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An influential lecture on the cultural significance of science remains as relevant today as when it was delivered 50 years ago.
Fifty years ago this month C.P. Snow, an eminent British chemist-turned-novelist, gave a lecture at the University of Cambridge. He originally intended to emphasise how a lack of access to science and technology was separating the rich from the poor.
But when he came to deliver it, the lecture’s focus had shifted to the tensions and misunderstandings between scientists and literary intellectuals. This idea, summarised in Snow’s subsequent book, The Two Cultures, rapidly became both widely known and hotly debated around the English-speaking world.
And it has remained so ever since. Even though the tensions Snow identified may have softened since the 1950s — many contemporary novelists, for example, write knowledgeably about scientific ideas — they still surface in widespread distrust of scientific thinking.
Meanwhile, the idea that Snow himself considered to be more important — namely science’s role in bridging the gap between the rich and poor — has been forgotten as the motivating theme behind his lecture.
Science for transformation
Yet this idea is as relevant today as it was then, particularly when considering Snow’s insistence that unless modern science and technology was widely adopted, the social and economic problems of the developing world would not be solved.
He pointed presciently to countries such as China and India that were building their modernisation plans around science. In doing so, they were already promising to transform from rural to industrial economies in decades rather than the centuries the West had taken.
Snow also argued passionately that Western societies, working with their scientific communities, had a moral responsibility to provide the human and financial resources needed to enable a similar process elsewhere across the developing world.
His specific remedies, such as deploying massive armies of Western scientists and engineers to developing countries, may seem old-fashioned. But the overall message remains highly relevant — perhaps, as recent commentators point out, even more relevant than the controversial "two cultures" idea (see, for example, a recent Nature editorial ‘Doing good, 50 years on’).
But another aspect of Snow’s lecture is less commendable. He appears to assert the superiority of scientific over non-scientific culture with a confidence sometimes bordering on the arrogance for which he criticised others.
This is perhaps best summed up in his widely quoted phrase that scientists "have the future in their bones". Scientists, he declared, look forward, and are optimistic about the future; other intellectuals merely look back, and complain about the world’s prospects.
Ironically, Snow’s own predictions undermine this conclusion.
He confidently predicted that the gap between the rich and poor would disappear by the year 2000 — once other developing countries realised what China and India could achieve.
But almost a decade past 2000, the gap is still widening in many regions. Snow’s optimism that the world as a whole would, by now, have enough to eat and keep its people healthy was widely off the mark. Many countries are not anticipated to reach the 2015 Millennium Development Goals.
Science: Essential but not sufficient
Both the strength and continued value of Snow’s analysis lies in his advocacy that all societies, both rich and poor, should recognise and accept science as an important strand of their culture. It is this idea, for example, that underpins recent efforts in developed and developing countries alike to promote the public’s understanding of science.
But his analysis is too shallow. There is an underlying assumption that once countries invest enough in science and technology (and the education that underpins it), social progress will virtually automatically follow.
The shortcomings of this scientific determinism became apparent in the decades following Snow’s lecture. In that period, political discourse became increasingly centred not on science’s promises, but on its unacceptable side-effects — from nuclear weapons and environmental pollution to global warming and climate change.
Since then, the distrust of science has, to some extent, been thankfully redressed. But there is still some way to go, particularly since those who were educated at the height of this critical discourse now occupy influential positions in both government and civil society.
The real cultural divide is not between those who have faith in science and those who do not. It is between those whose beliefs are fundamentalist, projecting either the value or dangers of modern science as absolute truths, and those who see science as a necessary but not sufficient condition of human progress.
That applies in rich and poor countries alike.