Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

The Two Cultures: A Zero-Sum Game?

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

The Two Cultures: A Zero-Sum Game?

Article excerpt


In The two cultures and the scientific revolution, C.P. Snow (1959) described the chasm between pure and applied science, on the one hand, and the arts and humanities, on the other. Snow was concerned that the complete lack of understanding between these "two cultures" would hamper the spread of the scientific/industrial revolution from rich nations to poor. Because of his conviction that this revolution had made lives longer and more comfortable for people of developed nations, he forcefully argued that the two intellectual cultures must be bridged--the sooner the better.

The gap between these two cultures, of course, still exists. Meanwhile, the arts are neglected in primary and secondary schools. Further, the science vocabulary of adults in the U.S. appears to be so poor that a scientific theory is considered suspect simply because it is "just a theory". Such problems may create increased competition between the two cultures. A probable result would be short-sighted prescriptive measures that are at best worthless and at worst dangerous to the mission of bridging the two cultures. A better approach may be to examine interdisciplinary fields where this gap seems less wide, for clues to a bridge.


In The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, (1) C.P. Snow (1959) described the emergence of two broad, yet distinct, intellectual cultures in Western society. The first of these, embodied by the literary intellectual, encompasses the arts and humanities. The other, embodied by the scientist, comprises mathematics and technology, in addition to the natural and social sciences. Snow was disturbed by the deep lack of understanding and communication between members of these two cultures:

   Thirty years ago the cultures had long ceased to speak--to each
   other: but at least they managed a kind of frozen smile across the
   gulf. Now the politeness has gone, and they just make faces. (2)

His conviction was that science and technology had made life longer and more bearable for those fortunate enough to have been born in industrialized nations and, further, that the scientific revolution could ease suffering for those living in poor nations. However, he believed that this gulf between the two cultures was hindering the spread of the scientific revolution from developed to developing nations, in part because the resulting lack of more complete knowledge was acting to constrain the judgment of policy-makers. (3) Thus, Snow proposed more broad education for students with the hope that this gulf between the two cultures might begin to be bridged.

The basic problem of the two cultures persists however. Proposed U.S. funding increases for math and science will likely exacerbate tension between the two cultures, due to the perception that the arts and humanities--especially the arts--are already neglected when compared to the sciences. It would be tempting for the scientist to just sit back and enjoy the windfall, while the literary intellectual rails at the prospect of yet more money being diverted toward the sciences (presumably at the expense of the arts and humanities). Increased tension between the two cultures would be unfortunate though--at least in the U.S. At best it would achieve nothing; at worst it may distract attention from a critical question, is America in danger of losing its dominance in science and technology? If the answer is yes, then the problem will definitely be addressed. After all, no reasonably informed person today would dispute the role that science plays in a healthy, prosperous society. But what form should a solution take? Increased rivalry between the two cultures would likely obscure paths to an answer.

U.S. Science And Technology In Peril?

The United States has enjoyed dominance for decades in terms of scientific discovery and technical innovation. That America also has one of the highest standards of living in the world is no coincidence, and this echoes the assertion by Snow that:

   The scientific revolution is the only method by which most people
   can gain the primal things (years of life, freedom from hunger,
   survival for children)--the primal things which we take for granted
   and which have in reality come to us through having had our own
   scientific revolution not so long ago. … 
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