Tuesday, July 03, 2007

C.P Snow and Scientific Illiteracy

I heard this man's name and checked out his Wikipedia entry to find this:
Snow is most noted for his lectures and books regarding his concept of "The Two Cultures", as developed in The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959). Here he notes that the breakdown of communication between the sciences and the humanities is a major hindrance to solving the world's problems.

In particular, Snow argues that the quality of education in the world is on the decline. For example, many scientists have never read Charles Dickens, but artistic intellectuals are equally non-conversant with science. He wrote:

    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 law of entropy. 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.

This is perhaps even a greater problem today, and can be generalized further - people are most comfortable studying their field, despite the obvious fact that there are diminishing marginal returns when studying a field intensely. Once one has studied literature or philosophy for a few years, one knows the basic concepts. Further work simply supplements those concepts. Real progress may be extremely difficult. On the other hand, learning the introductory basic concepts of another field is very easy and extremely useful.

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