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Live from New York - It’s Two Cultures!
Mike Treder   May 9, 2009   Ethical Technology  

From the 40th floor of the 7 World Trade Center building in downtown Manhattan, I’m live-blogging today to cover an important symposium exploring the historic gulf between science and the humanities.

In 1959 the prominent British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow gave a pivotal lecture before a crowd of his colleagues in Cambridge. The lecture focused on what he saw as a serious divide between the sciences and the humanities. As a researcher and creative writer he had a unique perspective on the problem and its impact on society at large.

Now, 50 years after that famous lecture, Science & the City is gathering together a wide array of experts to discuss whether or not the divide still exists and how it affects contemporary society. This full-day symposium will feature keynotes by E.O. Wilson, Dean Kamen, and former Congressman John Edward Porter, as well as panel discussions on politics, education, and the history surrounding the two cultures debate.

We should be getting underway in the next five or ten minutes.

9:15 AM

Following a round of introductions and acknowledgments, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, co-authors of the forthcoming book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, kicked off the event with a cute skit in which they staged a mock “argument” between a scientist (Sheril, who is a marine biologist) and Chris (who is a journalist), dramatizing the concept of misunderstandings between the two cultures.

9:25 AM

The renowned biologist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner E.O. Wilson of Harvard University, author of Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, is the morning keynote speaker. Discussing his classic treatise on bringing the sciences and humanities together, Dr. Wilson showed the graphic below, describing it as his “mandala.”

His presentation is an attempt to illuminate the roots of C.P. Snow’s two cultures all the way back to the origins of the human species. How did we become what we are, and what do evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology tell us about the evolution of human culture and today’s conflicts?

Wilson reviewed several of the concepts from his great book, Consilience (a must-read), demonstrating the similarities present in all human cultures, whether “primitive” or “modern.” Although he is an entertaining speaker, I’m not sure that on this occasion he provided any special insight into the questions that we are here to consider at this symposium. He did, however, express his optimism about the future, and concluded by stating his strong belief that the separation between the sciences and the humanities is largely a matter of perception, and does not represent the fundamental reality in which all knowledge is united.

10:25 AM

We’re taking a morning coffee break and will resume in about 20 minutes.

10:50 AM

Back to the symposium now with a panel discussion on “The Two Cultures in Historical Perspective: From Aristotle to ‘Science Wars’ and the ‘Third Culture’.” The plan is to examine the intellectual trends that have carried us to the present moment. Beginning with a survey of academic and disciplinary divides up to and through the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, it includes an introduction to the historical milieu in which C.P. Snow wrote and spoke, and what motivated him to do so.

Panelists are: Ann Blair, Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, Harvard University; Kenneth Miller, Professor of Biology, Brown University; and Guy Ortolano, Assistant Professor of History, University of Virginia and author, The Two Cultures Controversy: Science, Literature and Cultural Politics in Postwar Britain. Moderating the session is D. Graham Burnett, Professor of History, Princeton University.

Ann Blair provided a quick review of historical change in the western world as science emerged to be a strong discipline its own right by the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Prior to that, theology was considered the preeminent field of scholarly study. In the 19th century, the “ologies”—biology, geology, physiology, chemistry, etc.—become established as separate and individually important sciences. Moving forward to today, Professor Blair insisted that science should be clearly demarcated from politics, but that scientists also should learn to be good communicators of scientific knowledge, as it can help inform political and social discourse.

Kenneth Miller, a cell biologist, is best known for his role in the debate over the teaching of evolution in American public schools. He spoke briefly about the state of this ongoing legal and societal conflict in the United States, and his own experience in book writing and testifying in court trials related to how and whether science classes teaching evolution also should include creationism or “intelligent design.”

Guy Ortolano recently authored a book (see link above) about the C.P. Snow lecture that inspired today’s symposium. In researching Snow’s papers and notes while writing his book, Ortalano says he was surprised to find that perhaps Snow was not as convinced about the actual division between the two cultures as his lecture—and its subsequent dissection—might suggest.

Moderator Graham Burnett then gave a brief summary of Snow’s lecture (after asking how many in the audience had previously read it; about 1/3 of the 200+ people in the room raised their hands). Burnett emphasized that the final section of the lectured, subtitled “Rich and Poor,” was what Snow considered to be the heart of the issue. In fact, it is fairly well known that after the talk’s publication, Snow was quoted as saying that he regretted not making that the title of the lecture as a whole. He believed that unless the humanities and the sciences can bridge their misunderstandings, the underdeveloped world would never receive the help from the West that they so badly needed.

In audience Q&A, I asked whether this perception of a division between these two cultures was as prevalent in the East (Japan, China, India, etc.) as in the West. The panelists all agreed that science as a whole is almost universally viewed as a Western invention, and that the idea of a gulf between sciences and humanities has been exported to the rest of the world.

Other questioners asked about Snow’s personal background (he was a trained scientist, a successful knowledge, and an influential nonfiction writer) and whether his Two Cultures lecture was perhaps fundamentally intended as a political or ideological polemic as opposed to an academic inquiry (apparently that’s a reasonable supposition). In conclusion, the question was posed to the audience and for consideration during the rest of the day: Since most of today’s early speakers—and most attendees—are involved in science, from what perspective should we view the humanities?

11:55 AM

The next session is on “How to More Effectively Communicate Science Issues to the Public.” The Two Cultures divide has often been understood as a rift between science and the humanities. But in truth, C.P. Snow’s interest was to bring an appreciation of science into politics, policymaking, and international affairs. Read today, Snow’s lecture points not to one rift—between science and the literary sphere—but rather to many. What role can the media play in amending these miscommunications?

Panelists are: Paula S. Apsell, Executive Producer of NOVA, and Director of WGBH (Boston) Science Unit; Ira Flatow, Executive Producer and Host, NPR’s Science Friday; Andrew Revkin, environment reporter, The New York Times; and Carl Zimmer, author and science essayist.

To begin with, all of the panelists seemed to agree that there are actually more than two cultures that are sometimes in conflict. In addition to the sciences and the humanities, there also are politicians, the public, and both left and right interest groups, among others. Paula Apsell emphasized that, in her experience as a public television producer, the greatest challenge to scientific progress may not come from literary intellectuals, but from a middle class anti-intellectual “couch potato” generation who have, in her words, “no aspirations” to learn and understand science. Ira Flatow agreed with this and told a story about the dumbing down of TV news, where even national network anchors eagerly project their personal ignorance of scientific concepts as a way of bonding with the “common man.”

Ira Flatow challenged scientists to be more technically proficient in communicating their projects and their findings to the public, making use of interactive websites or posting links to Google Earth. At the very least, he said, scientists should know how to write a blog, or be able to explain in 15 minutes in front of a TV camera what they do. Paula Apsell, who said she has been doing science journalism for a long time, observed that things seem to be better now than in the past: more scientists are more willing to talk to the media, and they are getting better at it. But she also spoke about the different challenges in creating science shows for public television versus shows that may try to pass for science on commercial TV—such as “Dirty Jobs”—where it’s all about getting audience numbers and selling ads.

Now the discussion seems to be veering toward, why isn’t science sexy? Flatow and Revkin seem convinced that there is a large mainstream potential audience for science literacy, but that there exists some sort of at-large cultural mindset, or at least a barrier of resistance in media boardrooms, that science is not cool or not of general interest. Why is that?

Q&A: An audience member asked whether there is room anywhere for spirituality in the sciences, or at least in presentation of the sciences. The panel did not seem very supportive of the idea. A scientist and educator stood up to point out that all of the panelists in this session are science journalists, and that many scientists don’t like the job that these journalists do. Andrew Revkin said part of the problem is poor communication from scientists to journalists, and especially to follow through when there are disagreements. From the perspective of the journalists, scientists should take at least half of the blame.


Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.


I think it unfortunate that you allowed Revkin’s comments regarding the sharing of blame to end this section.  It may be the way it ended the discussion, but as a consumer of science journalism, I am not willing to agree with that assessment

Just a few days before this session, the Senate Committee on Communications and Technology held a hearing on the Future of Journalism.  I was particularly interested in the testimony of David Simon (Producer: The Wire and one time Reporter) as well as that of Stephen Coll (ex-Editor, Washington Post.)  They both made reference to the loss of expertise and institutional knowledge in the media that is happening every day.  Revkin is one of the few who manage to communicate the science but even he is not without his critics for allowing the he-said, she-said appearance of fairness overshadow the presentation of fact.

If science journalism, and the public perception of science has a problem, we might look to the hearing in Washington for a solution rather than to this discussion in NY.

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