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Are two cultures a bad thing?

Updated Tuesday, 5th April 2005

Derek's response to the first lecture of the 2005 series of Reith lectures

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Lord Broers makes a number of points in his lecture: that we underrate the influence technology has had in shaping the past; that we underestimate the power it has in shaping our future; that technology has been, and will be, overwhelmingly, an influence for the good. In all of these it seems, to me at least, that he is right.

He also makes another point, however, about which I am not sure. That is, he seems to think that scientists ought to communicate their knowledge to the public, and that the public ought to pay attention to such knowledge.

One reason which he gives for this is that it will help to dislodge the unjustified suspicion the public has of technology.

Section of a jet engine [Image: MujtabaTM under CC-BY-NC licence]
Section of a jet engine [Image: MujtabaTM under CC-BY-NC licence]

Running through the lecture there is the thought that this lack of knowledge is, in itself, a fault. In this, he echoes CP Snow’s lecture, The Two Cultures, which bemoaned the fact that while scientists are expected to know their Shakespeare, those in the arts are not expected to know – and generally don’t know – the second law of thermodynamics.

I side with those (such as FR Leavis) who think Snow was wrong. What is important about technology is that it works and that people make good use of it.

For neither of these is it necessary that people know how how it works. What is important about Shakespeare and music is that they are appreciated with understanding. So it is important that people know their Shakespeare, but not important that they know the second law of thermodynamics, or how a telephone, or indeed a jet engine, works.

It is important that someone knows how they work (otherwise we would not have them) but I can’t see why we all should.

Further Reading

The Two Cultures debate - a collection of weblinks exploring the Snow-Leavis controversy in greater depth

The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution
CP Snow, Cambridge University Press

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