Almost 50 years ago, British scientist and author C.P. Snow touched a nerve when he wrote about the split between the “Two Cultures” of academic and intellectual tradition: the scientific culture and the literary culture:

“There seems to be no place where the two cultures meet… The clashihg point of two subjects, two disciplines, two cultures — or two galaxies, as far as that goes — ought to produce creative chances. But there they are, in a vacuum, because those in the two cultures can’t talk to each other. It is bizarre how little of 20th century science has been assimilated.”

Snow argued that the condition was dangerous.

“In a time when science is determining much of our destiny, that is, whether we live or die, it is dangerous in the most practical terms… [The ‘two cultures’ gap should be closed] … for the sake of intellectual life and … for the sake of Western society living precariously rich among the poor, and for the poor who needn’t be poor if there is intelligence in the world.” These ideas resonated deeply within the academy, leading to widespread debate over the role of scientific communication (See this wiki article).

Around the same time, British scientist Jacob Brownowski made perhaps the most eloquent argument for scientific literacy and communication across cultural chasms:

“If we are anything, we must be a democracy of the intellect. We must not perish by the distance between people and power, by which Babylon and Egypt and Rome failed. And that distance can only be closed if knowledge sits in the homes and heads of people with no ambition to control others, and not in isolated seats of power.”

Before Snow and Bronowski, the basic idea of science communication usually involved enhancement of public appreciation for the benefits of science. But after the Two Cultures debate emerged in the mainstream, a strong polarization emerged, with the scientific culture considering itself “in favour of social reform and progress through science” while literary culture was composed of ‘Luddites’ intrinsically opposed to advanced industrial society.

Ironically, this polarization occurred in the 1960s, just as Silent Spring awakened the environmental movement from the long slumber of Conservationism. Environmentalists certainly did not see themselves as opposing science and progress, but rather as advocating rational science and the precautionary principle. One does not “progress” until one is certain of the direction one is taking.

But certainly the bitter attacks on Rachel Carson by the petrochemical industry and affiliated scientists were ample evidence that reform and science were not married to the hyper-industrial vision of society.

More recently, we have observed an obvious need to understand environmental science for the apparent sake of our long term ecological survival.

Yet it is important to remember that in previous decades, despite perhaps less than dire circumstances, there seemed an urgent need to share the logic and perspectives of science, for the benefit of human values shared with the literary culture, and as a simple component of the democratic process.