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Sunday, 26 October 2014

C P Snow – Another Case of Why So Smart yet So Dumb

I write this having just re-read C P Snow’s book The Two Cultures, which contains the text of his original 1959 lecture and the 1963 essay which he called The Two Cultures: A Second Look.

I first read this book back in the 1980s, and decided to read it one more time to locate a particular sentence that I want to use in a work of fiction. Putting the words of real life people (scientists, engineers, and technologists) into the mouths of fictional characters is one of the techniques I use. I have found scientists, and their cousins in engineering and technology, to be a rich source of dialogue which can be used to highlight their rather peculiar beliefs and the nonsense that they often speak, which reveals also their silent narratives. Anne Glover is a very good example of a scientist speaking such nonsense, and her particular distorted views of the world have been the subject of a number of my recent blogs, where I have revealed her silent narratives. And using the words spoken by scientists, either in fiction or non-fiction, to reveal their silent narratives and to expose what lies behind the words – values, beliefs, delusions, denial, self-constructed realities, biases, etc. – lies at the core of what I do. C P Snow’s book is a gold mind of nonsense (as is Anne Glover).

His book is not all nonsense of course, but his silent narrative can be seen as a manifestation of the question that I keep asking about such people: why so smart yet so dumb? This one can say is a disease afflicting the European mind, and it is an illness particularly to be found among scientists, engineers, technologists, economists, and people bound up in the industrial era techno-science, capitalist paradigm, which keeps the European mind bound to the past. And it is not just these groups that are locked into the past – social scientists, artists, and others also share this view of the world, such is its contagious nature.

At the beginning of his lecture, Snow states that: “By training I was a scientist: by vocation I was a writer.” Not so! Snow was a scientist who wrote. There is a difference! Snow had his feet and mind firmly planted in science. The quality of his thoughts and reflections are mundane, and reflect the output of a mind trained and conditioned by science, which has its place in the research laboratory, where it is effective, but this is where it should be contained. Tigers are best kept in their natural habitat, where they can do what they do, but that is where they belong. Put them into the human world, and what follows is inevitable!

In comparison to his contemporaries – such as Rachel Carson (Silent Spring), Arthur Koestler (The Sleepwalkers, The Act of Creation, and more), Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), and Michael Polanyi (Scientific Thought and Social Reality) – Snow is merely expressing opinions of the kind one would expect to hear expressed in a bar room. Educated opinions no doubt, but certainly not the work of a mind with the mental skills needed for the critique and analysis that Snow attempted. If indeed there are two cultures (or more), then they are most likely to be found by considering the cognitive styles and skills that relate to different types of human activities, as well as in values, beliefs, etc. This is not something that Snow gives proper recognition to, but which can be found when exploring the subject of disciplinary differences in a systematic way, and some understanding of this can be found in the above mentioned work of his contemporaries. As I often say – it’s all about behaviour! Snow’s book is perhaps just one piece of evidence demonstrating that there are significant differences in cognitive styles and skills – a case of horses for courses, which means that what is suitable for one person or situation is unsuitable for another. Those who appoint people as Chief Scientific Advisors should take note of this!

Before moving on, I would also mention here that this book by Snow is not about Two Cultures, but one that primarily addresses the divide between the rich and the poor. This point he emphasises in Second Look. That the book is often quoted, mentioned, referenced as being relevant to the disciplinary divides in society, like for example between art and science, or art and technology, is strange, for the book has very little to say about any disciplinary divides, nor does it offer much in the way of insights. Are we here dealing with a book like Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which, as Charles Handy once noted, must be one of the least read but most often referenced books of all time?

What Snow’s book does however demonstrate, is the construction of shared realities, silent narratives, and myths, by scientists. This is evident in many places throughout the book, but becomes explicit in Second Look, when Snow starts to criticise those with a romantic view of the past, and their myth that prior to the industrial revolution, life was idyllic. He criticises such people and brands them as Luddites, which is a common mistake made by scientific types. They mistakenly see Luddism as a reactionary movement against progress (by which they mean new technology) where in fact it was a movement brought about by the lack of progress of the type that is far more important than new technology – the type of progress that I will soon turn my attention to. For the moment, I will restrict my comments to saying that Luddites made a statement that people are not machines, and should not be treated as such, which is exactly how science and capitalism view people.

Snow, after criticising the romantic myth, then demonstrates the construction of another myth, the scientific one:

“Millions of individual lives, in some lucky countries like our own, have, by one gigantic convulsion of applied science over the last hundred and fifty years, been granted some share of the primal things. Billions of individual lives, over the rest of the world, will be granted or will seize the same. This is the indication of time’s arrow.”

Snow however conveniently disregards the fact that the agricultural labourer of the 18th century, did not suddenly find himself living in a paradise once industrialisation arrived, simply by offering him the opportunity to work in a factory. Swapping the oppression of the land owner for that of the factory owner was no progress, as the Luddites clearly showed. Most ordinary people living in the mid-19th century lived in the same squalor and poverty that existed 100 years earlier, only the circumstances were different (perhaps worse).

History reveals a story of a continuous battle between the vested interests of the few, and the rights and interests of the many. It is a battle as old as civilisation, and what can be said of the role of applied science in these battles? In the fight to abolish the slave trade and slavery, what role did applied science have here? In establishing the rights of ordinary people to organise themselves through trade unions, what did applied science contribute? When laws were introduced to protect young children by making unlawful their employment in factories, was it applied science that led to these laws? Was free education for all the product applied science? In the fight to achieve universal suffrage, what use was applied science? What leading role did applied science play in the introduction of social security benefits? Our National Health Service, providing free healthcare at point of need and use – was this the product of applied science? And in recent times, what can be said of applied science’s contribution to establishing our current legal basis for equality?

The above are the elements of which great leaps forward have been made, the type of progress that Luddites yearned for, but which was not forthcoming from industry nor applied science. This real and meaningful progress did not in fact begin to appear in a significant manner until the 20th century, which has been described as the people’s century, and which clearly demonstrates both the negative aspects of science and technology, and the importance of progress defined not by science and technology, but by being human and treating humans as humans, and not as faceless and nameless entities, whose only utility is an economic one. It is a lesson that has not yet been learned.

It would of course be unfair to say that applied science has not contributed to the improvement of human lives. That is not the point. What I want to do is to place the benefits of science in proper prospective, but Snow, like most scientists, looks at the human world and sees the benefits of applied science, and ignores the fact that other forces and intentions were at work, and what he sees is actually the result of a complex process, in which applied science has played some part, but certainly not the most important, except perhaps in the area of medical science and treatments, but that too was dependent upon the notion of (free) healthcare for all, regardless of class and financial standing. Without such a radical social reform, there would have been no advances in medical science and treatments for the vast majority of people (as is well demonstrated in the United States).

But the fragmented and reductionist mind does not see this, because it has lost the ability to see the bigger picture. Snow was one these fragmented thinkers. There are many more, and their number and influence grows. And as Snow demonstrates (as do people like Richard Dawkins), education does not offer a solution.

Snow (like Dawkins and Glover) can be seen as nature’s proof that scientists should not be involved in policy making. They can provide inputs yes, but that is not what they want. They believe that their world view is more important than any other, that they are the sole bearers of the truth, and they seek power by means most undemocratic to impose on others a technocracy – the rule of science and reason. And when they are challenged they become visceral as do all who live their lives in the self-imposed prison that is called dogma. Moreover, because they are scientists, they do not see this, and cannot foresee the consequences of their actions – for them there are no consequences!

In my novel Moments in Time, the central character is one of these technocratic people with a fragmented mind. But gradually he starts to understand as the consequences of his actions begin to have a personal impact – sow the wind, reap the whirlwind. And understanding the consequences of their actions is something that all those bound up in dogma, be it scientific, religious, political or economic are capable of. In the novel, there is a point where the central character states:

“Do you not know that we invent, that we are the creators of the modern world? Intensive care technology, pharmaceuticals, mobile phones, cars, domestic appliances, computers, trains, central heating, deodorants, fast food, throwaway cups, tasteless vegetables, overcrowded roads, mountains of discarded plastics, chemical weapons, unnecessary energy consumption, mindless and repetitive manual work, dwindling oil reserves, environmental pollution, global warming, loss of biodiversity, nuclear reactors that melt down … Yes, indeed, we create the best of all possible worlds, …”

Prior to this moment in time however, he would not have said this, or if he had, the sentence would not have included all the negative things that are the product of a science and technology that is no longer fit for purpose. The understanding that modern science, technology and engineering are at the heart of our problems is something that the central character in the story slowly comes to realise. But Snow does not recognise this, and indeed he could easily be placed within the setting of Voltaire’s novel Candide, where, even after the experiences faced by the characters, all the death, destruction, injustice, etc., Snow would still be there at the end saying “All is for the best, in this best of all possible worlds.”

But I conclude on a more positive note concerning Snow’s book. At the very end of A Second Look, he states: “Scientists can give bad advice and decision-makers can’t know whether it is good or bad.” Did I not say that the book was not total nonsense? And here we are back to the matter of Anne Glover, and how a President of the European Commission will ever know that her advice, or more correctly her version of the truth, the words that she whispers into his ear behind closed doors, is good or bad? And such a statement points to the need for a different and more sophisticated approach to policy-making than that which scientists like Anne Glover are able to imagine. Suffering from the affliction why so smart yet so dumb, will in the end lead to …

It takes a special set of circumstances of the kind that the character in Moments in Time experiences, for the unbreakable chains that bind Prometheus to the rock of the past to be smashed and for people to be set free. Now is the time to create these exceptional circumstances, and about this I will have more to say in due course.

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