That Old “Two Cultures” Thing…

Just a very brief follow-up to a post earlier this week about the 2nd Bright Club Wales. First, for all of you who refuse to believe I actually did stand-up, here is a picture of me doing it, i.e. standing up. It’s a bit blurred, I’m afraid. The person taking the picture must either have been drunk or was laughing so hysterically that he couldn’t hold the camera still. You can also find a review of the evening here, which is where I got the picture from.

I mentioned in the comments on the earlier posts that one of the other “acts” that evening was a lecturer in Film Studies. In fact that was a chap called Daryl Perrins who works at the University of Glamorgan.

He started his 8 minutes with the comment “I hate science” and followed it up with a number of unfunny remarks that relied on crude stereotypes of what a scientist is. None of that endeared him very much to me, nor, judging by the stony silence did the rest of the audience appreciate it much. I wouldn’t have minded him taking the piss out of scientists at all had it been funny. After all, I do a fair bit of that on here..

Anti-science attitudes are far from unusual amongst the Arts & Humanities fraternity, which I think is a real shame. After all, you’ll have to work very hard to find a scientist who would be prepared to stand up in front of audience and proudly announce “I hate art”. Many of my scientific colleagues have deep passions for the performing arts (especially music and drama) as well as being very well read across a wide range of subjects.  Many also hold strong  (and often idiosyncratic) political opinions and are involved in a huge range of activities outside science.

In short, scientists don’t just sit in their labs and offices torturing small animals. We live in the real world and have as much contact with wider society as anyone else. Imagination, creativity and free thinking can be found in scientists, just as they can in the arts.  Scientists both contribute to and participate in our society’s cultural heritage.Scientists are human beings. Culture belongs to us too.

Coincidentally this week there was an article in the Times Higher with the title “Life depends on science but the arts make it worth living“. I agree with a lot of what is written in the piece, in fact, although it does seem also to contain numerous examples of non sequitur and I think it’s both poorly argued and highly exaggerated. The arts are undoubtedly among the things that make  life worth living, but there are others, such as “ordinary” human relationships and the “simple” enjoyment of the natural world, which academics of all persuasions all too frequently neglect. I am a scientist, however, and I do think that the government should be spending more on science, but I certainly don’t think it should be robbing the arts and humanities which is what its current policies are doing.

You probably think I’m going to go off on a rant about the famous Two Cultures thesis advanced  by C.P. Snow, but I’m not. I think Snow’s analysis is only marginally relevant. I do think that there are “two cultures”, but these are not “science” and “the arts”. One is a creative, thinking culture that encompasses arts, the humanities and science. The other is its antithesis, a “culture” that sees the sole function of education as being to train people  to take their place on the never-ending treadmill of production and consumption.

The way we are heading, it’s not “two cultures” that we should be worried about. It’s no culture at all.


22 Responses to “That Old “Two Cultures” Thing…”

  1. Monica grady Says:

    A few years ago, it was proposed by one of our pro-VCs that the Science Faculty had an ‘artist in residence’. This is not unusual, and can be an interesting perspective on our work. The proposal foundered though, when our head of department agreed, on condition that the Arts Faculty took on a ‘scientist in residence’.

  2. Peter – half agree, but Creative Types vs the Phillistines is too easy a shot really. If we stay within the groves of culture, I think the divide is between practitioners and interpreters. Scientists and creative artists are primary sources. Academics in humanities spent their lives dissecting and pontificating upon the primary sources. I whinged about this on my own blog some while back.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, that’s a good point. It crossed my mind to go there, but forgot about it as I went on.

      It’s one of the non sequiturs in the Times Higher article, actually. We have music, literature, poetry and the rest but how much of this is actually done in universities? The article compared Einstein with Beethoven. Albert went to University in Zurich. Beethoven didn’t go to a university.

      As you say, there’s a difference between making art and writing about it. One of the big differences between art and science is that we don’t have science critics, although we do have people who popularise and also people who try to explain it to the general public. Much of the impenetrable cultural analysis that emerges from academia concerning art seems to have the opposite aim. Does any university have a Professor of the Public Understanding of Art?

    • Monica Grady Says:

      Scientists ARE creative artists. I think creativity is one of the most important gifts that a scientist should possess, closely followed by imagination. What else would account for cosmologists and being able to think in 11 dimensions? Understanding differential equations also helps.

    • telescoper Says:

      On reflection I think I should add that I don’t think Andy’s critcicism can be levelled at all the arts and humanities: working philosophers, historians, etc, all belong to that club but they also do what they teach.

      I’ve always felt that was the point of a university actually – to be taught a subject by the people actually making the subject happen.

  3. A provocative thought: should we slash arts funding to universities and instead expand grants to the wider non-academic community?

  4. Mary Cav Says:

    I often have this debate (usually around 2am) in mixed artistic and scientific company and I think one large problem is a lack of appreciation among non-scientists of how science is done on a day-to-day basis. When looking at a painting, everyone knows that the artist made preliminary sketches and rough drafts before producing the final article. If you don’t have a scientific background, it’s more difficult to imagine the processes that come before a drug is approved for use in cancer patients. This is often compounded by media representations of science as a series of eureka moments experienced by a handful of individuals each generation. It is also more difficult to do science in one’s spare time. I have a piano at home and can murder Mozart to my heart’s content. It’s not so easy to set up a functioning lab in the spare room these days.

  5. It’s obviously a problem if someone tries to makes fun of something they don’t understand, but I would say that generally non-scientists have huge respect for science. They might happily admit, even as a badge of honour, their lack of scientific knowledge, and laugh at geek culture, but I would see this more as a defence-mechanism than genuine distate for science. Meanwhile, among *some* scientists there is real enmity toward the humanities, especially areas such as history, philosophy and sociology of science (here, perhaps, are your science critics?).

    andyxl does not seem aware of the creativity and imagination required to undertake and present research in the arts and humanities, so thanks telescoper for being clear in your appreciation of these in academia. I feel, on the other side, that it should also be pointed out that here, and elsewhere, people tend to use “science” when what they mean is “scientific research” – clearly not every scientist is doing original, creative work.

    • telescoper Says:


      I’m afraid I can’t agree with your “generally” in the first sentence. My experience clearly differs from yours. I know a large number of non-scientists who actively detest science and take every opportunity to say as much.

      Also I think the essence of science is indeed “research”, so I’m happy with that use of the word in this context. Not all of that is original or creative, of course. It’s an interesting question what is meant by “arts”. Is art the product of artistic creation, or the process of creating it?


    • this is a reply to Peter more than Becky – re: ‘generally’…

      Well, we can play swap the anecdote or you can look at some research which shows that on the whole ‘the public’ are very supportive of science, especially in the UK. For example from Wellcome, or DIUS/ RCUK, or the EU.

      This isn’t to discount your personal experience, only note that it is limited to the experience of one person whereas these surveys (flawed and problematic in many which as they are…) do try to get beyond singular perspectives to gain a larger view. I’d also say that such surveys do flag up problems in the public perception of science, and we can see problems elsewhere, but let’s not go chasing wild geese here.

      (nice piece on the Guardian Science blog from Jenny Rohn on why scientists sense a lack of trust when it may not be justified, if you’re interested).

      • telescoper Says:

        I think the wires have got a bit crossed here. I wasn’t talking about the general public; I thought it was clear that the thread was about attitudes in academe. In fact I’ve just taken part in a study about public attitudes to science, the results of which were “generally” very positive.

    • I’d (genuinely) be interested to know what the people you refer to say they hate about science. I’d be interested as to how much of what they dislike is specific to science rather than, say, to a perception of elitism of know-it-all types generally.

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    “you’ll have to work very hard to find a scientist who would be prepared to stand up in front of audience and proudly announce “I hate art”. ”

    I hate modern art. Proudly.

    • telescoper Says:

      I’d be interested to know what you mean by “modern”, i.e. how far back in history you go before your opprobrium abates.

      Speaking for myself I’d say that a lot of “the arts” both ancient and modern don’t really float my boat, but there’s not a great deal that I would say I “hate”. Such things bore me, that’s all.

      But regardless of that I’m sure you agree that hatred of a particular form or style or period is far from the same thing has “hating art” in itself. There are no doubt good scientists who hate some aspect of science (e.g. physicists who hated chemistry), but that’s far from the same thing as hating science for what it is.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Yes I’m being deliberately provocative, although I do mean my words. And I don’t hate people, only what they produce. I regard a necessary component of art (‘art’ in the sense of painting and sculpture) to be expertise in technique. Than – and only then – can you say what you want to say. I hasten to add that I love Renaissance art; Flemish art; Canaletto (for instance). And I respect a great deal of other stuff. But I have no respect for the art of (among others) Jackson Pollock, or in music Stockhausen’s cacophonies.

      There have always been charlatans, of course; but it is a deep statement on how things have gone wrong culturally that Pollock and other abstractionists are well thought of and command high prices. I am not ashamed that “the emperor has no clothes” has become a cliche in the debate over modern art. Spot on.

      To say a bit more about technique: I once went on a night school class to learn welding. I believed I would be learning how to do certain car repairs. It turned out to be a course on welding for art. I didn’t mind that either. But the ‘teacher’ simply gave us the kit and told us to ‘express ourselves’. My response was: “Teach me how, ie the technique, then I’d love to.” There was no meeting of minds and eventually I quit.

      A key transitional figure was Picasso. He is often quoted by modernists as proof that people with great technique (which he proved early in his career) took art a step further with abstract modernism. To me he simply prostituted himself. He eventually admitted as much, but modern art critics do not quote that.


    • Anton Garrett Says:

      See also the Ern Malley hoax in poetry:

  7. “Beethoven didn’t go to a university.”

    Reminds me of the story (for which I can’t give a source right now) of the local worthy who would assert that Joseph Parry, one time Professor of Music at the University of Wales, had to be a better musician than Beethoven “because he was a Doctor of Music”.

  8. Rebekah Higgitt Says:

    Sorry if I got the emphasis wrong, but I’m still interested to understand this better. You are saying, I think, that academics in arts and humanities tend to be more negative toward science than the general public. Do your colleagues give any reason for their “hatred” of science? Have you tried challenging them? Is it a matter of personal distaste for everything to do with science (which seems more than a little strange in the modern world), a desire not to have to understand the difficult bits, professional jealousies within academia, or what?

    Within my workplace (a museum) I have ceretainly come across the attitude from some that science and technology is boring and that we and the visitors have to work particularly hard to make it comprehensible and interesting. This attitude is clearly nonsense but I have never heard it among the curators, who are the most academic members of staff.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think it’s many things. Such people probably disliked science from an early age. But more likely it’s because they feel threatened: science departments are perceived to be valued more, probably because they attract more funding. That misses the point that they are more expensive. I also think scientists are seen by some as being against the arts and on the side of the increasing commercialisation of the universities which threatens the arts so much. Actually I don’t think that’s true either. It’s the people Andy Lawrence calls the Phillistines who are the problem in that regard.

  9. Interestingly some arts people have argued against the science ringfence on the grounds that 7-8% of GDP is in “creative areas”. Just thinking of music I suspect pretty much all very successfull financial musicians did not study music at university (i.e. non-classical musicians, which are the ones making serious money – certainly classical musicians I know don’t earn anything out of the ordinary). So the question then is whether any of this 7-8% is due to funding arts courses or it would happen anyway? I think this is related to the comment about how many academics actually practice their craft, rather than simply comment on others work outside universities.

    btw that does not mean I think we should not fund music courses (before I get flamed!)

  10. […] as I’ve mentioned before there’s more to life than the tedious arts-versus-science rants beloved of certain academics. I can’t think of a clearer expression of the supreme […]

  11. […] months ago I tried my hand at stand-up comedy at the Second Bright Club Wales (see posts here and here). Last night I went along to the latest Bright Club show, number 4 of what I hope will be a […]

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