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Live from New York: Two Cultures, Part Two
Mike Treder   May 9, 2009   Ethical Technology  

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, a wide array of experts are gathered together to discuss whether or not the divide still exists and how it affects contemporary society.

This morning we covered the opening keynote, and two panel discussions (see Part One). Now we move on to Part Two.

1:25 PM

After a pleasant lunch, we’re now hearing an address from John Porter, chair of Research America‘s Board of Directors and a partner in Hogan & Hartson’s Washington, DC, law office. Previously, he served 21 years as a congressman from the 10th district in Illinois. In Congress he was chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education; vice-chair of the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations; and vice-chair of the Subcommittee on Military Construction.

Porter said that only about 4% of members of the U.S. Congress has any science background. So, we cannot expect them to do the job they need to do to promote science, technology, innovation, and research without our input. He bemoaned the fact that half of Americans believe that creationism should be taught side by side with evolution in public schools. This illustrates how much of a challenge we face.

Porter strongly encouraged everyone to get involved in the public and political process of putting scientific issues high on the agenda. He recommended contacting local legislators and candidates for legislative office and offering to assist them by being their scientific advisors, or by forming a science committee that will help these candidates and office holders to learn about things that are almost always a mystery to them. 

2:15 PM

The first afternoon panel is on “Restoring Science to Its Rightful Place in Politics.” The moderator is Chris Mooney, who was the driving force behind the organization of this event, along with his blogging partner, Sheril Kirshenbaum (who will moderate the next panel).

Panelists include: Darlene Cavalier, founder of; Matthew Chapman, Darwin descendent, film maker, author, and founder Science Debate 2008; Francesca Grifo, Senior Scientist and Director, Scientific Integrity Program, Union of Concerned Scientists; Shawn Otto, co-founder and CEO, Science Debate 2008; and John Porter, who was also our lunchtime speaker.

Matthew and Shawn discussed their

ultimately unsuccessful

effort* in 2008 to get the two major U.S. presidential candidates—John McCain and Barack Obama—to agree to have a debate focused solely on science and scientific issues, especially around energy policy, global warming, climate change, and environmental policy. Although the debate never took place, the organizers thought it was not a coincidence that President Obama went into office with the largest and best prepared science policy team of any administration in history.

*UPDATE: Shawn Otto writes to remind us that although their proposed Science Debate never took place live, their efforts did not ultimately fail. Obama and McCain engaged in an online side-by-side answer to science and environment questions at this location.

Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists noted that her organization has been successful in getting the attention of scientists, journalists, and politicians to acknowledge the importance of transparency, regulatory reform, and improving quality of scientific advice, and monitoring of policy development. John Porter spoke a bit more about his efforts with Research America, and his experience in the Congress, and he stated his desire for a generation of concerned scientists and supporters of science to stand up boldly in defense of science. Darlene Cavalier said that one of her biggest causes is to have the U.S. Congress reopen the Office of Technology Assessment. A couple of panelists noted that our amazement toward science seems to be gone. In the 1920s, American newspapers would feature banner headlines about the newest discoveries in chemistry, physics, or astronomy.

During Q&A, Andrew Maynard of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson Institute asked a great question: Is there a need for a distinction between understanding of basic science, and understanding about the implications of science?

3:20 PM

Sheril Kirshenbaum, co-author of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, is the moderator for the final panel of the day, which is on “A Better Future through Science Citizenship.” According to the symposium agenda, when it came to addressing the divide between the Two Cultures, C.P. Snow was unequivocal: The only ultimate solution, he said, lies in education. How does that lesson hold up today? This panel will examine the scientific education of our next generation of citizens.

Panelists are: Stacy Baker, Biology Teacher, Calverton School, Huntingtown, MD; Kevin Finneran, Editor-in-Chief, Issues in Science and Technology, the policy journal of the National Academy of Sciences; Adrienne Klein, Co-Director, Science and the Arts, The Graduate Center of The City University of New York; and Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology, Duke University.

Ms. Baker showed a short video of her 9th grade students talking about how they thought science education could be made more successful in their school. Most of the kids said they would find it really inspiring to have a working scientist come and speak at their class. Professor Pimm told us about his background, growing up 50 years ago in Great Britain, where educational opportunities were quite limited. But he said that lack of advanced education, or a focus on the humanities, is no excuse for not learning something about science, because it is an essential part of basic cultural literacy in the 21st century.

Adrienne Klein from CUNY had a series of slides comparing scientific images with visual art inspired by those images. Then she listed a few pieces of performance art that also are inspired by science, and showed a video from a multimedia performance piece that will air on PBS in 2010. Kevin Finneran meneioned again that there are numerous “divides” apart from C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures. He named the tension between physical science and the life sciences, and between science and technology as examples. Finneran encouraged scientists to listen more, to be humble, and to be more open-minded about others’ points of view.

During Q&A, the old issue of valuing the teaching profession lower than other fields was brought up. It certainly does seem to be an ongoing problem in the Unites States, but no one seemed to have a good answer for it. Another interesting question raised was whether the process of going through adolescence somehow stunts the curiosity of most adults. Scientists seem (according to the questioner) to remain more childlike and thus retain their innate interest in finding out how the world works.

4:45 PM

Our concluding keynote speaker is Dean Kamen, an entrepreneur and inventor of numerous technologies designed to improve lives, famed for inventing the Segway. He was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President Clinton, and he is the founder of FIRST, an organization dedicated to motivating the next generation to understand, use, and enjoy science and technology.

Kamen began by saying that although there are very educated people in the sciences and technologies, and very educated people in the arts and humanities, the fact that they may not always think or act the same way is not all that important. For him, a far more significant problem is that most of the six billion people in the world do not fit into either of those categories. Most of the world’s people are poor, uneducated, and ignorant, almost always through no fault of their own.

We viewed a great clip where Kamen was a guest on the Stephen Colbert Show, and then Kamen told us about his involvement with FIRST and his commitment to education. He also quoted Albert Einstein who said, “The main difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.”

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.


To require less electricity, my native S. Texas needs to convert from mechanical to non-electric
air-conditioning(LithiumBromide absorption). The short-term economics are not good but the ethics are very much in favor of massive conversion ASAP. But you know that Texas is a backwater, ethics-wise. Can you help us?

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