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The Two Cultures at Fifty May 8, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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On May 7, 1959, C. P. Snow gave his famous lecture on “the two cultures”.  The event took on such resonance that there are now 50th-anniversary events taking place in some major institutions of science to acknowledge its significance.  See the New York Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, the latest Nature, and the folks from my old neighborhood.

The event is taken as an opportunity to reflect on and question the relevance of Snow’s message.  But for me Snow has taken on the sort of red-flag qualities that other people in the history of science see in intelligent design or bad pop science.  Why am I so exercised by Snow, of all people, and not these other things? Aside from his direct (albeit marginal) place in my research, I think it’s because Snow exists in a somewhat uncomfortable space between the uncontrollable bazaar of public ideas and the coherence of useful conversation.  The bazaar will always be with us.  But Snow helps experts who should know better think they’re having a good conversation, when it’s not the case at all.

The way Snow did this was through a shrewd combination of good-but-obvious advice, bad history, and issue advocacy.  As UVa New York University prof Guy Ortolano details in his new (and lamentably expensive) book, The Two Cultures Controversy (2009), when Snow made his argument, he had specific concerns for British university culture and civil service policy in mind.  However, Snow ensconced his mundane advocacy within an epochal and obviously desirable project—overcoming cultural dissonance and barriers of communication.  It was the historical failure or inadequacy of this project that made his (or others’!) specific prescriptions seem obviously desirable.

As David Edgerton has pointed out in Warfare State and elsewhere (yes, I’m on about Edgerton again, but it’s important dammit), Snow was what he calls an “anti-historian” of British science and technology.  For the “two cultures” to have any bite, Snow’s program had to have its historically dominant opponents.  I used to take Edgerton to mean simply that Snow and others omitted or played down certain aspects of history, i.e. they weren’t very good or thorough historians.  Ortolano, however, took the point better than I did in his article “The literature and the science of ‘two cultures’ historiography,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 39 (2008): 143-150, where he notes that anti-history is necessarily self-negating.  It is not simply a question of neglect.  Rather, it is a history where its own cogency and raison d’être actually hinge on a history of absence and failure of the subject it is narrating.

Edgerton has used the term “inverted Whiggism” to describe the historiography of failure.  You can always find failure, and if you tell enough histories about it, it begins to define the narratives we feel defined history.  I like the concept a lot (though it doesn’t play as big a role as “anti-history” in Edgerton’s writing).  Just as Whig history justifies the present, so inverted Whig history justifies a program of reform.

For Snow, the general cultural failures of Britain justified reforms to education and the civil service.  If by chance we aren’t so impressed by these issues, look to Nature‘s articles on Snow to find others.  The editors write that we need to further address Snow’s often overlooked points about applying ourselves to global poverty.  Oxford art historian Martin Kemp observes that Snow and his arch-critic F. R. Leavis were off-track in their wranglings with each other; he concludes instead that disciplinary specialization is the real problem.  Science writer Georgina Ferry writes that the real divide to be overcome is between optimists and pessimists.

These are all fine sentiments, but don’t really tell us much about our past and present condition or what we should aim for in the future.  After all, just as Britain was a highly scientific nation in Snow’s day by any reasonable measure, so we pay lots of attention to global poverty.  We have long fought against the more evil tendencies of specialization.  The fight between optimists and pessimists has raged for centuries without preventing the opposing sensibilities from resulting in good policy.  None of this means we shouldn’t “do more”, but it doesn’t tell us what, exactly, needs doing.

By supposing the path to reform to be obvious, and by supposing the main obstacles to be cultural blindness, we render our conversations essentially useless.  In Nature Joanne Baker excerpts another classic from the Snow oeuvre, his 1960 lectures, Science and Government, detailing the pre-World War II conflict between Henry Tizard and Churchill’s friend and science adviser Frederick Lindemann.  In the lectures, Snow famously lionized Tizard as a sympathetic listener and deft bureaucratic organizer, and demonized Lindemann as an arrogant authoritarian.

It’s well-known Snow was unfair in his characterizations.  But the point was to make instrumental use of the tale.  Baker shows us the incident to remind us of what science advice can look like behind closed doors, and for Snow, the incident was mostly valuable for its moral: be like Tizard!  Well, yes.  As Nature‘s editors helpfully inform us, “Narrow-mindedness and any intellectual arrogance that lies behind it remain as unforgivable now as they were a half a century ago.”  Who’s going to argue with that?

Here are the perils of obvious-but-good advice.  It’s like complaining about “the bureaucracy”.  Everyone knows that bureaucracies are a nightmare, and everyone would love to explode the bureaucratic paradigm, but, really, no one in their right mind wants to get rid of bureaucracies.  Nevertheless, by complaining about them, it makes you sound like you’re saying something novel and interesting.  So then you set out to reform them, and that’s when the squabbling begins.

When our conversations deteriorate into unhelpful truisms, we only hurt ourselves.  The tough and intricate decisions that could benefit from better articulation, wider discussion, and nuanced history will still be made, but we won’t know what they are, let alone participate in the conversations that produce them.

Snow hasn’t prevented good conversations from happening, and we haven’t needed him to have bad ones, but he’s been helping us have bad ones for fifty years.  This is a sobering irony, though: by advocating for “science” in national culture, bad conversation was precisely what Snow thought he was fighting against.


1. Will Thomas - May 9, 2009

Reading over Guy’s 2008 review article again (which is well worth reading, if you have access to the journal), I’d like to quote a paragraph, in which I think he makes the key point succinctly:

“From the moment that C. P. Snow concluded his Rede Lecture in May 1959, discussions about the ‘two cultures’ have proliferated steadily. This essay began by observing that a consistent feature of these discussions has been the range of concerns to which the ‘two cultures’ has been yoked. This pattern is likely to be repeated in the coming few years, as we approach the fiftieth anniversary first of Snow’s lecture and then of Leavis’s response. Yet the ability of commentators to adapt the ‘two cultures’ to various ends has ensured that many of these discussions tend to recycle their claims. It is thus all too common to read that the ‘two cultures’ are converging, or that some new development promises to bridge them, or that present circumstances render their continued separation intolerable, or that there is, after all, only one culture…. The circulation of such cliches results from the multiplicity of conversations taking the ‘two cultures’ as their touchstone: they may share a common point of departure, but they lack a common body of knowledge.” My emphasis.

Very nicely put. Whether you utilize, modify, dismiss, or invert Snow, the fact that you can be having a conversation about pretty much any set of particulars shows that Snow functions as more of a license to comment, than as a useful thing to build on. This is a good thing to study the history of, but isn’t really useful for moving forward.

2. Sage Ross - June 9, 2009

This is a bit late, but we’ve been having some related discussions about Snow over at Cliopatria in recent weeks:

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