Curiosity without borders

Recently I got C.P.Snow’s  down from the shelf, to refer to for my essay with Andy Haldane in January’s Prospect. It was recently reissued with Snow’s own 1964 addition of a reflection on the reactions to his 1959 lectures, and with an interesting introduction by Stefan Collini. This week I read the whole thing again.

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What people remember is the vicious personal attack on Snow by F.R.Leavis, itself seeming to be an examplar of the chasm between the scientific and literary cultures that Snow had described.The essay is more balanced than this Punch and Judy version suggests: Snow certainly does not suggest that scientific knowledge is superior in any cosmic epistemological ranking. Both frames of reference are needed: “The clashing point of two subjects, two disciplines, two cultures… ought to produce creative chances. In the history of mental activity, that has been where some of the break-throughs came.”

What he does say is that the culture of the humanities dominated public life at the time, in the UK more than in the US and USSR, and that people from that literary culture did not feel the need to know the basics of the culture of science and technology. He suggests the attitude descended from the “Luddite” rejection of the Industrial Revolution by writers such as  and Blake, whereas, as the essay puts it: “With singular unanimity, in any country where they have had the chance, the poor have walked off the land into the factories as fast as the factories could take them.”

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Snow also points to the class-bound conservatism of the English (I mean English, not British) education system. It elevated the classics and literature as the appropriate subjects for the grooming of the elite via grammar and public schools and the top universities. Science did find its place, but was looked down on – certainly where it shaded into engineering and technology. Unlike Germany, France or the US, engineering was not a subject for a gentleman to study; this was more appropriate for the lower social orders.

This seems to me largely true, of the 1950s and 60s, and even now. Why else would successive British governments still feel the need to proseletyse for the ‘STEM’ subjects, if it were not that we had such a big gap with other countries to close? When you sit watching ‘University Challenge’ on TV and shout out the answers, I’m prepared to bet that the scientists can answer a few more humanities questions than vice versa. Our education system still forces young people to specialise absurdly early and absurdly sharply in either the sciences or the humanities. We still have an education system that allows far too many people to emerge saying, “I’m no good at maths,” which is like saying “I’m no good at thinking,” when it’s just that the symbols for getting thought onto paper or screen are different.

Snow insisted that the controversy missed the main point of his lecture, which was to underline the importance of scientific culture for economic development in poor countries. Here, though, his argument is – with hindsight – naively optimistic. “Since the gap between the rich countries and the poor can be removed, it will be,” Snow wrote. The scientific and technical knowledge being available, all that was needed was capital – a big task but a feasible one. Six decades later, it is clear that the gap can be closed but need not be. Electricity and indoor plumbing are very old technologies, as yet unavailable to very many inhabitants of poor countries, whereas mobile phones are a relatively new technology now available to and used by almost everyone in the world.

The missing element is what Snow described in his 1964 reflection as the third culture, the social sciences, and their perspective on “the human effects of the scientific revolution”. He blamed his English education, which meant he was “conditioned to be suspicious of any but the established intellectual disciplines.” 

I think the inhabitants of the culture of the humanities are broadly speaking at least as suspicious of the social sciences as they are of the natural sciences and technology: what they like about the social sciences are the historical and literary aspects, and what they dislike are the parts that use the scientific method, i.e.confronting human society with empirical evidence to test hypotheses systematically, even using maths. They often describe economists, for example, as suffering from ‘physics envy’. Maybe some do, but equations are just symbols for a prism on the world which might permit the testing of hypotheses. Even historians have models – hypotheses about causes and consequences – but they use words as their symbols, and sequences of events as their empirical evidence.

So I’m with Snow on the importance of crossing boundaries. He writes, “Unless one knows, production is as mysterious as witch doctoring.” Not enough people understand how things get made, whether cars or software systems. Not enough people understand how radio waves work or why epigenetics is worth getting your mind around. And not enough scientists read poetry, too. Here’s to curiosity without borders!


2 thoughts on “Curiosity without borders

  1. Pingback: Curiosity without borders | Homines Economici

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