Wrong Kind of Snow: time to forget the Two Cultures

There should be a version of Godwin’s law that applies to science communication. It would be something like this: “As any discussion of science communication grows longer, the probability of an explanation involving Snow’s Two Cultures approaches 1.”

As with Godwin’s original law which highlighted the danger of overusing Nazi analogies in discussion, so too the inevitable referencing of the Two Cultures can be a substitute for a poor argument undermining it’s credibility.

The law can be extended beyond science communication to any discussion of science’s relationship with anything that is regarded as not-science eg science and the arts, science and religion, science and society, science and humanities…

There are two reasons why we need to be able to refer to this new law.

Firstly, the more we attempt to bridge the “two cultures” divide the more we perpetuate the idea that there is a divide to be bridged. Maybe the problem isn’t so much with society being split into two cultures as with Snow’s saying that it is.

Secondly, those who invoke Snow’s phrase never seem to have read him. Almost invariably, it is the wrong kind of Snow.(1)

Snow first coined the term in a New Statesman article, but it was his Rede lecture of 1959 (subsequently published) that grabbed the headlines.

Drawing on personal experience of moving between literary and scientific circles, Snow identified a problem which he saw afflicted the entire western world:

I believe the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups….at one pole we have the literary intellectuals, who incidentally while no one was looking took to referring to themselves as ‘intellectuals’ as though there were no others…..Literary intellectuals at one pole – at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension – sometime (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding.

This is about as far as it goes for most people when they make their appeals to Snow and the Two Cultures. But in Snow’s lecture this was simply a springboard for him to show the importance of science in averting the three menaces of nuclear war, over-population and the poverty gap between rich and poor nations.

The full title for Snow’s essay is “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution”. It is divided into four sections and it is only the first section that concerns itself with the ‘two cultures’. What is often not remarked upon is the fact that the bulk of the essay is about the ‘scientific revolution’ and exporting it across the globe. Taken as a whole, the essay is not so much about a cultural divide as about promoting one side of that divide. It is science, and in particular applied science, that he puts forward as the solution to the worlds ills.

Along with rich nations providing money, machines and education what developing countries needed was trained scientists and engineers who would muck in, do the job and get out. In short, it was the ultimate technological fix with scientists and engineers whizzing around the world like a cross between Christian missionaries and comic book super-heroes.

For Snow science was the “real” culture and the rest was only defined by its incomprehension and opposition to it. In the duality of two cultures, non-science was characterised through absence and antagonism, ignorance where there should be knowledge, darkness where there should be light. To be “not science” means to be “unscientific” (or somehow less than science) and this pervasive unscientific flavour is often “on the point of turning anti-scientific.”

Even though the main issues of the lecture were poverty, population and nuclear war, it is the very dualism of the two cultures that is Snow’s damaging legacy. The more we accept the idea of two cultures as our starting point the more we have to find ways to bridge the gap we have imagined in the first place.

In the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king, but that is no reason why we should wilfully close one eye. Seeing with both science and humanities gives us stereoscopic vision. What we see may not differ much from eye to eye, but together there is a qualitative difference, we see things in the round.

In 1963, when he revisited the problem with a “second look”, Snow acknowledged that a new “third culture” was emerging from a “mixed bag” that included history of science, social history, sociology, economics and psychology. To modern eyes this Third Culture looks a lot like Science and Technology Studies. It is ironic, therefore, that work within STS should provoke fears that science is once again under attack.

Some of this is edited from Understanding Popular Science

1. For non-UK readers this is a reference to an excuse given by British Rail in 1991 (at least as reported in the media). Rail services were cancelled not simply because of the severe weather conditions, but because it was the “wrong kind of snow”.

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4 thoughts on “Wrong Kind of Snow: time to forget the Two Cultures

  1. Oddly enough, Leavis shared Snow’s view to the extent that he agreed with TS Eliot that a ‘dissociation of sensibility’ (between ‘art’ and ‘science’) had set in around 1660 and from which we have never recovered. He thought Snow was wrong to equate the two cultures in value. I agree that the whole debate is sterile.

  2. Pingback: A Modified “Godwin’s Law” | Darin Hayton

  3. Pingback: Giants’ Shoulders #63: Live from Deptford | Halley's Log

  4. “Death and Furniture” is one of my bugbears, and I’ve seen both happen in ludicrous circumstances. When an empiricist (or Marxist, or naive realist) runs out of arguments against even moderate social constructionism, there is an appeal to either the reality of Death (sometimes, the Holocaust, sometimes serious disease) or the reality of Furniture (the table is pounded, like Dr Johnson kicking a rock).

    At that point, one can only leave the room or change the subject.

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