Culture and Science

Culture arguably sits at the centre of our society, but what it means isn’t always clear. To many, too many I would say, it only refers to the ‘arty’ stuff: literature, films, art and music perhaps. That science could be part of culture, whilst rarely explicitly stated as impossible, generally seems to be regarded as not being the case. But then, what is science? What is included in science and what is not? These questions that have long bothered me have been brought into sharper relief by my stint as chair of the (pilot) Science Advisory Council  (SAC) for the Department of Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS). One of the first questions posed, by SAC member Geoff Crossick, was ‘what do we mean by science?’. Within the SAC we are taking it to mean ‘everything covered by one of the research councils’, so a pretty catholic description. It would certainly include much of the heritage industry (clearly relevant to DCMS’s activities), as well as the more obvious laboratory and social sciences as well as health (up to a point; no need to clash with the Department of Health’s remit).

Questions about culture are close to Geoff Crossick’s heart. He is a former head of the AHRC and co-author of a recent AHRC report discussing the importance of culture for our society. Understanding the value of arts & culture it represents the outcome of the Cultural Value Project and was published last month. This week a meeting is being held to reflect on its findings. By its very nature it seeks to define what ‘culture’ is, and then explore what impact it has on our society, including our well-being. As such it is highly relevant to the work the SAC does and I was honoured that Geoff invited me to participate in this week’s meeting (although I have been away and so unable to accept). It implies that through our work on the SAC and more broadly he believes that I, as a scientist, have something to offer the cultural debate, and I hope I do. But first we have to get past what ‘culture’ is and here I still think the debate has been too narrowly framed. Or rather, I think using the word culture to exclude science simply highlights the limitations of our language. In turn, this deficiency in language hinders our broader thinking (this is in no way meant as a criticism of the report’s content).

The report itself specifically aims to broaden the coverage compared with previous discussions and states

‘It is interested not just in publicly-funded concert halls, art galleries, theatres and museums, important as these are; but also commercial film, music and literature; young people getting together in a band, amateur choirs, local art clubs and reading groups, and people crafting at home or in local clubs; as well as those engaging in prisons, hospitals and care homes.’

Implicitly from this it is clear that the scope will restrict itself to those things that are ‘arty’ in a broad but not merely professional sense. Nevertheless, there is no sense that attending a science festival or participating in a citizen science project might count as ‘culture’

Our language does not have a suitable word to cover this broader sense of culture. Nor do we have a word that encompasses science in all its manifestations. In German, Wissenschaft has conveys this broad sense of knowledge, and if the Germans want to be more specific they can use Naturwissenschaft to indicate they are referring to the Natural Sciences. The English vocabulary is lacking any such single word. As a result we end up splitting our world into culture and science as if there is a neat dividing line. Paul Nurse, in his 2012 Dimbleby Lecture  said

‘I am passionate about science because it has shaped the world and made it a better place, and I want to see science placed more centre stage in our culture and economy.’

I quite agree, but as long as we explicitly and implicitly identify this sharp division between the two parts of our rich world we are failing.

The absence of a suitable word drives us to keeping the different parts of our knowledge-based activities (a horrid phrase, but I can’t use culture for obvious reasons) compartmentalised. A while ago I took exception to Stephan Collini’s distinction between ‘scientists’ and ‘scholars’ for exactly the same reason. It divides us when we should be sharing what each of us can bring to this particular party. It encourages pitting science against the humanities (as I’ve also written about before). Such splitting can only be damaging to the way we, collectively, approach the world and bring up the next generation. I wish there was an easy solution but I think it is a dialogue we should not be wary of facilitating.

May 1st 2016 For those interested in seeing these ideas taken further, Brigitte Nerlich has published her own blogpost exploring linguistic distinctions in other languages. There is further debate in her comment stream too.

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2 Responses to Culture and Science

  1. Geoff Crossick says:

    I very much agree with the core argument here. At the academic level the separation of science from the humanities, as if they occupied entirely different spheres, is wrong, increasingly so as the ways disciplines can work together becomes ever more important. If one moves from academic activity to wider social and cultural phenomena then the separation of science becomes a matter of definition more than substance. It is clearly part of a broader culture in the anthropological sense of culture, but for the purposes of my report we were engaging with the ways in which arts and culture in the more precise (‘arty’ but much more democratically arty, as you note) sense can be explored to see what difference they make to individuals and society.

    I know that you appreciate this, Athene, because you make it clear that you’re not criticising the report itself. We did, of course, include science in concrete ways within that more precise and ostensive definition of culture, above all through science museums – the Natural History Museum was the subject of a major piece of research and one that sought to capture people’s valuing not only of the exhibits but also of the scientific research that went on there. Although we didn’t examine science festivals they would have been an entirely appropriate subject. It is the festival and the museum as cultural practice that makes them relevant here, the science primarily constituting the content, and through museum or festival practice the simple views people have of science can be nuanced and challenged. And, interestingly, in our two workshops on what happens when artists and scientists work together the normal distinctions that are made between the two in many ways evaporated or at least became more ambiguous.

    The ways in which science should be incorporated within our sense of culture in the broader meaning of the latter term is a key driver behind Barry Smith’s work in the Science in Culture theme for the AHRC. These are important issues, I agree, and our language does often get in the way. Which is, of course, precisely why humanities examination of language, and arts challenges through language, are so important. Neither will give us clear answers but each will help us think about the issue of why and when science needs to be embraced within how we think about culture. And it would, I absolutely agree, be much better if we could do just that. Not least because it would avoid the crass distinctions that are often made and that you and I both agree are both intellectually and practically unhelpful.

  2. Definitions of diffuse concepts, of which culture is an exemplar, by trying to enumerate what it contains seem to be doomed to failure: people will argue forever about what is in and what is not! Maybe we need a definition for culture that is both practical but inclusive, and uses the indefinite article. For example:

    “A culture represents our shared identity as groups within our society and the ways in which we share memories, experiences and knowledge to perpetuate that culture.”

    In this sense, the group ‘scientists’ has its own culture; norther Europeans have their culture (including a love of sausages, potatoes and beer); etc. Yes, that may seem to perpetuate narrowing the definition, but broadening it to include a never ending list, makes it so all-inclusive it almost becomes worthless.

    If we now ask what is ‘the’ (definite article) culture of Britain, we are into a massive Venn diagram, a mosaic of all those cultures: how could you not include … The Beatles, Newton’s apple, JMW Turner, Brunel, The Eagle Pub, etc. … all part of a very messy set of memories we to different degrees cherish.

    I think sometimes we make the mistake that Snow was in danger of making of assuming that ‘the culture’ (Britain’s) requires that the humanities graduates that dominate Whitehall must be as fluent in science as the scientists are often fluent in the humanities: this is about education, not what ‘culture’ is. Policy makers in Whitehall can no more change our culture than King Canute can hold back the waves. The ebb and flow is mediated by the groups that form part of that mosaic that constitutes the whole.

    In popular media and forums, do we promote science enough? David Attenborough, The Science Museum, the BBC science output, etc. … In UK I think we probably do better than most countries. In fact I think we are brilliant! As one example, in a ‘Costing The Earth’ episode, Prof. Alice Roberts explored climate change through the archaeology of the Carmbridgeshire fenns. This naturally used our science to understand our past society – how we traded, ate, etc. – and how we adapted to climate change. This illustrates how science enriches our sense of identity in a way that would not have been possible without its forensic tools.

    We may be in danger of underestimating how much we rely on this intermingling of ‘cultures’ as experienced by ‘the (wo)man’ in the street, or listening to Radio 4, to enrich our sense of our collective culture; even if in Whitehall, they are struggling to contrive an enumeration of its collective parts!

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