Two cultures

Writer Peter Dizekes opines in today’s NY Times on Charles P. Snow’s famous “Two Cultures” essay, “Our Two Cultures”.

So why did Snow think the supposed gulf between the two cultures was such a problem? Because, he argues in the latter half of his essay, it leads many capable minds to ignore science as a vocation, which prevents us from solving the worlds main issue, the wealth gap caused by industrialization, which threatens global stability. This disparity between the rich and the poor has been noticed . . . most acutely and not unnaturally, by the poor, Snow explains, adding: It wont last for long. Whatever else in the world we know survives to the year 2000, that wont. (For some reason, Y2K predictions and Snow did not mix well.) Thus Snow, whose service in World War II involved giving scientists overseas assignments, recommends dispatching a corps of technologists to industrialize the third world.
This brings The Two Cultures to its ultimate concern, which has less to do with intellectual life than with geopolitics. If the democracies dont modernize undeveloped countries, Snow argues, the Communist countries will, leaving the West an enclave in a different world. Only by erasing the gap between the two cultures can we ensure wealth and self-government, he writes, adding, We have very little time.

It’s an interesting essay. I think Snow’s argument boils down to one point: the civilized world is supported by the few who understand science (meaning mainly physics and engineering, sprinkled with some finance and economics), and these few support a mass of parasites whose indifference to science endangers their continued existence. It’s not an uncommon sentiment, fifty years later.

On the other hand, since the same educational curricula that have required Shakespeare for fifty years have also required basic science, Snow’s comparison of thermodynamics with Shakespeare, and mass and acceleration with the ability to read fall flat. If there are intelligentsia who don’t understand science, it’s not merely because they have a culture that fails to value science, it’s because science really is a different kind of thinking. Because 50 years later, I still think you’d be hard-pressed to find non-scientist public intellectuals who could explain mass and acceleration.