eBriefing

A Dangerous Divide: The Two Cultures in the 21st Century

A Dangerous Divide
Reported by
Christopher M. Williams

Posted July 24, 2009

Overview

On May 9, 2009, the New York Academy of Sciences' Science & the City program hosted a daylong symposium in honor of the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow's influential lecture on the "two cultures." Whereas Snow focused on a gap of understanding between scientists and literary intellectuals, speakers at the Academy spotlighted a troubling gulf between the scientific community today and the general public. Because science and technology are critical tools for responding to many of society's most troubling problems, participants argued that this lack of understanding is having dangerous consequences.

Panelists at the symposium focused on the historical context of the two cultures divide, barriers to effective science communication, ways in which lack of public understanding of science is affecting politics, and ways to improve science education and science citizenship. Topics discussed included challenges in making science relevant to nonscientists, institutional pressures that are making good science journalism more difficult, practical ways to engage politicians on scientific issues, and recommendations for ways to improve science education and public understanding of science. Speakers stressed that professional scientists have an important role to play in explaining what they do and why it should be important to those outside the scientific community.

Sample Media


John Porter

Video
Scientists' Important Role in Public Communication and Policy-Making


With government officials and the general public often misinformed about science, former Illinois Congressman John Porter argues that the scientific community needs to be more vocal in explaining science and advocating on its behalf.

Use the tabs above to find a meeting report and complete video.


Keynote Addresses
E.O. Wilson (Harvard University), John Edward Porter (Research!America), Dean Kamen (DEKA Research & Development Corporation; FIRST)

The Two Cultures in Historical Perspective
D. Graham Burnett (Princeton University), Ann Blair (Harvard University), Kenneth Miller (Brown University), Guy Ortolano (New York University)

Science Communication
Robert Keating (Discover magazine), Paula Apsell (NOVA, WGBH), Ira Flatow (Science Friday), Andrew Revkin (The New York Times), Carl Zimmer (Science Writer)

Restoring Science to Its Rightful Place in Politics
Chris Mooney (Author), Matthew Chapman (Science Debate, Inc.), Shawn Otto (ScienceDebate 2008), Francesca Grifo (Union of Concerned Scientists), John Porter, Darlene Cavalier (ScienceCheerleader.com)

Science Education and Science Citizenship
Sheril Kirshenbaum (Duke University), Kevin Finneran (Issues in Science and Technology), Adrienne Klein (Science & the Arts, Graduate Center of the City University of New York), Stuart Pimm (Duke University), Stacy Baker (Calverton School, Huntington, MD)


Presented by:

  • Science and the City
  • ScienceDebate2008
  • Discover
  • Science Communication Consortium

Science Communication


Robert Keating, Paula Apsell, Ira Flatow, Andrew Revkin, Carl Zimmer

The Coming Consilience


E.O. Wilson

Putting Kids FIRST


Dean Kamen

Science Education and Science Citizenship


Sheril Kirshenbaum, Kevin Finneran, Adrienne Klein, Stuart Pimm, Stacy Baker

It's Not About the Robots


Dean Kamen (DEKA Research and Development)

The Two Cultures in Historical Perspective


D. Graham Burnett , Ann Blair, Kenneth Miller, Guy Ortolano

Scientists' Important Role in Public Communication and Policy-Making


John Porter

Restoring Science to Its Rightful Place in Politics


Chris Mooney, Matthew Chapman, Shawn Otto, Francesca Grifo, John Porter, Darlene Cavalier

On the Web

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?
A Seed magazine video feature published on the anniversary of Snow's lecture.

Bloggingheads: The Two Cultures
Chris Mooney and D. Graham Burnett discuss Snow's legacy.

Dot Earth
Andrew Revkin's blog on climate change and environmental issues at The New York Times.

Extreme Biology
Blog maintained by Stacy Baker and her students at the Calverton School in Huntingtown, MD.

FIRST
Dean Kamen's program, designed to inspire young people to pursue study and careers in science and technology.

Issues in Science and Technology
A forum for discussion of public policy related to science, engineering, and medicine, published by the National Academy of Sciences.

The Intersection
Blog by conference organizers Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirschenbaum, hosted at Discover magazine.

Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial
An interactive Web site based on the NOVA documentary covering the Dover, Pennsylvania, court case concerning the teaching of evolution and creationism in schools.

The Loom
Carl Zimmer's blog, which focuses on topics in evolution.

Barack Obama Addresses the National Academy of Sciences
In this April 29, 2009, speech, the President set out his administrations priorities in science and technology.

Research!America
A nonprofit organization working to improve funding of health and medical research, and to encourage more scientists to become engaged in political life.

Science & the Arts
Organized at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Science & the Arts presents performances, films, and lectures that bridge the two cultures.

Science & the City
The public gateway to the New York Academy of Sciences, S&C presents events, produces a weekly podcast, and maintains a calendar of all public science events in the New York area.

Sciencecheerleader.com
Darlene Cavalier's blog encourages scientists and science enthusiasts to make themselves heard on issues related to science and technology.

ScienceDebate 2008
Read the post election report for information on the organization's achievements.

Science Friday: The Two Cultures, 50 Years On
Ira Flatow speaks with science historian Charles Seife about Snow's essay and its legacy.

Science in the Theater
Information about Dr. Atomic, Self Comes to Mind, and Hypermusic Prologue.

Union of Concerned Scientists
See the section on scientific integrity to learn more about the UCS's findings about the Bush administration, and its assessment of the Obama administration's efforts to restore science's role in policy making.


Books

Chapman M. 2007. 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania. Collins, London.

Miller KR. 2007. Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution. Harper Perennial, New York.

Miller KR. 2009. Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul. Penguin, New York.

Mooney C. 2006. The Republican War on Science. Basic Books, New York.

Mooney C, Kirshenbaum S. 2009. Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future. Basic Books, New York.

Ortolano G. 2009. The Two Cultures Controversy: Science, Literature, and Cultural Politics in Postwar Britain. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Snow CP. 1993 (reprint edition). The Two Cultures. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Wilson EO. 1998. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Vintage, New York.


Articles

Blair A. 2008. Disciplinary distinctions before the "two cultures." The European Legacy 13: 577-588.

Collini S et al. 2009. Science and art: still two cultures divided? New Scientist (May 6).

Crease RP. 2009. 'Two cultures' turns 50. Physicsworld.com (May 1).

Dickson D. 2009. The real 'two cultures' divide. SciDevNet (May 21).

Dizikes P. 2009. Our two cultures. The New York Times (March 19).

Kemp M. 2009. Dissecting the two cultures. Nature 459: 32-33.

Mooney C, Kischenbaum S. 2009. The Culture Crosser. The New York Academy of Sciences Magazine (Spring).

Speakers

Paula Apsell

NOVA, WGBH
e-mail | web site

Apsell is the senior executive producer for NOVA and director of the WGBH science unit. She joined NOVA, a fledgling WGBH-produced national series that would set the standard for science programming on television, in 1975. Today NOVA is the most popular science series on American television and on the Web, and it has won every major broadcasting award, including the Emmy, the Peabody, the AAAS Westinghouse Science Journalism Award, and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Gold Baton. In addition to the programs in the regular NOVA television schedule, Apsell has overseen the production of many award-winning WGBH Science Unit specials, including A Science Odyssey, Secrets of Lost Empires, Building Big, and most recently, the eight-part miniseries, Evolution. She's also directed NOVA's diversification into other media, most notably NOVA's award-winning Web site. As executive in charge of NOVA's large-format film unit, Apsell has overseen the production of Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure, To the Limit, Stormchasers, Island of the Sharks, and Special Effects, the first IMAX film ever to be nominated for an Academy Award. Apsell has served on the boards of several organizations, including the Earthwatch Institute, Hebrew College (Brookline, Massachusetts) and the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. She is a trustee of the International Documentary Association.

Stacy Baker

Calverton School, Huntington, MD
e-mail | web site

Baker is a biology teacher at the Calverton School in Huntingtown, MD. She is a pioneer in the use of online mediums such as blogging for science education. She has won awards for both her classroom teaching and online outreach. She received her B.S. in Zoology at Washington State University.

Ann Blair, PhD

Harvard University
e-mail | web site

Blair is Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Harvard University. Her research and teaching focus on the intellectual and cultural history of Europe 1450–1700. In particular she studies the history of the interactions between science and religion, and the relations between the disciplines in encyclopedias and other organizations of knowledge. She is finishing a book for Yale University Press entitled Too Much to Know: Methods of Information Management Before the Modern Era. Especially germane to this conference is her recent article: "Disciplinary Distinctions before the 'Two Cultures,'" The European Legacy 13:5 (2008), pp. 577-88, in a special issue on The Languages of the Sciences and the Languages of the Humanities, ed. Oren Harman.

D. Graham Burnett, PhD

Princeton University
e-mail | web site

Burnett is an editor at Cabinet magazine in Brooklyn and teaches history of science at Princeton University. His research has ranged from Renaissance cosmology to Darwinism, early modern optics to 20th century environmentalism. His first book, Masters of All They Surveyed (University of Chicago Press, 2000), deals with the history of cartography and imperialism in the nineteenth century. A Trial By Jury (Knopf), tells the story of the struggle to resolve a Manhattan murder trial; it was a New York Times Notable selection in 2001. A small book on Descartes (Descartes and the Hyperbolic Quest) came out in 2005, and in the autumn of 2007 his new book, Trying Leviathan, was published by Princeton University Press; it has been awarded the 2008 New York City Book Award and the 2008 Hermalyn Prize in Urban History. Burnett has taught at Yale and Columbia Universities, and served on the editorial board of Lapham's Quarterly.

Darlene Cavalier

ScienceCheerleader.com
e-mail | web site

Cavalier is the founder of Science Cheerleader.com, a blog that promotes the involvement of citizens in science and science-related policy. She is also developing ScienceForCitizens.net, a major multi-functional Web site that will encourage and enable lay people to learn about, participate in, and contribute to science through recreational activities as well as formal research. Cavalier held executive positions at Walt Disney Publishing and worked at Discover magazine for more than a decade. She was the principal investigator of a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant applied to promote basic research through partnerships with Disney and ABC TV. Cavalier is a former Philadelphia 76ers cheerleader and holds a masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied the role of the citizen in science. She is a senior advisor to Discover magazine, on the Steering Committee for Science Debate 2008, and organizing an effort to restore the Congressional Of?ce of Technology Assessment, with citizen involvement. She and her husband live in Philadelphia with their four young children.

Matthew Chapman

Science Debate, Inc.
e-mail | web site

Chapman is president of Science Debate, Inc, previously Science Debate 2008. He is a great-great grandson of Charles Darwin and the author of two books, Trials Of The Monkey: An Accidental Memoir, and 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin, and Other Oddities On Trial in Pennsylvania. He has written and directed five independent movies, three of which he produced, and he has written several others, among them Consenting Adults, Color of Night, and Runaway Jury. He is currently preparing a feature film, The Ledge, which he wrote and will direct.

Kevin Finneran

Issues in Science and Technology
e-mail | web site

Finneran is editor-in-chief of Issues in Science and Technology, the policy journal of the National Academy of Sciences, and an active participant in the Cultural Programs of the NAS. He has spent his career crossing cultural boundaries. After several undergraduate years in chemical engineering, he graduated as an English major. Grad school in English led to several years of teaching film studies, writing, and literature at Rutgers. That was followed by a switch to freelance energy and environmental journalism and ultimately to editorship of a solar energy magazine. More grad school resulted in a degree in science and technology policy and consulting work with the Office of Technology Assessment, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Agency for International Development, and High Technology magazine. His next bicultural project is to organize and moderate a discussion of neuroscience and the performing arts, which will include a choreographer, a member of DC's Shakespeare Theater, and two neuroscientists. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Ira Flatow

Science Friday
e-mail | web site

Flatow hosts and produces National Public Radio's award winning weekly talk program about science, Talk of the Nation: Science Friday, now in its 16th year. His numerous TV credits include: six years as host and writer for the Emmy-award-winning Newton's Apple on PBS and science reporter for CBS: This Morning. Flatow is President of ScienceFriday, Inc, devoted to finding new and creative ways of keeping the public informed about developments in science and technology. He has been covering science news as a journalist since 1970. Flatow is the founder and president of TalkingScience, a non-profit organization devoted to bringing science to young adults. He has authored three books and many articles for magazines and newspapers and has shared his knowledge about science and media as a guest on numerous television shows including Oprah, The Merv Grif?n Show, Today, Regis and Kathy Lee, and CNN.

Francesca Grifo, PhD

Union of Concerned Scientists
e-mail | web site

Grifo is the senior scientist and director of the Scienti?c Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, DC. She acts to mobilize scientists and citizens to defend the integrity of government science from political interference. She joined the UCS in 2005 from Columbia University where she directed the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation graduate policy workshop and ran the Science Teachers Environmental Education Program. Prior to that, she was director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation and a curator of the Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. She edited and contributed to the books Biodiversity and Human Health and The Living Planet in Crisis: Biodiversity Science and Policy. She has testified before Congress on the subject of scientific integrity in federal policy making and is widely quoted on the topic in media outlets such as The New York Times, Washington Post, and National Public Radio's Science Friday.

Dean Kamen

DEKA Research & Development Corporation; FIRST
e-mail | web site

Kamen is an inventor, entrepreneur, and a tireless advocate for science and technology. He is the founder of DEKA Research & Development Corporation, where he develops internally generated inventions and provides research and development for major corporate clients. He holds more than 440 US and foreign patents for innovative devices that have expanded the frontiers of health care worldwide. Some of his notable inventions include the first wearable insulin pump for diabetics, the HomeChoiceTM portable peritoneal dialysis machine, the INDEPENDENCE® IBOT® Mobility System, and the Segway® Human Transporter. Among Kamen's proudest accomplishments is founding FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an organization dedicated to motivating the next generation to understand, use, and enjoy science and technology. Kamen was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 2000, the Lemelson-MIT Prize in 2002, is a member of the National Academy of Engineers and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in May 2005.

Robert Keating

Discover magazine
web site

Robert Keating is deputy editor at Discover magazine.

Sheril Kirshenbaum

Duke University
e-mail | web site

Kirshenbaum Kirshenbaum is an Associate at Duke University and co-author of the forthcoming book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney. Together, they co-host "The Intersection" blog, hosted by Discover magazine at blogs. discovermagazine.com/intersection. Sheril works to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Trained in marine biology, she is now a science journalist, frequently writing about topics that bridge science and society from climate change to the science behind kissing. Previously, Sheril served as a congressional science fellow on Capitol Hill involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL). She has also worked as a pop radio disc jockey and is one of the founding members of the ScienceDebate initiative.

Adrienne Klein

Graduate Center of the City University of New York
e-mail | web site

Klein is Co-Director of the Science & the Arts series at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The series produces programs in theater, art, music, literature, dance and film that bridge the worlds of art and science, ranging from conferences and concerts to science demonstrations on the streets of New York. Klein is also a visual artist and curator. She organized an international survey of HIV/AIDS graphics which was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Her own work has been shown in nine solo exhibitions and more than 50 exhibitions in the United States and Europe and appears in the recently published Confronting Mortality with Art and Science.

Kenneth R. Miller, PhD

Brown University
e-mail | web site

Miller is Professor of Biology and Royce Family Professor for Teaching Excellence at Brown University. A cell biologist, he serves as an advisor on life sciences to the NewsHour, a daily PBS television program on news and public affairs, and is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Miller is coauthor, with Joseph S. Levine, of four different high school and college biology textbooks used by millions of students nationwide. In 2005 he served as lead witness in the trial on evolution and intelligent design in Dover, Pennsylvania. His popular book, Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution, addresses the scientific status of evolutionary theory and its relationship to religious views of nature. His latest book, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul, addresses the continuing struggle over how evolution is to be understood in American society. His honors include the Presidential Citation of the American Institute of Biological Science (2005), the Public Service Award of the American Society for Cell Biology (shared with Dr. Barbara Forrest in 2006), the Distinguished Service Award of the National Association of Biology teachers (2008), and most recently, the AAAS Public Understanding of Science and Technology Award (2008).

Chris Mooney

Author
e-mail | web site

Mooney is visiting associate in the Center for Collaborative History at Princeton University, a contributing editor to Science Progress, and author of three books: the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science—dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American; Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming—dubbed "riveting" by the Boston Globe and selected as a 2007 best book of the year in the science category by Publisher's Weekly; and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored with Sheril Kirshenbaum. He also writes "The Intersection" blog with Kirshenbaum hosted by Discover magazine at blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection.

Guy Ortolano, PhD

New York University
e-mail | web site

Guy Ortolano recently moved from the University of Virginia to New York University, where he teaches modern British history and the history of science. He is the author of The Two Cultures Controversy: Science, Literature, and Cultural Politics in Postwar Britain (Cambridge, 2009). The book draws from private papers on both sides of the Atlantic to reveal the personal agendas and political ambitions that charged the "two cultures" debate between the scientist-turned-novelist C.P. Snow and the literary critic F.R. Leavis. It then relates the debate to simultaneous arguments over the mission of the university, the meaning of the Cold War, and the fate of the British Empire. By excavating the political stakes of the "two cultures" controversy, he explains the workings of cultural politics during the 1960s more generally, while also revising the meaning of a term that continues to be evoked to this day.

Shawn Lawrence Otto

ScienceDebate 2008
e-mail | web site

Otto is a co-founder and CEO of Science Debate 2008, the largest political initiative in the history of American science, which formed the initial inspiration for the Obama science policy. He is a nationally published writer and commentator in various outlets, a frequent public speaker, and an award-winning screenwriter/director/producer, who wrote and coproduced the Oscar-nominated film, House of Sand and Fog. He lives in a wind-powered passive solar home he designed and built with his own hands, with his wife, Minnesota State Auditor Rebecca Otto and their son.

Stuart Pimm, PhD

Duke University
e-mail | web site

Pimm became a conservation biologist watching species become extinct in Hawaii in the 1970s. That experience led to his commitment to study the scientific issues behind the global loss of biological diversity. Pimm has written more than 150 scientific papers and four books including The Balance of Nature? Ecological Issues in the Conservation of Species and Communities and a global assessment of biodiversity's future, The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth. His research covers the reasons why species become extinct, how fast they do so, the global patterns of habitat loss and species extinction, the role of introduced species in causing extinction and, importantly, the management consequences of this research. His commitment to the interface between science and policy has led to his testimony to both House and Senate Committees on the re-authorization of the Endangered Species Act. Current work includes studies of endangered species and ecosystem restoration in the Florida Everglades, and setting priorities for protected areas in the Atlantic Coast forest of Brazil (one of the world's "hotspots" for threatened species). The Institute of Scientific Information recognized him in 2002 as one of the world's most highly cited scientists.

John Edward Porter

Research!America
e-mail | web site

Porter is chairman of Research!America and a partner in Hogan & Hartson's Washington DC Office and a member of the firm's Health, Legislative, and Education Groups. He concentrates his practice on health law and education matters, including administrative and regulatory, international, legislative strategy, and education and health policy. Porter attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and received his undergraduate degree from Northwestern University. Following service in the US Army, he graduated with distinction from the University of Michigan Law School where he was an editor of the law review. Prior to joining Hogan & Hartson, he served 21 years as a Congressman from Illinois' 10th District. In Congress, he served on the Appropriations Committee as a chairman of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, as vice chairman of the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations; and as vice chairman of the Subcommittee on Military Construction. Before his election to Congress, Porter served in the Illinois House of Representatives from 1973 through 1979. He is a member of numerous boards including Public Broadcasting Service (chair), the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (vice chair), the Brookings Institution (trustee), J.S. Kemper Foundation, the Chicago Botanic Garden, and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute.

Andrew Revkin

The New York Times
e-mail | web site

Revkin has reported on the environment for The New York Times since 1995, covering subjects that have included Hurricane Katrina, climate change, the Asian tsunami, science policy and politics, and the North Pole. His job took him to the Arctic three times in three years, and he was the first Times reporter to file stories and photos from the sea ice around the Pole. He also has worked as a senior editor of Discover, a Los Angeles Times staff writer, and a senior writer at Science Digest. Revkin has a bachelor's degree in biology from Brown University and a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University, and has served as adjunct professor at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, teaching environmental reporting. He is the author of several books, including The Burning Season: The Murder of Chico Mendes and the Fight for the Amazon Rain Forest, Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, and The North Pole Was Here: Puzzles and Perils at the Top of the World. He recently started a blog, Dot Earth, about "efforts to balance human affairs with the planet's limits."

Edward O. Wilson, PhD

Harvard University
e-mail | web site

Wilson was born in Birmingham in 1929. He received his BS and MS in biology from the University of Alabama and, in 1955, his PhD in biology from Harvard, where he taught for four decades, receiving both of its college-wide teaching awards. He is currently University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard, and Honorary Curator in Entomology of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. He is the recipient of more than 100 international medals and awards, including the National Medal of Science; the International Prize for Biology from Japan; the Catalonia Prize of Spain; the Presidential Medal of Italy; the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, given in fields of science not covered by the Nobel Prize; and for his conservation efforts, the Gold Medal of the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the Audubon Medal of the National Audubon Society. He is the author of 25 books two of which won Pulitzer Prizes, Human Nature (1978) and The Ants (1990, with Bert Hölldobler). Six of Wilson's books compose two trilogies. The first, The Insect Societies, Sociobiology, and On Human Nature (1971–78) founded sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. The second, The Diversity of Life, The Future of Life, and The Creation (1992–2006) organized the base of modern biodiversity conservation. Wilson has served on the Boards of Directors of The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and the American Museum of Natural History, and gives many lectures throughout the world. His most recent books include Consilience (1998), which argues for the uniting of the natural sciences with the humanities. In 2003 he conceived the idea of the Encyclopedia of Life, which has since come to fruition. Wilson lives in Lexington, Mass., with his wife, Irene.

Carl Zimmer

Science Writer
e-mail | web site

Zimmer is the author of seven books about science, including Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life, Soul Made Flesh, and Parasite Rex. He writes about science frequently for The New York Times and magazines including Time and National Geographic. He is a contributing editor at Discover, where he writes a column about the brain and "The Loom," an award-winning blog about science. He has earned fellowships from John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Zimmer has also received numerous awards, including the National Academies Science Communication Award. He teaches science writing at Yale and is a frequent lecturer at universities and museums around the country.


Christopher Williams

Christopher Williams is Executive Web Editor at the New York Academy of Sciences.

Sponsorship

  • Science and the City
  • ScienceDebate2008
  • Discover
  • Science Communication Consortium

Special thanks to the following for their financial support of this event:

Gerry Ohrstrom

Thomas Campbell Jackson

The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation

On May 7, 1959, the British novelist and governmental science advisor C.P. Snow coined what was to become one of the more durable phrases in the history of 20th century intellectual life. Honored with the opportunity to deliver Cambridge University's annual Rede Lecture, Snow used the occasion to diagnose a fundamental rift in English academic, political, and intellectual life, a "gulf of mutual incomprehension" between what he called "the two cultures."

The two cultures in Snow's analysis were literary intellectuals on the one hand, and scientists on the other. A scientist by training, Snow circulated in both worlds, but saw little communication between the two, and a dangerous ignorance of science and technology within the literary community. Snow argued that this was not just petty academic chauvinism, but since many of the country's leaders were educated within this balkanized system, it posed a threat to the future of England's competitiveness and human progress, which he asserted relied on science and technology.

"The gap between the two cultures today is much less between scientists and literary intellectuals, as it is between science and the public."

Snow's polemic analyzed a problem in a specific time and place, but 50 years later it continues to resonate, even if we now face different issues in the 21st century. As NOVA executive producer Paula Apsell pointed out in a May 9, 2009, New York Academy of Sciences symposium celebrating the anniversary, "The gap between the two cultures today is much less between scientists and literary intellectuals, as it is between science and the public." Recent controversies in the United States over the teaching of evolution in schools, the discounting of scientific evidence and expertise within the Bush administration, and the shortage of Americans educated in science and technology all point to a fundamental disconnect.

At the Academy, scientists, journalists, historians, teachers, artists, activists, politicians, and inventors spent a day considering the legacy of the two cultures controversy, discussed current barriers in communication between scientists and others, and suggested practical ways to bridge the gap. The event was organized by authors Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum as part of the Academy's Science & the City program, in cooperation with the Science Communication Consortium, ScienceDebate 2008, and Discover magazine.

The two cultures in history

To put Snow's lecture in perspective, Harvard University historian Ann Blair traced the origins of the two cultures divide to the birth of natural philosophy in 13th-century European universities. For the first time, she explained, new faculties developed that were fundamentally independent of theological faculties, and were thus free to develop explanations of the world that did not rely on scriptures. By Isaac Newton's time in the 17th century, calculus and protocols for conducting observation began raising barriers of access for amateurs, broadening the gap between science and the public. William Whewell's coining of the term "scientist" in 1833 was a symptom of the further professionalization of science by that time, as scientific academies were founded and researchers increasingly specialized as, for example, biologists or chemists. By Snow's day, specialization had become even narrower, creating cultural gaps not just between scientists and nonscientists, but also between researchers in different fields.

But even if specialization has created walls between cultures, Blair argued that science as a whole has benefited greatly from disciplinary boundaries, and that there is value in preserving them and keeping science insulated from politics. Science's historical independence of ideology has earned it an authority that Blair argued is its most precious asset. At the same time, she suggested, "We also need to work to build bridges and communicate across those gaps... We need multiple cultures, each with recognized autonomy and authority and then bridged by individuals—specialists in education, in science writing—to help inform our public discourse."

Which two cultures?

Whether there be two or a multitude of cultures, science journalists like Carl Zimmer see their job as helping those not trained in science to understand it. In a panel session focusing on science communication, he explained, "For me, as a journalist, ultimately the two cultures are the scientists and everybody else, the people that we write for."

But who exactly is this audience, and why the seemingly widespread lack of understanding of science, and even antagonism to it? New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin pointed out that opposition to science is not easy to define politically. "The cultural aspects here are not just right/left. There is a rigidity to the way a lot of people examine what's out there in the science landscape, and we have a tendency culturally to overabsorb the stuff that fits our preconceptions and to ignore the stuff that doesn't." As Zimmer also pointed out, the anti-evolution movement is largely a conservative political position, while protests against vaccination come largely from the left. The problem in both cases is a rigidity of ideology that sets in and makes communication about the nuances of the scientific method difficult.

Paula Apsell said that she also observes a "frightening" anti-intellectual strain in American society that finds no use for science. This is a culture, she argued, "which feels science is a foreign language, that thinks science is too difficult, that they can't understand it, that it's vaguely malevolent and harmful, and even worse, that it's irrelevant... Perhaps ironically from the point of view of Snow, a lot of scientists are seen as the geeky, incomprehensible, snobby, arrogant intellectuals today." Science Friday radio host Ira Flatow echoed this perception, suggesting that there are many cultures, but that the fundamental split is between a "science satisfied" culture that believes science can explain things to them in satisfying ways, and another culture that is just not interested.

Left to right: Robert Keating, Paula Apsell, Ira Flatow, Andrew Revkin, Carl Zimmer. Click on the Media tab above to see video.

Given this situation, Zimmer suggested that the science journalist's role is to find ways to bridge the gap. His goal is to hit the "sweet spot" where he is explaining difficult concepts accurately and in ways that do not oversimplify, but also in a way that is accessible to those without the training to understand them fully. On television, Apsell feels she is constantly trying to answer the public's question, "Why should I care? Why is this relevant?" At NOVA, compelling storytelling is employed as a valuable tool for overcoming resistance to science.

The problem of communicating science does not exist only between the media and the general public, however. Within news organizations and broadcast media, the panelists remarked, structural pressures are making it increasingly difficult to cover science effectively.

Revkin said that one effect of the changing media landscape is that science desks are shrinking, leaving fewer people within news organizations with the training to understand the importance of developments in science and technology. "We're facing a world of more complexity," he pointed out, "with more decisions that have to be made in the policy arena that have a basis in science, and ever less experienced coverage." Activist and filmmaker Shawn Otto would emphasize this point later in the day, saying, "We are living in a time in America when most of the major policy questions resolve around science, and yet we have nobody covering it.... This is a major problem that does come out of the two cultures divide, and it probably is because the people who run a lot of these media organizations didn't like science and they don't think anyone else is interested in it either." When decisions about what content to publish rely too heavily on what advertising departments think they can sell, this can have a chilling effect on the amount of quality information about science that reaches the public.

At the same time, the panelists saw many positive developments in recent years. Apsell pointed out that, years ago, scientists weren't willing or didn't see the need to talk about what they do in public. This is changing, as she said she now gets great cooperation from researchers. And even if Ira Flatow faces challenges convincing advertisers to support what he does, he also cited the increasing popularity of Science Friday as a sign that at least a certain segment of the public is "thirsty" for science.

Although journalists presided over the panel discussion on science communications, they suggested ways scientists can help. Today more scientists than ever are sitting in front of cameras and writing for the public, but many still have trouble communicating their research effectively to laymen. "You shouldn't be able to get a PhD without knowing how to write a news column," Flatow argued. "You have to be able to explain what you do." The need is very great for scientists and journalists to reach out across the gap by making science more accessible and more human, the panelists agreed.

The two cultures in politics

Critical to Snow's original formulation of the two cultures was his conviction that science needs to inform political decision-making. "Closing the gap between our cultures," he argued near the end of the lecture, "is a necessity in the most abstract intellectual sense, as well as in the most practical. When those two senses have grown apart, then no society is going to be able to think with wisdom." Faced at the time with poverty in the developing world and the specter of the Soviet Union, the underlying message of his speech was that science and technology were critical tools for England to maintain its security.

For the scientific community, it was hard not to notice a similar argument in President Barack Obama's inaugural address and in his April 27, 2009, speech to the National Academy of Sciences, in which he described his science and technology priorities. Faced with the threats of climate change, energy shortages, and the United States' declining competitiveness in the global technology economy, science is once again rising in the list of national policy priorities. Obama's interest in science has been perceived as a breath of fresh air in comparison with the previous presidential administration, as it is now widely felt that the Bush administration took pains to discount science in its policy making. With this backdrop, a session at the conference presented many observations about how scientists can contribute to putting good science on the political agenda.

Left to right: Chris Mooney, Matthew Chapman, Shawn Otto, Francesca Grifo, John Porter, Darlene Cavalier. Click on the Media tab to see video.

One of the most vocal opponents to the Bush administration's devaluing of science was the Union of Concerned Scientists. As director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the UCS, Francesca Grifo explained, she and her organization became energized in the midst of "one of the most science-unfriendly administrations." Its mission became to document cases of abuse of science within the Bush government, compile this information as a resource, and distribute it to the press and others. The group also issued statements, which have been signed by 15,000 scientists, from a full spectrum of disciplines, across the country. They were reacting, Grifo said, to "the falsification and fabrication of data, the manipulation of information, the censorship and suppression of scientists, and so on."

John Edward Porter, currently chair of Research!America, and a former Congressman from Illinois who chaired the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, argued in a keynote address that despite the UCS's actions, the scientific community as a whole was not sufficiently vocal in its protest. "The only voices I heard really pounding on the table and saying 'this is wrong' as President Bush did more and more things to undermine scientific integrity was the Union of Concerned Scientists," he said. "That was a terrible mistake from which the whole scientific community should learn."

A factor in bringing science to the center of the Obama agenda was the work of ScienceDebate 2008. Spearheaded by Shawn Otto and Matthew Chapman, ScienceDebate addressed a virtual absence of discussion of science during the presidential campaign, even as issues such as energy policy and climate change would be, in Otto's words, "arguably the most important science policy questions that the next president was going to be facing." Although ScienceDebate did not succeed in convincing the two candidates to sit down for a debate on scientific topics, it identified a large public interest in science, and brought together leading scientists to speak out on the issue, including some who would go on to become President Obama's top scientific advisers.

"Scientists must do more to demonstrate the value of investing in science."

In his keynote address, Porter explained why it is important for scientists to be vocal in their advocacy for adequate funding of science and for proper and objective consideration of the latest scientific knowledge in policy-making—even under the Obama government. "Politicians and policy makers in America know very little about science," he explained. "About 4% of the U.S. House and Senate have any science background whatsoever." At the same time, a host of other programs also suffered from flat or reduced funding during the Bush administration, and constituencies interested in education, infrastructure, conservation, and many other fields are now making their voices heard to their representatives in Washington. Citing National Academy of Sciences President Ralph Cicerone, Porter pointed out that in this competitive landscape, "scientists must do more to demonstrate the value of investing in science."

With top scientists from around the world increasingly choosing to work in other countries where science is better funded and government is more welcoming, Porter argued that the need for scientists to advocate on behalf of science is urgent. And with a receptive President and Congress now in place, he suggested that a unique "window of opportunity" exists, and that "science has to walk through the door that the President has opened." Scientists can do a number of things, among which he suggested,

  • making nominations for positions of leadership in federal government agencies that have not yet been filled
  • working within academic departments to create a culture where public engagement is encouraged, in balance with typical imperatives to publish and secure grants
  • writing op-ed articles on scientific topics in local newspapers
  • inviting local government representatives to tour scientific facilities and explaining the work done there
  • becoming a science adviser to a candidate

Ultimately, Porter argued that scientists must take the time to get away from the bench and be visible in the larger public community. "If the public and policy makers never hear their voices, never see a scientist, never are exposed to science, never understand its methods," he pointed out, "the chances of it becoming a high priority on our list of national priorities will be very low."

Science education, across a lifetime

Another key point of Snow's critique was that the educational system in 1950s Britain was fundamentally unable to produce individuals prepared to deal with the most important challenges of his age. Conservation biologist Stuart Pimm was 10 years old, living in a mining town in England at the time of Snow's lecture, and at the conference introduced himself as a product of the schooling system Snow was trying to push toward reform. For the first time, he said, careers in science and engineering became available to working class children of his generation, and many took advantage of the opportunities presented to them. Snow's concern was how to ensure that these "barbarians," as Pimm wryly characterized his milieu, were properly integrated into society.

Left to right: Sheril Kirshenbaum, Kevin Finneran, Adrienne Klein, Stuart Pimm, Stacy Baker. Click on the Media tab above to see video.

The two cultures concept remains relevant in our own time, speakers acknowledged repeatedly over the course of the day, because the United States faces immense challenges in adequately educating its citizens in science and technology. This is true particularly for school-age children but also for adults, for whom understanding what science reveals is often essential for making good, well-informed decisions. The symposium presented a diverse set of perspectives on why science and technology education is failing, and on how scientists, engineers, teachers, artists, and writers can help.

Inventor Dean Kamen posited quite provocatively in his keynote address that the problem with science education is not due to a lack in the "supply" of resources. Rather, he suggested, getting children to take interest in science is a problem of creating a "demand" within them. This is particularly true, he suggested, for children in difficult socioeconomic situations where becoming a professional scientist or engineer seems unachievable, and role models typically come from the worlds of Hollywood or professional sports. The problem is "not what we don't have," he explained. "It's what we have too much of in our culture—obsessions with nonsense, distractions, and a perverted sense of what's important that literally is in many cases the only perspective that most kids see."

In 1992 Kamen set out to do something about this by creating an organization he called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). The FIRST concept, he explained, was to "take all the positive trappings of sports, package them up, and put intense science, technology, and math in the middle of it." He began by recruiting leaders within prominent, Fortune 50 scientific and technology companies around the country to adopt schools, place their own engineers in the schools, and have them mentor the kids as they built robots able compete in a tournament. Since it was founded, FIRST has grown from a relatively small competition held in a high school gymnasium near Kamen's offices in New Hampshire to a national and even international event, involving thousands competitors who test their inventions head-to-head in professional sports arenas.

Kamen is proud of FIRST's outcomes. A Ford Foundation-sponsored study comparing outcomes in schools that participated in FIRST as opposed to peer-equivalent schools that did not found that students were 50% more likely to attend college if they'd been on a FIRST team, 3 times more likely to major in engineering, 9 times more likely to do internships, and 4 times more likely to choose engineering as a career. The study also found dramatic increases in the number of women and minorities pursuing careers in technology. Kamen interprets this success as evidence that "if kids see the power of analytical thinking and the power of the tools of science and math and engineering, we'll change kids' attitudes."

Stacy Baker, a ninth-grade biology teacher at the Calverton School in Huntingtown, MD, also emphasized the importance of meeting students on their own terms during a panel discussion on education issues. This is particularly critical in dealing with the age group she teaches, because studies have shown that the middle school years typically see a sharp decline in students' interest in science. "They come into my class, and I feel like I have to do a bit of science CPR on them, because they need to resuscitate this love they once had." They perceive science as boring, as requiring too much memorization, and see no opportunities for self-expression, a pursuit that is important in their teenage years.

When she asked her students what sorts of things would help them to learn science better, many expressed interest in new technologies like Facebook, videos, and video games. Others said they were interested in meeting and interacting with scientists, having them come into the classroom, help to write curriculum, or talk about practical topics related to having a successful career in the sciences.

When students interact with scientists and engineers, the experience is transformative.

Baker has attempted to address these interests by integrating Web 2.0 technologies like blogs into her classes, giving students the opportunity to put their work online, and to interact with professional scientists. "I really want to emphasize what this does to the students' self-confidence. Whenever one of my students gets something from a scientist, they're walking on clouds for weeks. You completely change their feelings for science." Similarly to John Porter's call for scientists to become more visible in political life, Brady and Kamen pointed to the important difference that scientists and engineers can make in encouraging students to pursue careers in science and technology.

If interactive tools can help to reach the younger generation, the arts can be an effective way to make science interesting, accessible, and relevant for adult audiences. As codirector of the City University of New York Graduate Center's Science & the Arts program, Adrienne Klein produces events that promote public understanding of science. Presenting theater, lectures, film, music, and dance, Science & the Arts also encourages artists to engage with scientific themes.

Such work performs two important functions, Klein observed. Even if they can't explain scientific ideas, artworks that use scientific themes can make people aware of complex, abstract scientific concepts in an interesting way. In addition, artists pose questions about science that most researchers don't generally stop to consider. "Does science," Klein asked, "have a claim to intellectual rigor beyond that of other disciplines? What social forces shape the questions and paradigms of scientific inquiry? Is science exclusively quantitative and is art exclusively qualitative?" In many cases, artists have also begun collaborating with scientists in creative and instructive ways.

As editor-in-chief of Issues in Science and Technology, the policy journal of the National Academy of Sciences, Kevin Finneran also finds it important to bring art into dialogue with science. In his journal he often presents work by artists who are "speaking back to science," bringing a different and complementary perspective to the enterprise. This dialogue, he suggested, is important, because even educated members of the public will inevitably have different opinions about the implications of science and technology than scientists do.

"Like fish who don't know they live in water," Finneran observed, "people in the scientific, technical, and engineering community often don't understand how much bias, how much of a worldview is built into that." As investigation proceeds in controversial fields like nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and neuroscience, he forecast, "there are a lot of very troubling and interesting questions that science is going to have to deal with." Addressing the implications of this work successfully will require awareness of different perspectives, and of the ways in which science itself is culturally informed. "We need a little humility and a little self-knowledge if we're going to be effective in communicating with other people," he concluded.

A vision of the future

Is there hope for eliminating the divide between the two cultures? Will this seemingly intractable lack of mutual understanding continue to hinder human progress? What would a resolution between science and its other look like?

Returning more specifically to the themes Snow talked about 50 years ago, E.O. Wilson argued in his keynote address that his predecessor's dichotomy is actually a false one. "The nub of the problems facing us in scholarship and education... is a general belief that a fault line exists between the natural sciences on one side and the humanities on the other," he suggested. "This line does not exist at all. It is, instead, a broad domain of poorly understood material phenomena awaiting cooperative exploration from both sides." Given the new tools and discoveries in interdisciplinary fields like cognitive neuroscience, behavioral genetics, environmental science, evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology, and biological anthropology—fields that bridge the traditional two cultures gap—Wilson forecasts an approaching "consilience" that would fulfill the Enlightenment's promise of unifying knowledge into a picture much broader and more comprehensive than was possible in the past.

E.O. Wilson during his keynote address to the Academy. Click on the Media tab above to see video.

Such new interdisciplinary fields are significant, Wilson suggested, because for the first time they offer "the prospect of characterizing human nature with the greater objectivity, precision, and exactitude that is the key to human self-understanding." Although explaining human nature has traditionally been the domain of philosophy or theology, he recited a number of recent scientific findings that have the potential to reveal the material causes behind why humans do the things we do. In particular, he cited neuroscience and the new science of epigenetics—which seeks to explain how environmental factors affect gene expression—as possible keys to explaining such questions as why we find particular objects, people, or environments aesthetically pleasing. "The theory of the art awaits its Mendeleev," he mused, "a theorist who can combine a theory of the arts with biology, as our knowledge of the mind and our perceptions increases."

If reduction of human behavior to genes and molecules seems too difficult or mechanistic, Wilson recalled that past biological problems, like resolving the physical structure of heredity in DNA, were once believed to be too complex, but were solved. More recently, doubts about the possibility of understanding the physical basis of the mind are fading, he said, as more sophisticated imaging tools become available. Wilson closed optimistically, predicting that a consilience of human knowledge is coming soon: "The great branches of learning seem destined to meet. If so, it will be an historic event that happens only once."

Whether or not Wilson's vision ultimately comes to fruition, his look into the future suggests that the concept of the two cultures will continue to evolve. As new scientific discoveries and technological innovations continue to force human beings to reevaluate who we are and what we're capable of, there will always be some who will be intimately involved in these pursuits, and others who play different roles within society. Scientists spending the time and the energy to communicate across that divide will be an essential part of ensuring that decisions are made with the best possible understanding of the problems we face.

Meeting organizer Chris Mooney remarked that if in 1959 Snow was exhorting literary intellectuals to learn more about science, participants in the Academy's 2009 symposium seemed to suggest that the reverse may now be the case. "What I'm hearing," he observed, "is that we've got to get the science community to engage, to do more, because if they don't, nobody else will." Indeed, the event offered a wealth of insight into ways for scientists to do so.