from first-class undergraduates in the final year of an arts course."

No: David Edgerton, professor of the history of science and technology, Imperial College

"F. R. Leavis was right to regard Snow as a nullity and an exceedingly vulgar technocrat. Snow set up a ridiculous dichotomy between science and literary intellectuals. What he really seemed to have in mind was a distinction between physicists and novelists, which was clearly an absurd contrast.

"We should all grow up. We should recognise that universities teach and research in a vast range of specialisms.

"After 40 years it is remarkable we take this lecture seriously. The two cultures argument is wrong and exceedingly stale."

Yes: Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution and professor of pharmacology, Oxford University "I come from a quite rare situation of having done classics originally and then having changed to science late in life so I have had a foot in both camps. Certainly the culture, the way of life, the mind-set is very different in the two disciplines.

"But nothing has really changed since Snow's day. In fact, today's scientists are more technocratic than they used to be. Many do not know what main verbs are and cannot write. Issues such as the nature of consciousness are still regarded by most with philistine suspicion.

"Arts people should certainly know what a gene is and what cloning means. For the areas where science is impacting on society you should be well informed enough so that you can have a sensible opinion rather than a prejudiced one."

Yes: Lewis Wolpert, professor of biology as applied to medicine, University College London

"Our political masters have very little understanding of science and that is a problem. Many scientific issues affect our lives and it would be nice for the public to have a better understanding of science. A good example is the recent debate about genetically modified foods, which was a measure of abysmal scientific ignorance that was just unbelievable.

"Virtually all scientific ideas confound common sense. There is no other body of knowledge like science; science really is special. But its unnatural nature does make it a little bit more difficult to get access to. Schools do not help. Early specialisation is a disaster."

No: Gillian Beer, professor of English literature, Cambridge University "His particular symptomisation just does not work any more. He was writing in the period of the cold war when so much attention was being concentrated on nuclear problems.

"There is a kind of popular interest in science now in a way that there simply was not then.

"When you go back to that essay it's so anecdotal, so parochial. But there is something in it that we have all forgotten, which was that Snow originally wanted to call it 'The rich and the poor'.

"The second half of the argument is how do we close up the gap in the world between the rich and the poor. Isn't that all going to have to come through science and technology and must not science and technology therefore always be given precedence now?"

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