The Science Lover and the Snob
Both of the “Two Cultures” Need to be Taken Seriously in the Media
Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney surveys the interactions between science, politics, and culture. He is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.” (Photo: flickr.com/sarahfelicity)
Judged on the basis of pure substance, Charles Percy Snow didn’t necessarily say anything all that original when he stepped up to a Cambridge lectern on May 7, 1959 to lament what he viewed as a growing divide between the “two cultures” of literary intellectuals and natural scientists. James B. Conant, the president of Harvard, had articulated the same concern, and in remarkably similar terms, two years earlier. The problem, as Snow would later put it, was “in the air.”
Yet we shouldn’t, for that reason, sell Snow’s famous contribution short—even as it is now nearing its 50 year anniversary and prompting renewed chatter. Speaking as a scientifically trained novelist who had seen firsthand the disconnect between different intellectual groups, Snow unforgettably framed the issue that most centrally concerned him—the inadequate influence of science on policy and on society—as a matter of two cultures that couldn’t communicate. (See here for a fuller description of Snow’s argument and what drove him to make it.) It didn’t even matter, as Snow acknowledged from the outset, that there were probably more than just two cultures if you wanted to get technical about it. What counted was the message and, perhaps above all, its timing.
As Snow himself would later note, the “Two Cultures” lecture seemed to feed into a particular Zeigeist—perhaps not only because it captured a deep truth about weird and unnecessary breakdowns between otherwise very smart people, but also because of its articulation at a time when the Soviets had blasted into space with Sputnik I, and the United States set its sights on the moon. And so the “two cultures” concept hit world presses and began to generate such a voluminous international dialogue that even Snow couldn’t keep up with it all. One “contribution,” however, stands out, both because of its own fame and because of its demonstration of just how nasty and unproductive debates over science and culture can become—how dominated by navel-gazing and one-upmanship between people who ought to make common cause.
In 1962, the famous British literary critic and English educator F.R. Leavis decided to take a blast at Snow’s now three-year-old speech in another noted Cambridge peroration, the Richmond lecture. In the process, Leavis generated the mid-century equivalent of a spat between Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly. The sheer brutality of Leavis’s assault got everybody talking: It spent far more time denigrating Snow personally than it did dismantling his argument. And ironically, it probably only increased Snow’s fame and notoriety, which by this time placed him among Britain’s and the world’s top tier of public intellectuals.
Insofar as Leavis had an argument, it was that Snow’s wasn’t really worth addressing at all, except in the sense that his puerile claims—and the great publicity they had received—represented a “portent” of society’s declining intellectual seriousness. Snow had described literary thinkers as “natural Luddies” at a time when what the world really needed was the spreading of scientific innovation to poorer countries; Leavis wholly rejected the characterization. He wasn’t anti-science, he said, but merely concerned with the true condition of human life amid industrialization, and how literature can instruct us as to that condition.
But most memorable were Leavis’s attacks. The man knew how to hurl an insult in a way we really don’t any more; even as you recoil at the incivility, you must admire the wordcraft. Snow, Leavis stated, “doesn’t know what he means, and doesn’t know he doesn’t know.” “The intellectual nullity,” he added, “is what constitutes any difficulty there may be in dealing with Snow’s panoptic pseudo-cogencies, his parade of a thesis: a mind to be argued with—that is not there; what we have is something other.” But what else to expect from a crappy writer like Snow? “As a novelist,” wrote Leavis, “he doesn’t exist; he doesn’t begin to exist. He can’t be said to know what a novel is.” A few more scenes from the execution:
Snow’s argument proceeds with so extreme a naiveté of unconsciousness and irresponsibility that to call it a movement of thought is to flatter it.
Snow rides on an advancing swell of cliché: this exhilarating motion is what he takes for inspired and authoritative thought.
It is characteristic of Snow that ‘believe’ for him should be a very simple word.
And so on. As one ringside observer put it, Leavis “threw Sir Charles Snow over his shoulder several times and then jumped on him…the whole thing left one with a sense of comradely sympathy for Sir Charles, as it might be for a man who had been involved in a serious motor accident.” The eminent critic Lionel Trilling added that while he had problems with Snow’s argument, there could be “no two opinions” about Leavis’s breach of decorum: “It is a bad tone, an impermissible tone.”
In lashing out like this, Leavis merely reinforced the point at issue. To read Snow’s 1959 lecture and Leavis’s 1962 reply in succession is to witness precisely the “mutual incomprehension” that Snow had originally described between literary intellectuals and natural scientists—with the only difference being that where Snow sought to engage, Leavis reacted with the defensiveness of a caged animal, and thoroughly undermined any serious point he may have had to make. In a 1956 New Statesman article that preceded the “Two Cultures” speech, Snow had perfectly predicted this sort of response, describing the literary culture of his day as “behaving like a state whose power is rapidly declining—standing on its precarious dignity, spending far too much energy on Alexandrian intricacies, occasionally letting fly in fits of aggressive pique quite beyond its means, too much on the defensive to show any generous imagination to the forces which must inevitably reshape it.”
For while Leavis may have possessed a sharper wit than Snow, and greater intellectual sophistication over all, he stood on the wrong side of history. Even as the Snow-Leavis battle sparked a renewed wave of chatter about the “two cultures,” trends in education clearly favored one combatant over the other.
In the postwar period, notes University of Virginia historian Guy Ortolano, British universities greatly expanded, and virtually all of that growth lay in the sciences, which began to receive copious government funding. It was a ratcheting up that Snow heavily supported: He had served as a scientific adviser to the influential 1946 Barlow Commission, which had called for precisely this course for British higher education, so as to create a much larger scientific workforce. By contrast, Leavis had devoutly hoped that Cambridge—his university and also Snow’s—would come to center on the English education program Leavis headed. Instead, the unhappy critic found himself fighting to prevent the ascension of a scientist to the position of Master of his Cambridge college (Downing) and lamented, “When I am retired, all that I have worked for at Cambridge peters out.” No wonder Snow epitomized everything Leavis despised.
And yet if we are to understand the plight of science today, especially in the United States, it helps to borrow a bit of Leavis’s animating philosophy and merge it with Snow’s. As Ortolano has put it, Leavis was centrally concerned with the “assault of mass civilization upon intellectual standards.” He bemoaned the growth of the mass media and the democratization and expansion of higher education, both of which (he felt) watered down excellence and weakened our ability to determine what really mattered, what to truly value. Leavis wished to defend the highest of high literature from these corroding, dumbing-down forces; but today, when we observe popular media culture, we can see that science, too, has not managed to compete. Not against mass coverage of Anna Nicole Smith’s death, or Britney Spears’ sad tribulations, or Paris Hilton’s arrest record.
In this sense, Snow and Leavis—both Cambridge men—might have been allies, if only they had known then what we know now. And if only they had been able to talk about it with civility.
We would be remiss, then, if we learned nothing more from the Snow-Leavis affair than that intellectuals sometimes behave badly. Stripped of all the nastiness, we can see in hindsight that both pugilists were saying something very important: Snow, that intellectual culture had grown fragmented and disconnected; Leavis, that mass media culture was squeezing out intellectual culture anyway. When you merge these two points together, you find, perhaps, a powerful articulation of the problem of the intellectual life in our times. Serious people, and serious arguments, are all too rarely taken seriously in the media (except, amazingly enough, on Comedy Central!) Meanwhile, continuing polarization, internecine battles, and ivory tower syndrome among intellectuals distract them from what ought to be their greatest concern—their tragic decline in influence.
Chris Mooney is contributing editor to Science Progress and author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”
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