The clash of the two cultures and the challenge of collaboration

31st May, 2019

May 7 was the 60th anniversary of the delivery of CP Snow’s famous lecture, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. It is dimly remembered as a lament about the mutual incomprehension between arts and sciences, wrapped up with some pompous anecdotes about Oxbridge high table and airy generalisations about the dynamism of scientists. Some of it is absurd. Snow dismisses George Orwell’s 1984 as pure Luddism, “the strongest possible wish that the future should not exist”. (Orwell old chap, relax and enjoy the fruits of technological progress!) That Snow’s lecture is remembered at all is probably thanks to an acidic rebuttal by the literary critic FR Leavis.

Nevertheless, Snow was on to something important. His message was garbled, in fact, because he was on to several important things at once. The first is the challenge of collaboration. If anything, The Two Cultures understates that. Yes, the classicists need to work with the scientists, but the physicists also need to work with the biologists, the economists must work with the psychologists, and everyone has to work with the statisticians. And the need for collaboration between technical experts has grown over time because, as science advances and problems grow more complex, we increasingly live in a world of specialists.

The economist Benjamin Jones has been studying this issue by examining databases of patents and scientific papers. His data show that successful research now requires larger teams filled with more specialised researchers. Scientific and material progress demands complex collaboration.

Snow appreciated — in a way that many of us still do not — how profound that progress was. The scientist and writer Stephen Jay Gould once mocked Snow’s prediction that “once the trick of getting rich is known, as it now is, the world can’t survive half rich and half poor” and that division would not last to the year 2000. “One of the worst predictions ever printed,” scoffed Gould in a book published posthumously in 2003. Had Gould checked the numbers, he would have seen that between 1960 and 2000, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty had roughly halved, and it has continued to fall sharply since then. Snow’s 40-year forecast was more accurate than Gould’s 40 years of hindsight. Even when we fancy ourselves broadly educated, as Gould did, we may not know what we don’t know. That was one of Snow’s points.

But the deepest point of all — buried a little too deep, perhaps — is a practical problem that remains as pressing today as it was in 1959: how to reconcile technical expertise with the demands of policy and politics. In short — have we really had enough of experts?

The historian Lisa Jardine highlights this sentence in Snow’s argument: “It is the traditional culture, to an extent remarkably little diminished by the emergence of the scientific one, which manages the western world.” We didn’t decide we’d had enough of experts in 2016; we made that decision long ago.

There have never been many scientists in politics. In his 2012 book, The Geek Manifesto, Mark Henderson reckoned there was one scientist among 650 members of the UK parliament. The US Congress is packed with lawyers. We need a little more technical expertise close to the levers of power: pithy quotations from Cicero will not do the trick; nor those from Karl Marx.

As Snow pointed out in a series of lectures he gave at Harvard in 1960, published as Science and Government, grave mistakes can result not only from a vacuum of technical knowledge in politics, but from a monopoly — the single expert, unchallenged. He cited the allied bombing of dense urban areas in Germany during the war, which not only took a terrible toll on civilians, but failed in military terms by sparing industrial targets. The source of the problem was a flawed statistical study by Winston Churchill’s scientific adviser Frederick Lindemann that no one had both the technical skill and the political clout to challenge. It is not enough to give political influence to a physicist or an economist. The corridors of power must ring with scientifically informed debate.

Snow quotes another scientist about losing the argument over area-bombing. “I confess to a haunting sense of personal failure . . . if we had only been more persuasive and had forced people to believe our simple arithmetic . . . might we not have changed this decision?” That is precisely how many economists felt after the Brexit referendum. There is no moral equivalence, but there is an intellectual parallel: we felt that a serious mistake had been made and that it was partly our fault for not being more persuasive.

None of this is to assert the superiority of a technical education over a classical, literary or vocational one, although Snow sometimes seemed to yield to that temptation. We don’t need a parliament full of chemists any more than we need one full of classicists. We need a mix. Like scientific research, good policymaking is now a team effort. It requires different perspectives and a range of specialist expertise. We all must learn to work with people who see the world very differently. That wasn’t easy to do in 1959. It is no easier today.


Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 3 May 2019.

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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