The Two Cultures — Updated

Most of you have heard of the two cultures concept, articulated more than half a century ago by C. P. Snow. He was concerned about a growing divergence between the sciences and the humanities.

Here’s one quote from Snow that appears in the Wikepedia article:

I remember G. H. Hardy once remarking to me in mild puzzlement, some time in the 1930s, “Have you noticed how the word ‘intellectual’ is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition which certainly doesn’t include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me? It does seem rather odd, don’t y’know.”

What Snow was talking about is a cultural divide among intellectuals. It’s an accurate observation, still relevant today, but in our humble opinion it misses an even larger point — there is a far greater cultural divide that Snow didn’t address.

As you have already guessed, we’re referring to what is revealed in numerous public opinion polls, for example this one from December 2010 by the Gallup Organization: Four in 10 Americans Believe in Strict Creationism. The title pretty much tells the tale, but this is their lead paragraph:

Four in 10 Americans, slightly fewer today than in years past, believe God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago. Thirty-eight percent believe God guided a process by which humans developed over millions of years from less advanced life forms, while 16%, up slightly from years past, believe humans developed over millions of years, without God’s involvement.

What we’re getting at is that before we consider the cultural divide of Snow’s intellectuals, which is a rather narrow concern as to whether Shakespearean scholars know anything about physics (and vice versa), we should be aware that there is a large number of people who live in utter isolation from anything that might be considered intellectual. Snow is talking about what we might call two “micro cultures” within academia, and we’re talking about two “macro cultures” in the population as a whole.

Creationism is probably the most common belief of non-intellectual people, and thus it can be used to characterize the entire group. They are not merely ignorant (which is excusable), they are fiercely anti-science, anti-reason, and ultimately anti-reality. Creationists are well-represented in both major political parties — 52% of them being Republican, and 34% Democrats. Perhaps the most disturbing datum in Gallup’s study is that among the 40% of Americans who are creationists, 37% were college graduates.

Ignoring an odd handful, creationist college graduates aren’t science majors, except for those who study the Babylonian version of biology at bible college. Our assumption is that most creationist graduates majored in sociology, political science, ethnic studies, postmodernism, feminist studies, community organizing, and other disciplines of similar value. We don’t really know. We do know, however, that merely graduating from college is no assurance that the graduate is educated — not in any meaningful sense. In other words, merely sending people to college doesn’t resolve the problem of the two macro cultures.

Outside of the faculty lounge, the existence of Snow’s two cultures is a trivial issue. The real issue — for our entire civilization — is the immense cultural chasm that exists out there in the rest of the population. Closing that gap is a vital challenge, and it’s not getting done with the educational system we have. We don’t know what the answer is, but the first step is recognizing that the problem exists.

Copyright © 2011. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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10 responses to “The Two Cultures — Updated

  1. Please help me properly parse the following possibly ambiguous sentence. “Perhaps the most disturbing datum in Gallup’s study is that among the 40% of Americans who are creationists, 37% were college graduates.”

    Does that mean that 14.8% of American are both creationists and college graduates?

    Or does that mean that 37% of Americans are both creationists and college graduates?

    I think you meant 14.8% of Americans are both creationists and college graduates, and I want to be completely sure I am getting the numbers right.

  2. MarcC says: “Please help me properly parse the following possibly ambiguous sentence.”

    I linked to the Gallup article. Take a look and give us your interpretation.

  3. Bob Carroll

    My impression of the British approach to education when Snow was a student, and perhaps more recently as well, is that little attention was paid to the education of the masses of kids. Hence the infamous tests at age 14 (?) which relegated large numbers of kids to second-tier schools. Snow simply didn’t expect those folks to be cultured at all.

    The US system has been more egalitarian, and we have tried, through the public school system, to provide a decent education for all kids. When this system works, as it has until recently, we get a reasonably well educated lower-middle class. We have greater expectations of them than Snow may have had. And now we have greater disappointment in this example of a massive failure in our system. 40% turn away from reality-based reasoning? Sad.

  4. “…merely graduating from college is no assurance that the graduate is educated — not in any meaningful sense.”

    This goes not only for the bible colleges but for the career-focused universities as well, esp. engineering, agriculture, industrial management, etc. They have become very expensive four-year vocational schools. They attract a student who has little interest in a liberal education; a student interested in one thing — getting a degree that will land him or her a job.

    Too, there’s scant time left in an engineering curriculum for anything but engineering and math courses.

    I hate to indict my alma mater this way, but the shoe certainly fits.

    BTW, I would take the answer to MarcC’s question above to be that 37% of creationists are college graduates. It’s the only way that makes sense — otherwise, it would mean that only 3% of creationists don’t have a degree.

  5. retiredsciguy says:

    I would take the answer to MarcC’s question above to be that 37% of creationists are college graduates.

    That’s how I read it. It’s not entirely clear. The numbers don’t add up to 100% because the education categories overlap. Postgrads are obviously college graduates, and college graduates have “some college.”

  6. I’ll have more comments later on my evolving thoughts of the “2 cultures”, but for now I suggest that very few of the ~40% give any significant thought to their answer. Another poll that phrases the question differently reveals that only ~20% believe that the Earth is 1000s of years old. Yet another poll reveals that ~30% think the sun revolves around the Earth!

    I also think that many of the old-eather subset of the ~40% are “thinking souls, not cells.” IOW if they gave it more thought would agree that God inserted souls in an evolving population of humans around that time. Which technically does not conflict with evolution. But they still might not like the word, so they would still avoid the “God created using evolution” option.

    I also think that if the option were “about a million years ago” instead of 10K (IIRC it says “less than” 10K) the ~40% would be little changed. Furthermore, if the respondents were forced to choose whether they take it on faith or whether they truly thought the evidence independently verifies it, many would choose the former. Much to the chagrin of anti-evolution activists who insist on manipulating the evidence.

    If my suspicions are correct, I only find that slightly encouraging, however. There is still a tremendous amout of work that heeds to be done to clear up misconceptions. First we need to identify the ones who are beyond hope, and not waste any effort on them. But I think there’s an even greater % that is salvageable.

  7. Another issue is that many colleges, in that hunt for dollars, have decreased their grading standards to frightening levels. I took a 3000 level English lit class for fun last summer and some of the papers I helped critique were shockingly stupid. Not just in content, but sentence structure, incorrectly spelled or used words, or blatant blocks of uncited text all mixed within it. When I noticed that these folks got very similar grades to what I got, I asked the professor what was going on, he said that he grades each student on where he thinks they are progressing, not as within the body of students at the same level.

    Translation: If you start out as an idiot, and make a small amount of improvement, I give you a gold star.

    No wonder we are getting creationist graduates. I also had to watch painfully as a geology professor had to tapdance around the age of the Earth. I spoke up in class and said simply “Any who thinks the planet is ten thousand years old needs to go up to Oklahoma City Christian College and leave the rest of us to the facts.” I got some nasty looks from a few people.

    Such is life out here in cow land.

  8. FWIW, I have met far more people who studied the Feynman Lectures who know Shakespeare than people who studied Shakespeare who know the Feynman Lectures.

    Just sayin’.

  9. SY, no surprise there. Shakespeare is a standard curriculum item in just about any high school English class; can’t say I’ve heard of any HS Physics class getting into Feynman.

    More to the point would be the percentage of people with a decent understanding of biology, geology, and astronomy.

  10. retiredsciguy: “More to the point would be the percentage of people with a decent understanding of biology, geology, and astronomy.”

    I read once that ~90% can’t describe a molecule. That sounds about right (though no less alarmng) given my own experience. Speaking from my admitted bias as a chemist, I can’t imagine appreciating evolution without some understanding of cellular chemistry, including catalysis and the time and space scales.

    I often say that organisms are not “objects” but “events,” to and from which matter comes, goes, and reacts. Much creationist argumentation depends of caricturizing evolution as reducing organisms to “objects.”

    Another creationist objection that flies over the heads of most nonscientists (& even traps scientists on occasion) is their incredulity of how “inorganic” matter assembled into living forms. Besides being a common bait-and-switch between evolution and abiogenesis, it ignores – deliberately in the case of anti-evolution activists – that it is mostly “organic” matter that assembled into living systems.

    I would also bet that another ~90%, which almost completely overlaps the other ~90%, are oblivious to the false dichotomy that anti-evolution activists constantly pull., i.e nature must do it “this way” while God does it “some other way.” That’s why, rather than taking the bait and giving them more evidence that they can spin as more “gaps,” I assume for the sake of argument that God did “do it,” And I ask what He did, when and how. ~90% of them run away, and the other ~10% answer the wrong question.