Science, Culture and All That Jazz

People seem to think that science and culture are two different things. Just as Stefan Collini, in his 2012 book ‘What are Universities for? ’ constantly referred to scientists and scholars, as if scientists were unable to join the (implied elite) club of scholars, culture as usually considered consists of things like music, art, poetry and literature– but not science. Why? Why this artificial distinction (which I highlighted before) which, if you go down the well-worked Two Cultures route suggests that science/technology may have its own culture but it is ‘other’. It really is time that we recognized learning is learning, with many hues, styles and flavours, but that all academics are in the business of scholarship, of making the world a better place and being creative together.

How is culture defined? Having just read Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy I wouldn’t turn there for a helpful definition in the modern world, however ground-breaking the book may have been upon its appearance in 1869. Arnold was determined to prove that the classical Hellenic world had it all right and those of us steeped in what he calls ‘machinery’ have it all wrong, although by machinery he doesn’t mean a vacuum cleaner or car, or even – to be less anachronistic – a powerloom or steam engine. He means the machinery of doing something, be it challenging the law (he was very worked up about the disestablishment of the Irish Church and that ‘annual blister, marriage with deceased wife’s sister) or improving the lot of the poor (The Populace in his language). But let me not dwell on this seminal but, at least to my mind, outmoded and ill-argued book to make sense of culture.

It was Melvyn Bragg, on his Radio 4 programme In Our Time, who introduced Arnold’s book to me, through his series about Culture broadcast in 2012. And Melvyn Bragg it is who has indirectly just brought back to my mind the artificial division between culture and science by inviting me back onto that wonderful, broad, intellectual programme he chairs. Along with the historian of science, Jim Bennett, and the UCL chemist Paul McMillan, we discussed the Science of Glass this week. This was a programme that I would like to think I had stimulated in some small part when I previously took part in the programme covering the topic of States of Matter. After that earlier programme I mourned the fact the topic was too large to do justice to all the intriguing but less than conventional states and, in particular, that we had never touched on glasses at all. Indeed I wrote to the producer to say this. So in this programme we did. What I really liked about the line-up was that this time, unlike on my previous two appearances, we were not three scientists. Jim’s presence meant we had a broader view of things, particularly with regard to the historical context in which glass has been developed and utilised.

Such public dialogue between those with very different takes on a specific subject, are all too rare. Indeed, space and opportunity for such a public dialogue to occur are also all too rare. There is a tendency to ghetto-ise disciplines: Science Festivals and Literary Festivals do not usually co-mingle (although the Hay Festival does include a good line up of scientists) and speakers from one background may either lack confidence to speak in other arenas and/or may not get invited. This is not healthy.

If culture is to mean anything it should mean ‘the best that has been thought and known’ as Arnold would have it, but without taking a large part of our knowledge and implicitly saying that since it’s science it can’t count as culture, even if it has been ‘thought and known’. Why do we artificially divide the world so that it isn’t common to wish to be competent (I’m not aiming for a higher goal of expertise) in more than one sphere? Of course there are notable and visible exceptions, someone like Jonathan Miller, for instance. But scientists too often are diffident ( admittedly sometimes with good reason) about expressing their views about topics beyond their own specific fields. Yet why shouldn’t scientists express interest and knowledge about books or music, at least in a lay sense? Scientists are not Philistines (a word that, in this context, is also down to Arnold I believe) and their opinions are worth hearing. If music (jazz, perhaps, hence the title of this post) inspires them to be creative in their science, can they articulate why? And if science inspires artists, that too should be a cause for celebration. As examples of this latter I would cite the dress Matthew Hubble designed for the Nobel Prize winner May Britt Moser, or the Wonderland collaboration between fashion designer Helen Storey and chemist Tony Ryan .

The media doesn’t do much to facilitate such dialogue across this apparent divide. I fear this is because by and large the media is dominated by non-scientists who seem to feel science is ‘difficult’ and can’t be incorporated into programmes in general, but has to be hived off into programmes labelled SCIENCE in metaphorically large letters, so that people who don’t want accidentally to be introduced to any can safely avoid being tainted by this dangerous concept. I exaggerate, but nevertheless we have programming on TV and then we have science programmes. However excellent these programmes may be there is the danger of reinforcing the prejudice that science is ‘other’ by operating in this way.

Some of the problem may lie in the distinction that isn’t always made between Public Engagement with Science and Public Understanding of Science. The latter – perhaps involving talking heads standing up at a science festival expounding excitedly about some gee-whizz discovery, probably their own – is important. Facts are sacred and should be transmitted. But the engagement side is also important; not in the sense of getting one’s hands dirty with demos, but in the sense of actively finding out about developing ideas and, if need be, then questioning what is going on. Hilary Sutcliffe, for one (and I’m sure there are many others) gets exercised when someone implies that only scientists should be allowed to comment on science. And she is right. When it comes to issues such as the ever-bubbling discussion over GMO’s or the recent exemplary consultations over ‘3 parent babies’, the voice of more than just scientists must be heard in a democracy. But if the only time such interactions occur are when there is a danger of polarisation of views (e.g. implicitly assuming that scientists are pro some new technology, the rest of the world against) then it won’t be helpful. The dialogue should be ongoing and properly integrated so that it is just people talking about things that interest or affect them.

Culture needs to incorporate all the best things that have been thought and written, including science. Not what Arnold meant, but it should be our aspiration.

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16 Responses to Science, Culture and All That Jazz

  1. Peter Chapman says:

    CP Snow gave a famous lecture on this very subject in 1959 – called The Two Cultures. He thought that the lack of collaboration between science and humanities was a hindrance to solving world problems. You don’t mention it so it you may be unaware of it.

    • Peter
      I took it as read that my comment ‘well-worked Two Culture route’ would immediately direct people’s minds to the CP Snow/Leavis debate. I am well familiar with it; indeed CP Snow was a founder fellow of this College of which I am now Master in Cambridge.

  2. Mark Bourne says:

    Dear Athene,

    It was very interesting to read your perspective on this long-standing issue. I must say that I enjoyed your ‘In Our Time’ episode very much too. I have always appreciated engaging with people outside of the ‘science’ bubble and I think the episode demonstrated how successful it can be. I definitely learnt something!

    I agree with all the points you raise in your article, but I wonder whether sometimes some scientists can be their own worse enemy too. Two thoughts: since the professionalisation of science, people working in science have had to justify their employment and one way some have done this is to become apparent guardians of scientific expertise, creating a scientific ‘elite’ (in which I use the quotations marks advisedly), and intimidate those who attempt to comment on or make suggestions from an external position. Even on an everyday level it’s easy to find funny the friend who studied arts at university who thought an oven would eventually become so hot it would melt if you left it on too long. But to do so, probably switches that person off from even considering that they too can think ‘scientifically’.

    This ties in to my second thought, which is the rise of science as religion – not just in the sense of dismissal of all religion – but also the belief that all questions can be solved scientifically, given enough data or sufficient theory. I think it can be off-putting for many outside of the scientific academy (and many within!) that in some quarters science is held as the only source of truth required for decision-making. This reductionism rarely seems to tie in with how we really experience the world around us.

    Of course, this is by no means the case for all scientists but I think it is sometimes how we can be perceived by the media and the public.

    Just some thoughts!


    • I suspect that what you are describing in your second point is the worst kind of scientism and certainly should be avoided. But I fear you are right on the first point, that some people like to parade their ‘superiority’ via intimidation and it certainly isn’t helpful, even if humanities people may try it in reverse. Which comes back to my central point that we are all in it together and we should recognize that and work together.

  3. Mark Field says:

    I agree that we need stop putting up and try to recognize that we are all fellow travelers who have taken different paths. However, the baked in cultural views of the different tribes makes this difficult.

    From the Science side, “… we have been told many times that in this century science has become a highly institutionalized activity, with the main action confined to the big leagues. It takes extravagantly equipped laboratories, huge budgets, and large teams of investigators to survive on the frontiers of biology, chemistry or physics …” to quote Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book “Flow”. He goes on to point out that real science is done by regular people who are doing it because it is both fun and a great game, and that this can be enjoyed by the lay person as well as the professional is something he thinks is a great misunderstanding. If science is perceived as being so complicated that a single lay person cannot see more than an outline, it stops the conversation dead, since from an arts perspective it is all about the individual and their experience.

    From the Arts prospective we have an ever expanding narrative that relates to how we as humans experience the world, an experience usually rooted in the emotions. This tends to put the arts at odds with science on two fronts; firstly the fact that science mostly deals with things that do not experience feelings makes it seem at best a side show, secondly that science tries to reduce the universe to its minimal description while the goal of the arts is to broaden the picture to see further. I have heard arts people complain that scientists strip the magic from things, something that seems odd to me but I think this may be why some arts people seem to view science as an equivalent to the worst attributes of accountancy or tax; needlessly complicated, dry as dust, and ignores feeling.

    Another difference we need to see is the idea of what is considered “right” in science and the arts. In science we teach students that there is one correct answer. It is many years later that you discover that real science is done by a series of approximations and mis-steps, a point that is largely lost on those who didn’t follow science. By contrast in the arts anyone’s experience is as valid as that of anyone else, and it is the individuals’ unique reading of a topic that gives the essential spark. As one student colleague of mine who switched from science to history of science put it, copying down the correct answer in a science exam gets you full marks, doing the same in an arts exam is called plagiarism.

    So how do we begin the conversation ? Good science programming that doesn’t lecture or talk down to its audience, but takes the viewer on a journey that builds from shared experiences is tough to do. However it can be done brilliantly, the obvious examples are the programs of James Burke (the Connections series in particular). The fact that Burke is not a scientist (he has a degree in Middle English and was a lecturer in English before switching to broadcasting) meant he approached it from the lay perspective, relating information directly to individual experiences. An impressive grasp of journalism gave the programs an exciting narrative arc where you could see the larger picture emerge as he put the pieces together. A more recent example would be Brian Cox and Robin Ince’s Infinite Monkey Cage radio program/podcast which uses comedy to talk about science and technology. This managed to bridge the divide so effectively it broadcast live from Glastonbury in 2013.

    • Quite. We need good programming taking a broad view of things. Anything that breaks down the barrier that scientists can’t talk sensibly about anything other than science is a good start. And avoiding talking down by scientists to ‘the rest’ is crucial.

  4. Athene, thanks for asking me on twitter for my thoughts on your blog and thanks for the name check!

    Regarding science and the public – I thought long and hard about admitting it here but I don’t like Melvyn Bragg’s programme. To be honest I mainly don’t understand it and I’m not really that interested in the things it covers and although I often feel I ‘should’, persevere and become enlightened, there are only so many hours in the day.

    I had a row with a friend recently about it, she thought it far too superior and elitist. My view was that the clever people are allowed their programmes too, they have to put up with all the dross that other people like, why can’t they have one little slot. However, I am not sure I could categorise it as for the public, but for a certain type of public, who love it. Bargain Hunt is for another type, I Used To Be Fat another and perhaps David Attenborough and the wonderful Peter Kay’s Car Share surely for everyone! As you say, we are all different and we are allowed to like different things, some people have a broader range of interests than others.

    I think the media does polarise science in the way you say, but perhaps the ‘problem’ is also a little self-inflicted. The media, both print and broadcast, isn’t very adventurous and tend to cover mainly what is pitched to them (probably mainly by production companies and PR firms). Were there really that many scientists with wonderful ideas for programmes and pitching them in an energetic, accessible way to programme makers and getting turned down? Because that’s mainly the way it works.

    In addition, I have found many scientists are very narrow in their focus They, like most of us, (particularly companies in my experience), are so excited by their subject that they think the programme should be basically a sales pitch for their area of work, and don’t really think about how to make it interesting or accessible for a general audience. But also science (as opposed to technology applications) is difficult, really it is (I was reminded listening to my husband coaching my son in year 9 physics). Don’t underestimate how tricky your specialist knowledge is for the rest of us.

    Programme making is an ‘art’ (!), it’s not at all easy and requires specialist skills to make complex things accessible, not one that your average scientist (or artist for that matter) may naturally have. But also not one that Universities may see as important in their PR department, though I may be wrong. Also I am not sure Scientists see media as that important. I gather many Uni press officers despair of trying to get anything useable out of the scientists for even the most basic press release, let alone a major TV series!

    Then of course there is the perverse incentive structure which actually penalises those who wish to take time to do anything except write papers that only other academics will ever read. I recall on one of the Advisory Boards I am on, getting very excited about someone’s work and how it could be of great use to the outside world. I was told that this brilliant academic would be actively penalised for spending time doing that. I was gobsmacked.

    But media relations is really all about ‘selling’ science better, which is fine by me, and useful for many reasons – the pragmatic and the cultural. But there is more. This is perhaps where the distinctions you mentioned about public engagement come in. My descriptions here are tongue in cheek, and the social scientists in this area will despair – but hey:

    Public Understanding of Science – “If they only had the knowledge, then they would see the light!”

    Perhaps this started as a simple response to scientists feeling out of step with society’s more vocally expressed views, marginalised, believing that people don’t understand them and they are not valued as much as they should be – a direct, and understandable in many ways, response to the GM debate, which came out of the blue for many.

    It’s not gone away. I even had one scientist saying to me that the public “had a duty to understand nanotechnology”! Hello!? He of course didn’t understand accountancy, plumbing, dentistry, cake baking or how to change a nappy, but didn’t seem to think that was relevant!

    Public Engagement with Science – “telling them doesn’t seem to work, let’s listen too, then we can figure out how best to persuade them!”

    That’s a bit unfair, because there are genuine attempts to engage people in issues around science and technology development and go beyond the ‘we the clever people will talk slowly and if you listen carefully you might understand and comply’. But there still seems to me to be an ‘us and them’ thing going on with this, and so room for another approach.

    Stakeholder Involvement with Science – “the world is a complicated place, let’s figure this out together”

    It’s early days for this incarnation, but has gone beyond just the general public to include NGOs, business, policy makers, pretty much anyone in their professional or personal capacity.

    This has come about partly in the hope of achieving a more effective result in selling science and getting public acceptance for technology, let’s be honest. But partly too because we are all realising that there isn’t one right way, that different perspectives, voices, opinions, all count and can all contribute in interesting new ways to better research and better solutions to complex problems.

    It’s not just about democracy, (and the small fact that we are paying!) but recognising that science and ensuring technologies have implications and no one group has all the answers.

    But the big problem here, the elephant in the room of public/stakeholder engagement, is that there will always be someone who doesn’t approve of your area of science, or like your technology application. Perhaps because of a values clash, disputes about understandings of risk or impacts, different view on what precaution should look like or perhaps a disagreement about the trade off you have chosen in terms of impact (eg serving a market need over developing world livelihoods)

    No amount of PUS, PES or SIS will resolve that – so then what? That’s for another day!

    What started as a short comment has become a long polemic! Apologies Athene.

    • Wow, Hilary, that’s a lot to respond to, but I’ll try. First, In Our Time has a live audience of some million (not sure of exact numbers) plus those who listen to the podcast subsequently (no idea how many more, but I think quite a lot) which probably disqualifies it from the elitist label. Different topics will appeal to different people of course. I’ve written before about how I think the choice of topics can be very narrow on some occasions, which will obviously be likely to appeal to a specialist audience. But the point I was trying to make is it is good to mix things up and not just say ‘this is science’ and ‘this is not science’. Your comments seem aimed at scientists talking about their science and not about joining in wider discussions. What you say about PUS and PES chime with what I was trying to talk down, possibly because I’ve read your comments before! The gee-whizz science I think can be very much a turn-off for many people because it certainly can imply elitism and strengthen that belief in ‘other’ which I feel is so unfortunate.

      When it comes to pitching for programmes, I once spent an entire (black tie) dinner bending the ear of the Head of BBC Science Programming (I think that was his job title) trying to convince him that my field of soft matter physics, what I like to think of as the physics of the everyday, would make a good programme topic. I invited him up to Cambridge to discuss this further and meet others in the field. Not that I wanted to be on the programme, but it is such an accessible topic. That seemed to be exactly what he didn’t like about it and I made no headway (he never followed up or visited). His view was that the public like to be baffled by their science, to be told it’s mysterious and difficult. So, he claimed, they only want (when it comes to physics) to hear about outer space and black holes, or the wonders of the Higgs Boson and the LHC. I couldn’t disagree more. When I talk to school children they like the messiness of goo and the science of things they can identify with, but it’s simply not fashionable to admit to this. So, the BBC feeds us a diet of Brian Cox and his interests and the rest of physics doesn’t get much of a look-in. This particular scientist has certainly tried! And I’m sure I’m not alone.

      Finally, I think you are out of date about what universities value. The Cambridge Science Festival is enormously respected and many academics get engaged – and get a lot out of doing that. Other Festivals do sometimes try to mix and match disciplines, in our city and in many others. Our academic promotions criteria explicitly mention outreach and public engagement as things to list, something BIS highlighted in one of its reports on Science and Society as good practice. I have heard new lecturers say that upon appointment they’ve been told that their activities in this area were seen as a positive plus upon hiring.

      We all need to push back. Your comments smack of defeatism, of the sense that it’s difficult and people have entrenched positions that are hard to change. That may be true, but we shouldn’t stop trying.

      I’m sure I’ll be writing more about Culture in the weeks/months ahead: watch this space.

      • Thanks Athene, yes my focus is very much on scientists engaging with their work, but agree that you might have got me on a bad day! Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent the last few days entrenched with the GM & Synbio worlds online mainly, seeing the same things all over again wondering about ways forward in that area and feeling rather overwhelmed and not massively optimistic.

        It doesn’t help also that I seem to feel responsible in some way for outcomes, and getting things ‘right’, which in one way is correct as often that’s what I am invited in for, and in another isn’t helpful because there is no right often enough and it does my head in! I certainly won’t stop trying as I plan to keep going for a few years yet, but thanks for pointing it out as a warning.

        Re incentives in Universities, of course you are right, I know many who are doing fantastic work, and trying really innovative things. But also hear many concerns from researchers themselves at all levels about how stressful that lack of balance is for them and hopes that it will change.

        Re the BBC commissioning and Melvyn Bragg I shall happily bow to your superior wisdom on those!

  5. Penny Walker says:

    Hi Athene, and Hi Hilary,

    Thanks very much for this blog post and for your comment, Hilary. Lots to think about and talk about in this!

    I’m glad that you drew attention to the ‘3 parent babies’ consultation, Athene. I expect you are including the public dialogue that was part of / allied to that consultation process. It’s a great example of the work that Sciencewise ( has helped to empower and fund. (Disclaimer: I have been a Dialogue and Engagement Specialist with Sciencewise, although I don’t have that role these days.)

    As a professional facilitator, I’d urge us all not to be afraid of disagreement. For me, Hilary, it’s not the elephant in the room. Discovering the consensus that exists about a new technology or scientific insight is exciting and important: and getting a much better understanding of how and why we disagree with each other about it is also exciting and important. I really like the way you have explained what some of the core disagreements are likely to be about, Hilary.

    It’s also worth taking a look at Andrew Acland’s note on uncertainty and conflict, which he kindly let me publish on my blog Andrew is also a facilitator and mediator, and has advised Sciencewise as well as facilitating high-conflict stakeholder dialogues. He isolates five types of uncertainty that, in his experience, lead to conflict.

    And on the two cultures – I greatly enjoyed Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science – which describes much closer linkages between the so-called two cultures than we seem to be managing at the moment.

    • I agree. That Richard Holmes’ book is wonderful and taught me a lot. There are many books, though, that have fed into these concerns; it’s such an important topic for everyone to engage with.

    • Yes, you are right Penny, it isn’t the elephant in the room in many quarters, certainly not in your community. Though I feel it perhaps is in others, certainly some I am involved with I think.

      Thanks for the work on uncertainty, I look forward to reading more about that. I’m also very interested in the behavioural insights on why we do what we do. I just did an interesting seminar with Will Storr, the editor of Heretics, Adventures with the Enemies of Science. Fascinating to see all our biases and how we manage to rationalise them – lots of mine on show here I think!

  6. Brigitte says:

    Those who like The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes might also like stuff by Laura Synder. I really enjoyed The Philosophical Breakfast Club and can’t wait to read Eye of the Beholder! I am currently reading Holmes’ biography of Coleridge (bit long). I had to smile when Holmes told us that Coleridge was looking forward to attending Humphrey Davy’s Royal Institution lectures, as he wanted to replenish his reservoir of metaphors. Science, culture, what’s the difference!? And of course Coleridge himself lectured at the RI on art, poetry, the imagination etc.

  7. Bill Harvey says:

    I’m a civil engineer. I pretended to be an academic for 23 years but since the system spat me out I have somehow found room to research properly, as well as make a living. But that’s not the point.

    I was often asked by colleagues both in Dundee and Exeter, how I can to know so many people in the arts departments. The answers were many, but chief was that I put myself about and put myself out for the pleasure of knowing people with different interests who had new ways of looking at things and so broadened my thinking.

    At school, I simply accepted that I was not capable of studying the “arts”. Physics and maths turned me on. I could never see any pleasure in dissecting a book and so disturbing the flow of a good read and languages seemed beyond me. I my last year of ) level a new German teacher woke me up and I staggered to a pass but that engaged me enough to ask for some form of continuation in 6th form.

    My first two years at Uni were pretty narrow too, but then I met a Germanist…. She took me into a new world of sparky thoughtful animated people. She also dragged me off round Europe where I started to find it was possible to understand people. Sadly over the past 20 years MS has eaten her razor sharp, but actually narrowly interested mind.

    Which is all about saying the IoT is an absolute godsend.

    However, on the communication side – I have the advantage that the science I use is pretty simple. I have just finished a paper that stands 30 years and more of thinking on its head but that doesn’t mean the thinking isn’t simple. Breaking out of the box was the hard bit. There is a sense that engineering is the point at which science, through technology, impinges directly on the public. Certainly, the old masonry bridges I deal with make some sort of impact on many people. But even the engineers don’t want to upset their belief systems with a bit of science. It’s sometimes easier to explain to someone who “knows” they don’t understand than to someone who thinks they can.

    And as to people wanting their science to be beyond understanding, Cox and Ince try pretty hard to overcome that. The programmes Alice Roberts fronts do pretty well, don’t they? The dissections of hands and feet were surely not about obscuring and showing off?

  8. John G says:

    I would argue that one exception to the strong separation is in futurists or science fiction, where strong scientifically minded writers produce great fiction and lead the way for ideas that can eventually inspire real advances. Witness Arthur C. Clarke and his geosynchronous satellites, many ideas that were germinated in scifi before they could be realised or even contemplated in real life, and others. I attended last year a conference at the RAS in London on interstellar subjects wherw the talks and ideas were mostly given and discussed by prominent science fiction ideas along with the practicalities and status of the science enabling (or not) the ideas created in fiction, to the real world.

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