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Science Illiteracy of "Intellectuals"

Self-described (literary) intellectuals, and punditry and media talking heads in general, periodically sneer at (natural) scientists and (non-social) engineers.

Here is some illuminating insight.

Excerpts from C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, 1959

Chales P. Snow (1905-1980), or C.P. Snow, was a British scientist who became a prominent novelist. In 1959, he delivered a lecture "The Two Cultures" that provides an important insight to this day.

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Science Illiteracy of "Intellectuals"

... [T]he intellectual life of the whole western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups. ... Two polar groups: at one pole we have the literary intellectuals, who incidentally while no one was looking took referring to themselves as 'intellectuals' as though there were no others. ...

Literary intellectuals at one pole – at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists ...

The non-scientists have a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly optimistic, unaware of man's condition. On the other hand, the scientists believe that the literary intellectuals are totally lacking in foresight, peculiarly unconcerned with their brother men, in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to restrict both art and thought to the existential moment ...

The pole of total incomprehension of science [by literary intellectuals] radiates its influence on all the rest. The total incomprehension gives much more pervasively than we realize, living in it, an unscientific flavor to the whole 'traditional' culture, and that unscientific flavor is often, much more than we admit, on the point of turning anti-scientific ...

[Literary intellectuals] still like to pretend that the traditional culture is the whole of 'culture,' as though the natural order didn't exist. ... They give a pitying chuckle at the news of scientists who have never read a major work of English literature. They dismiss them as ignorant specialists. Yet their own ignorance and their own specialization is just startling. A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people, who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question – such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? –  not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had ...  

The reasons for the existence of two cultures are many, deep, and complex ...

If we forget the scientific culture, then the rest of western intellectuals have never tried, wanted, or been able to understand the industrial revolution, much less accept it. Intellectuals, in particular literary intellectuals, are natural Luddites.

... [T]he highly educated members of the non-scientific culture couldn't cope with the simplest concepts of pure science: it is unexpected, but they would be even less happy with applied science. How many educated people know anything about productive industry, old-style or new?  What is a machine-tool? I once asked a literary party: and they looked shifty. Unless one knows, industrial production is as mysterious as witch-doctoring.

I think it is only fair to say that most pure scientists have themselves been devastatingly ignorant of productive industry, and many still are. It is permissible to lump pure and applied scientists into the same scientific culture, but the gaps are wide. Pure scientists and engineers often totally misunderstand each other. Their behavior tends to be very different: engineers have to live their lives in an organized community [of productive organizations], and however odd they are underneath they manage to present a disciplined face to the world. Not so pure scientists. In the same way pure scientists still, though less than twenty years ago, have statistically a higher proportion in politics left of center than any other profession: not so engineers, who are conservative almost to a man.

Pure scientists have by and large been dim-witted about engineers and applied science. ... They wouldn't recognize that many of the problems were as intellectually exacting as pure problems, and that many of the solutions were as satisfying and beautiful.

C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures, 1959


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