I’m not going to delve into this book’s notions - maybe later. But reading it has forced me to mull over the divisions among the diverse human “cultures”. Of particular significance is that being a physical scientist has given me a broad perspective - in a position to grasp challenging scientific concepts based on a knowledge of advanced mathematics. Those in this position are relatively rare. I don’t know the numbers, but I’m guessing that simply knowing Calculus puts me into a very tiny minority (of order 1% or less) of humans in my country, to say nothing of those in other nations (“worlds” apart, in nations where most people have little chance to pursue a career in science, regardless of their talent and interest).
And I'm also human, with all the same feelings and perspectives that those pursuing careers in the humanities have. Science inevitably colors those aspects of my perspective, naturally - nevertheless, I see the beauty of a rose as well as the next human. I also see deeper than that, to the processes allowing that rose to happen in my world. It's my privilege to live at a time and place where science has added considerable understanding about the world for all of us who choose to gain that understanding.
I know many scientists who dabble in other fields of endeavor, including many who are artists of various sorts – visual arts, performing arts, etc. Some of them are reasonably well-accomplished in their hobbies. Not full-time professionals certainly, but serious enough about those hobbies to develop considerably their talents in those directions. Most good scientists are far from one-dimensional geeks, despite the widespread myth that all scientists are one-dimensional.
Unfortunately, I know very few folks who are the inverse of my colleagues - that is, professionals in the humanities but simultaneously pursuing some scientific interest at a serious level. [Many of the exceptions to this rule amongst those I know are storm chasers!] This means that scientists well may be more than able to grasp non-science concepts, but few of those pursuing careers outside of science have much of a clue about how science really works. Their bias against science comes, perhaps, from hated science courses in K-12 education, which they rejected as of no interest and boring in the extreme. Math phobia also takes a toll of the potentially interested. Unfortunately ignorance of how science works perpetuates myths about, say, the conflict between evolutionary biology and creationism. Myths fill the vacuum created by rejected understanding.
It’s my hope that this essay won’t come across as encouraging or perpetuating a divide between science and the humanities. My experience suggests that the concept advanced by C.P. Snow is true - that the two cultures have some elements in common and could viably interact, to the benefit of everyone. But it’s been my perception that most non-scientists have erected a barrier in their own minds to the value and excitement of learning about the natural world in a scientific way. To them, knowing a rose’s biology somehow detracts from our appreciation of the rose as an object of beauty or a symbol of something relating to the human condition. I couldn’t disagree more with that thesis, but it’s impossible to change the mind of someone who has chosen to remain ignorant of the inherently beautiful perspective associated with knowing how things work.
I can’t imagine how the modern Western world of today, with its deep roots in science and technology, must appear to someone who has trouble understanding the information content of a graph. As I suggested earlier, that ignorance breeds the growth of faith-based mythology. In today's world, where important social decisions ride on scientific issues, the growth of that mythology as a means of making societal decisions is inherently dangerous.
Whatever their world view, folks ignorant of science and how it works are separated by a vast gulf from the world as I know it. That saddens me, because I enjoy discourse with people who are informed enough to have a substantive understanding of some topic. Finding myself "preaching to the choir" is a less than satisfactory experience - I'm not seeking affirmation of my ideas by murmured agreement in a crowd of the faithful. Rather, I welcome challenges to my understanding, provided they're intelligent challenges, and not simple bashing. By the same token, a clash of ideas that results in no one changing their minds still can be useful and stimulating, provided the discourse remains civil (see my earlier blog about civil discourse).
C.P. Snow bemoaned the division of our society into two apparently different "cultures". Today, the fractionation of our society is rolling forward at an accelerating pace. We're mostly talking past each other, not engaging in a search for understanding and reconciliation where possible. Dehumanizing those with opposing views is rampant on all sides. If we're to survive the storm we're creating for ourselves, I think we need to welcome dissent in the way that our nation's "Founding Fathers" hoped would happen - in the way expressed so eloquently on a plaque affixed to Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin.