David Bouchier: Between Two Cultures

May 8, 2017

Those of us who never had a proper education in science are reminded of our ignorance every time we switch on a computer, or a microwave, or even a light bulb. It might as well be magic, but it’s not, and we have no more idea how these tricks are accomplished than we understand the flying broomsticks in Harry Potter. Satellites spin in the sky above our heads, we get miraculous drugs from the local pharmacy, and make calls on phones that don’t seem to be connected to anything, and we don’t understand how any of it works.

The British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow wrote about this in 1959 in a famous book called The Two Cultures. The two cultures were science and art, and Snow was alarmed at how little they understood about each other. Nothing has changed since 1959. In fact science has run so far ahead of scientific illiterates like me, that we can only gape at it like the Pilgrim Fathers confronted by a video game.

I was painfully reminded of this by reading a memoir by the scientist and controversialist Richard Dawkins about his lifetime of research in biology. He writes well and most of his arguments can be followed by the scientifically retarded, but the underlying knowledge of things like phenotypes and genotypes, memes and genes, arthromorphs and biomorphs is simply not in my brain, so that his descriptions of research sound as much like mysticism or alchemy as the products of reason and logic. So I must trust Professor Dawkins, and I do. But if I trust him, without being able to explain why, I might trust anybody with any theory about reality. That’s what’s so dangerous. The more a few scientifically educated people know, and the less the rest of us know, the more science begins to look like some sort of elite conspiracy.

Science doesn’t leave much room for the opinions and beliefs we cherish. We love to have pointless arguments about the best basketball team, religion, political party, television show, because it is fun to argue and we can always consider ourselves right. My opinion is as good as yours. But when it comes, say, to finding the elusive infinitely small particles that may be the basic building blocks of the universe, my opinion is definitely not as good as yours, and totally worthless compared to the opinion of a physicist.

Of course science can’t do everything: it can’t tell us the right word to use in a poem or explain Beethoven’s late quartets. There are different things to know, and different ways of knowing. But we need a better balance, more people like Alexander Borodin the Russian composer who was also a research chemist, or indeed Richard Dawkins himself who is a biologist with a wide-ranging knowledge of the arts.

We aren’t all smart enough to be scientists, but it is important that we understand how and why science works, and magic doesn’t. Even I know what a scientific proof should look like: observation, classification, experiment, repetition, comparison and so on. That’s how we know that our knowledge is knowledge. If you don’t believe that, you might believe anything.

Copyright: David Bouchier