‘In 2019, the “two cultures” described by CP Snow in 1959 will have finally ceased to have meaning.’
So said Russell Foster in a recent article in Wired. Russell is clearly an optimist and I fear I do not share his optimism, despite all the evidence he adduces in his piece. The examples he cites – including statistics about visitors to the Science Museum – unfortunately only refer to certain segments of our population. Just like Russell is now, in the past I have been a Trustee of the Science Museum and have seen the data compiled by them on the views of their visitors; those surveyed or more than likely to be those already regarded as ‘engaged’ (to use the audience segmentation term adopted by museums, if my memory serves me right). Such visitors are likely to be scientifically engaged but also more widely; after a visit to South Kensington’s Science Museum they might pop across the road to the V+A to look at fine arts, jewellery or costumes. Not all parts of the population seem to think in the same way, including many very well-educated people who seem determined to claim ‘vive la différence’ when it comes to arts and sciences and write about this vociferously.
Let me quote from another recent article, this time in the Guardian just before Christmas. Here Natalie Brett (head of London College of Communication and pro vice-chancellor of the University of the Arts in London) sticks up for ‘soft’ skills in the modern world of work, but then appears to lay claim to these as being learned only on non-STEM courses. To quote her article about the skills such courses teach:
Google cites creativity, leadership potential and communication skills as top prerequisites for both potential and current employees.
As my last blogpost suggests, not all lab heads are exactly full of leadership potential, nor necessarily good at communication (but then who said a history graduate or a linguistics scholar was necessarily good at this either?) but the idea that scientists are not creative is a long-term bugbear of mine (see here for instance). In talks on the subject I like to cite Peter Medawar – always good with the finely-tuned, pithy sentence – who said, way back in 1968
All ideas of scientific understanding, at every level, begin with a speculative adventure, an imaginative preconception of what might be true – a preconception that always, and necessarily, goes a little way (sometimes a long way) beyond anything which we have logical or factual authority to believe in.
That’s what creativity is all about. Let us remember that the so-called ‘creative industries’ would not contribute as much to the UK economy as they do if it were not for all those allegedly tediously uncreative techie and STEM types who are capable of writing the code for video games, considering optimum ways to create ambience by appropriate lighting of the stage in the West End or finding innovative ways to record music. Why has creativity been appropriated by certain non-STEM folk as being theirs and theirs alone?
Natalie Brett does not stop with her criticisms of science and scientists with this bending of her thoughts to creativity. She goes on to say
To return to the Google example, many of the company’s top “characteristics of success” are soft skills: being a good coach, communicating and listening well, possessing insights into other points of view, being supportive of one’s colleagues, critical thinking and problem solving, and being able to make connections across complex ideas.
Again this seems a curious misunderstanding of what scientists get up to. Surely seeing other points of view, critical thinking (which to my mind frequently seems to mean no more than being able to see through bogus arguments) and making connections across complex ideas sit at the heart of a scientist’s day job. As for problem solving…..isn’t that what we spend our lives doing from the first day of our undergraduate degree, albeit the problems may be slightly different from what she actually was thinking about? Nevertheless, she cannot pretend to be Humpty Dumpty deciding to choose exactly what the word ‘problem’ might mean regardless of other conventions.
It seems to me scientists are far more likely to want not to put boundaries between the disciplines than non-scientists. To my mind it is a great shame that anyone wants to erect such walls. What I think we should be distinguishing when we consider education is the act of knowing facts in one’s own speciality – thermodynamics, the topic CP Snow was so agitated about, or the Greek lexicon, or the life of Napoleon or whatever it might be – from skills useful to getting on in life. Language does not help us here: calling these latter skills ‘soft’ strikes me as ridiculous. Let’s call them ubiquitous, or broad or non-specialised but we should all worry about mastering as many of them as we can.
Science communication is a ‘thing’. Some people are good at it – like Russell Foster, who amongst other roles is Chair of the Cheltenham Science Festival – some are most decidedly not, and should not be let loose on an audience of non-specialists at any price. Nevertheless that does not mean scientists, collectively, cannot communicate. Some scientists are brilliant leaders – Peter Medawar seems to have been in this category, much beloved as the Director of the Mill Hill Laboratory before his untimely death – others, as that last blogpost on jerks spells out only too painfully, are shocking at it. But that certainly does not mean that good leadership is the prerogative of those with an arts or humanities degree.
Furthermore I would hazard a guess – although I am more than happy to be proved wrong – that scientists are far more likely to read non-science books in their bath or bed than non-scientists are likely to pick up a science book, popular or otherwise. My current bath-time reading is actually Paul Warde’s The Invention of Sustainability, which has elements of science but even more of history and even philosophy within its covers. My current Kindle book is The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and other Ocean Voyagers by Adam Nicholson which (forgive me), the Mail apparently said was written ‘with a heart full of poetry and a head full of science’ according to the book’s Amazon website. I like books that can’t be neatly pigeon-holed. I like my life like that. I do not appreciate being accused by non-scientists of being unable to think creatively, or to join the dots between different ideas let alone that I am incapable of listening well or supporting my colleagues: all things that Brett seems convinced of.
So, I wish I could believe that Russell Foster was right when he said there was no longer any division between the cultures. I fear his optimism has overtaken the evidence.