The “Two Cultures” Gap: Implications for the Issues of the Day

For the past week, or so, I have been trying to sort through the information emerging from Washington about health care, and what should be done about it.  In the Senate, the bill is known as the Affordable Health Choices Act, and in the House (HR 3200) it is called America’s Affordable Health Choices Act.  I found the summary of the house bill helpful.  But the discussions in the media have been confusing, and have revealed enormous gaps that exist between politicians and the public; between the medical community and the public; between the scientific community and the public; between politicians and science.  Then, Paul Krugman made this comment in a recent post about Obama’s recent news conference:

And there on our TVs was a president with an impressive command of the issues, who truly understands the stakes.

Health is not the only issue that at the center of national debates.  The recent passage in the House of an energy bill brings center stage another science-related issue that is crucial to America’s future.

Yet there cultural divides in America, which could be dangerous, according to a recent symposium at the New York Academy of Sciences.  Sponsored by the Academy, Science Debate, Inc., and Discover Magazine, the seminar brought together a group of scientists, journalists, inventors, professors, and teachers to hear keynote speakers, and participate in group discussions on the topic: A Dangerous Divide: The Two Cultures in the 21st Century.  The meeting coincided with the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s famous lecture, The Two Cultures.  As pointed out on the website for the meeting, Snow was talking about the cultural divide between scientists and humanists, whereas the conference focused in on the divide between the scientific community today and the general public.

At stake today is how the scientific community can contribute to the public’s understanding of science and science-related issues, and at the same time preserve its integrity.  One of the speakers at the symposium addressed this idea, and put it this way:

But even if specialization has created walls between cultures, Blair argued that science as a whole has benefited greatly from disciplinary boundaries, and that there is value in preserving them and keeping science insulated from politics. Science’s historical independence of ideology has earned it an authority that Blair argued is its most precious asset. At the same time, she suggested, “We also need to work to build bridges and communicate across those gaps… We need multiple cultures, each with recognized autonomy and authority and then bridged by individuals—specialists in education, in science writing—to help inform our public discourse.

Over the next few days we’ll explore the implications of symposium for not only the issues of the day, but for science teaching.  In the meantime, I recommend you go the symposium’s website.  There is text information, and videos of most of the symposium, as well bios on each of the participants.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.