The Two Cultures, as per C. P. Snow

I’d never heard of C.P. Snow until Steven Pinker brought him up, but apparently he’s quite the deal. Much of it stems from a lecture Snow gave nearly sixty years ago. It’s been discussed and debated (funny meeting you here, Lawrence Krauss) to the point that I, several generations and one ocean away, can grab a reprint of the original with an intro about as long as the lecture itself.

Snow’s core idea is this: two types of intellectuals, scientists and elite authors, don’t talk with one another and are largely ignorant of each other’s work. His quote about elite authors being ignorant of physics is plastered everywhere, so I’d like to instead repeat what he said about scientists being ignorant of literature:

As one would expect, some of the very best scientists had and have plenty of energy and interest to spare, and we came across several who had read everything that literary people talk about. But that’s very rare. Most of the rest, when one tried to probe for what books they had read, would modestly confess “Well, I’ve tried a bit of Dickens”, rather as though Dickens were an extraordinarily esoteric, tangled and dubiously rewarding writer, something like Ranier Maria Rilke. In fact that is exactly how they do regard him: we thought that discovery, that Dickens had been transformed into the type-specimen of literary incomprehensibility, was one of the oddest results of the whole exercise. […]

Remember, these are very intelligent men. Their culture is in many ways an exacting and admirable one. It doesn’t contain much art, with the exception, and important exception, of music. Verbal exchange, insistent argument. Long-playing records. Colour photography. The ear, to some extent the eye. Books, very little, though perhaps not many would go so far as one hero, who perhaps I should admit was further down the scientific ladder than the people I’ve been talking about – who, when asked what books he read, replied firmly and confidently: “Books? I prefer to use my books as tools.” It was very hard not to let the mind wander – what sort of tool would a book make? Perhaps a hammer? A primitive digging instrument?

[Snow, Charles P. “The two cultures.” (1959): pg. 6-7]

To be honest, I have a hard time comprehending why the argument exists. If I were to transpose it to my place and time, it would be like complaining that Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Michael Ondaatje are shockingly ignorant of basic physics, while if you were to quiz famous Canadian scientists about Canadian literature you’d eventually drag out a few mentions of Farley Mowat. I… don’t see the problem? Yes, it would be great if more people knew more things, but if you want to push the frontiers of knowledge you’ve got to focus on the specifics. Given that your time is (likely) finite, that means sacrificing some general knowledge. It would be quite ridiculous to ask someone in one speciality to explain something specific to another.

If we forget the scientific culture, then the rest of western intellectuals have never tried, wanted, or been able to understand the industrial revolution, much less accept it. Intellectuals, in particular literary intellectuals, are natural Luddites. [pg. 11-12]

The academics had nothing to do with the industrial revolution; as Corrie, the old Master of Jesus, said about trains running into Cambridge on Sunday, `It is equally displeasing to God and to myself’. So far as there was any thinking in nineteenth-century industry, it was left to cranks and clever workmen. American social historians have told me that much the same was true of the
U.S. The industrial revolution, which began developing in New England fifty years or so later than ours, apparently received very little educated talent, either then or later in the nineteenth century. [pg. 12]

… do we understand how they have happened? Have we begun to comprehend even the old industrial revolution? Much less the new scientific revolution in which we stand? There never was any thing more necessary to comprehend. [pg. 14]

Yep, that’s Snow trashing authors of high fiction for not having an understanding of the Industrial Revolution. It’s not an isolated case, either; Snow also criticises Cambridge art graduates for not being aware of “the human organisation” behind buttons [pg. 15]. He might as well have spent several paragraphs yelling at physicists for being unable to explain why Houlden Caulfield wanted to be a gas station attendant, he’s that far from reality.

Which gets us to the real consequences of Snow’s divide, and how he proposes heading them off at the pass.

To say we have to educate ourselves or perish, is a little more melodramatic than the facts warrant. To say, we have to educate ourselves or watch a steep decline in our own lifetime, is about right. We can’t do it, I am now convinced, without breaking the existing pattern. I know how difficult this is. It goes against the emotional grain of nearly all of us. In many ways, it goes against my own, standing uneasily with one foot in a dead or dying world and the other in a world that at all costs we must see born. I wish I could be certain that we shall have the courage of what our minds tell us. [pg. 20]

This disparity between the rich and the poor has been noticed. It has been noticed, most acutely and not unnaturally, by the poor. Just because they have noticed it, it won’t last for long. Whatever else in the world we know survives to the year 2000, that won’t. Once the trick of getting rich is known, as it now is, the world can’t survive half rich and half poor. It’s just not on.

The West has got to help in this transformation. The trouble is, the West with its divided culture finds it hard to grasp just how big, and above all just how fast, the transformation must be. [pg. 21-22]

So we need to educate scientists about the works of elite authors, and those authors about the work of scientists… because otherwise Britain will become impoverished, and/or we’d end poverty faster?! That doesn’t square up with the data. Let’s look at what the government of Namibia, a well-off African country, thinks will help end poverty.

  • Improving access to Community Skills Development Centres (Cosdecs) in remote areas and aligning the curriculum with that of the Vocational Training Centres.
  • To improve career options and full integration into the modern economy, there is need to introduce vocational subjects at upper primary and junior secondary levels. This will facilitate access to vocational education and labour market readiness by the youth.
  • Improving productivity of the subsistence agriculture by encouraging the use of both traditional and modern fertiliser and by providing information on modern farming methods.
  • The dismantling of the “Red Line” seems to hold some promise for livestock farmers in the North who were previously prevented access to markets outside of the northern regions.
  • Consider establishing a third economic hub for Namibia to relief Khomas and Erongo from migration pressure. With abundant water resources, a fertile land and being along the Trans Zambezi Corridor, Kavango East is a good candidate for an agricultural capital and a logistic growth point.
  • Given persistent drop-out rates especially in remote rural areas, there is need for increased access to secondary education by addressing both the distance and the quality of education.
  • Educate youth on the danger of adolescence pregnancy both in terms of exclusion from the modern economy and health implications.
  • Given the established relationship between access to services, poverty and economic inclusion, there is need for government to strive towards a regional balanced provision of access to safe drinking water, sanitation, electricity and housing. [pg. 58-59]

I don’t see any references to science in there, nor any to Neshani Andreas or Joseph Diescho. Britain’s the same story. But who knows, maybe an author/chemist who thought world poverty would end by the year 2000 has a better understanding of poverty than government agencies and century-old NGOs tasked with improving social conditions.

There’s a greater problem here, too. Let’s detour to something Donald Trump said:

Trump: “The Democrats don’t care about our military. They don’t.” He says that is also true of the border and crime

How would we prove that Democrats don’t care about the military, the US border, or crime? The easiest approach would be to look at their national platform and see it those things are listed there (they’re not, I checked). A much harder one would be to parse their actions instead. If we can find a single Democrat who does care about crime, then we’ve refuted the claim in the deductive sense.

But there’s still an inductive way to keep it alive: if “enough” Democrats don’t care about those things, then Trump can argue he meant the statements informally and thus it’s still true-ish. That’s a helluva lot of work, and since the burden is on the person making the claim it’s not my job to run around gathering data for Trump’s argument. If I’m sympathetic to Trump’s views or pride myself in being intellectually “fair,” however, there’s a good chance I’d do some of his homework anyway.

Lurking behind all of the logical stuff, however, is an emotional component. The US-Mexico border, the military, and crime all stir strong emotions in his audience; by positioning his opponents as being opposed to “positive” things, at the same time implying that he’s in favour of them, Trump’s angering his audience and motivating them to being less charitable towards his opponents.

That’s the language of hate: emotionally charged false statements about a minority, to be glib. It’s all the more reason to be careful when talking about groups.

The non-scientists have a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly optimistic, unaware of man’s condition. On the other hand, the scientists believe that the literary intellectuals are totally lacking in foresight, peculiarly unconcerned with their brother men,
in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to restrict both art and thought to the existential moment. And so on. Anyone with a mild talent for invective could produce plenty of this kind of subterranean back-chat. [pg. 3]

If you side with either scientists or elite authors, this is emotionally charged language. At the same time, I have no idea how you’d even begin to prove half of that. Snow’s defence consists of quoting Adam Rutherford and T.S. Elliot, all the rest comes from his experiences with “intimate friends among both scientists and writers” and “living among these groups and much more.” [pg. 1] Nonetheless, that small sample set is enough for Snow to assert “this is a problem of the entire West.” [pg. 2] Calling scientists or elite authors a minority is a stretch, but the net result is similar: increased polarisation between the two groups, and the promotion of harmful myths.

Yes, Snow would go on propose a “third culture” which would bridge the gap, but if the gap doesn’t exist in the first place this amounts to selling you a cure after convincing you you’re sick.

What’s worse is that if you’re operating in a fact-deficient environment, you’ve got tremendous flexibility to tweak things to your liking. Is J.K. Rowling a “literary intellectual?” She doesn’t fit into the highbrow culture Snow was talking about, but she is a well-known and influential author who isn’t afraid to let her opinions be known (for better or worse). Doesn’t that make her a decision maker, worthy of inclusion? And if we’ve opened the door for non-elite authors, why not add other people from the humanities? Or social scientists?

This also means that one of the harshest critics of C. P. Snow is C. P. Snow.

I have been argued with by non-scientists of strong down-to-earth interests. Their view is that it is an over-simplification, and that
if one is going to talk in these terms there ought to be at least three cultures. They argue that, though they are not scientists themselves, they would share a good deal of the scientific feeling. They would have as little use-perhaps, since they knew more about it, even less use-for the recent literary culture as the scientists themselves. …

I respect those arguments. The number 2 is a very dangerous number: that is why the dialectic is a dangerous process. Attempts to divide anything into two ought to be regarded with much suspicion. I have thought a long time about going in for further refinements: but in the end I have decided against. I was searching for something a little more than a dashing metaphor, a good deal less than a cultural map: and for those purposes the two cultures is about right, and subtilising any more would bring more disadvantages than it’s worth. [pg. 5]

He’s aware that some people regard “the two cultures” as an oversimplification, he recognises the problem with dividing people in two, and his response amounts to “well, I’m still right.” He’s working with such a deficiency of facts that he can undercut his own arguments and still keep making them as if no counter-argument existed.

I think it is only fair to say that most pure scientists have themselves been devastatingly ignorant of productive industry, and many still are. It is permissible to lump pure and applied scientists into the same scientific culture, but the gaps are wide. Pure scientists and engineers often totally misunderstand each other. Their behaviour tends to be very different: engineers have to live their lives in an organised community, and however odd they are underneath they manage to present a disciplined face to the world. Not so pure scientists. [pg. 16]

Snow makes a strong case for a third culture here, something he earlier said “would bring more disadvantages than it’s worth!” He’s seeing gaps and division everywhere, and defining things so narrowly that he can rattle off five counter-examples then immediately dismiss them (emphasis mine).

Almost everywhere, though, intellectual persons didn’t comprehend what was happening. Certainly the writers didn’t. Plenty of them shuddered away, as though the right course for a man of feeling was to contract out; some, like Ruskin and William Morris and Thoreau and Emerson and Lawrence, tried various kinds of fancies which were not in effect more than screams of horror. It
is hard to think of a writer of high class who really stretched his imaginative sympathy, who could see at once the hideous back-streets, the smoking chimneys, the internal price—and also the prospects of life that were opening out for the poor, the intimations, up to now unknown except to the lucky, which were just coming within reach of the remaining 99.0 per cent of his brother men.

Snow himself mentions Charles Dickens earlier in the lecture, a perfect fit for the label of “a writer of high class who really stretched his imaginative sympathy.” And yet here, he has difficulty remembering that author’s existence.

It’s oddly reminiscent of modern conservative writing: long-winded, self-important, and with only a fleeting connection to the facts. No wonder his ideas keep getting resurrected by them, they can be warped and distorted to suit your current needs.