It’s time to abolish the division between science and the humanities

Professor Dame Athene Donald, University of Cambridge and President, British Science Association (2015/16)

One reason for the “not for me” reaction to science that Imran Khan wants to challenge is that we in the UK seem so committed to dividing ourselves into sheep and goats – science and arts people.

‘Two party’ ideas run deep in our culture – from Prime Minister’s Questions, to the BBC’s requirement for balance, we like yes/no debates, and arguments with only two sides. Anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss (not the jeans’ manufacturer) called this ‘binary opposition’.  He suggested that all humans make sense of complex situations by dividing the things we encounter into two opposing camps. When you’re facing serious threats, binary groups like ‘safe’ and ‘not safe’ are quite useful. But for the complex landscape of arts, humanities and sciences, these simplistic groupings confuse the situation, rather than clarifying it.

The key is that this ‘arts vs. science’ opposition is something we have created, and is not intrinsic to the subjects. It is in some ways a peculiarly British attitude – Europeans think differently. Germans don’t have a separate word for science, and instead use ’Wissenschaft’, which refers to any subject involving the use of empirical research, and incorporates the sciences and humanities. They haven’t sorted these subjects into ‘science’ and ‘arts’, and instead see them both on the same side, part of a continuum.

The problem of this division has a long history in the UK. After the introduction of universal school education in 1870, and amid the decisions around what compulsory education should involve, two Victorian giants, scientist Thomas Huxley and poet Matthew Arnold each argued for the superiority of their side of this divide.

Huxley complained that advocates of scientific education, “have been pooh-poohed by the men of business who pride themselves on being the representatives of practicality; while, on the other hand, they have been excommunicated by the classical scholars, in their capacity of Levites in charge of the ark of culture and monopolists of liberal education”.1

Arnold, on the other hand, wrote that education in the humanities was necessary to understand science, and was therefore “superior”:
“While we shall all have to acquaint ourselves with the great results reached by modern science, and to give ourselves as much training in its disciplines as we can conveniently carry, yet the majority of men will always require humane letters.”2

I fear these attitudes persist today, and as a scientist, I feel that mainstream culture makes it seem as if the scientists are the outsiders. We may be mocked if we say, “I have not read a classic novel since school”, but it is still okay to say “I could never do maths at school”.

To most people in the UK, culture means the ‘arts’: music, plays, literature and the visual arts. Science isn’t often included in the popular definition of culture. And that is a problem for science, scientists and – I would argue – for citizens more broadly.

The effects are visible across the media. Take a programme like BBC Radio 4’s Today. In discussions about climate change, for instance, presenters aren’t necessarily up to speed, and ‘balance’ can mean minority views get as much airtime as those espoused by 99 per cent of the scientists involved. Nor do scientists often get asked to appear on mainstream ‘cultural’ programmes. We do what we can. I was very happy to do a string of local radio interviews when the Daily Mail highlighted my urging that girls should play with Lego, rather than Barbie dolls. For myself, I will also accept invitations to appear where I feel I can sneak some science into non-science programmes. Appearing on the Life Scientific means those who listen are probably like me, interested in science, although not necessarily scientists. Private Passions on BBC Radio 3, in contrast, offered a very different opportunity to talk about what excites me. Such opportunities are crucially important. They can bring science into people’s living rooms in a safe, familiar and personable way, rather than in the guise of a scientist trying to teach them something. And, once again, it demonstrates that scientists aren’t a race apart, Philistines (Matthew Arnold again) who lack culture or artistic appreciation.

But we are still a long way from the mainstream media seeing science as a normal part of our society and culture. Take the most recent Woman’s Hour Power List. Of ten women, none could even be loosely associated with science. Why? Probably because those who drew up the list went with the obvious names they knew, very largely activists and journalists. These may be entirely laudable and deserving individuals, but they do not represent a real cross-section of society. They don’t provide a balanced list of careers for schoolchildren to choose from. They are part of an ‘in group’ and scientists just don’t feature.

Many of the people who work in the media, upfront or in the back rooms, have little understanding or love of science and so, inevitably, it gets downplayed. There are science programmes, labelled as such, and there are the rest. There are a few conspicuous successes of ‘crossover’, like Brian Cox and Robin Ince doing comedy, but only a few. At the root of all of this I believe is our education system: it fails to ensure that everyone has some confidence that science is relevant to them and that they are comfortable with thinking about it.

It is not that it matters whether or not you know, can quote or let alone could constructively use the Second Law of Thermodynamics, CP Snow’s example in his Two Cultures lecture.3 It is that you would feel comfortable that such a law existed and that it means there is little point trying to dream up a perpetual motion machine. Equally, it is important for your daily life that you know how to read a graph or know that statistics matters when it comes to analysing the results of drug trials or what the risks of surgery really mean. These things aren’t necessarily easy or straightforward to absorb, but they really matter. As scientists, we have a responsibility to explain them as carefully as we can and to make sure that we don’t obscure what we do.

In so far as they relate to the out-dated and arbitrary distinction between two cultures, these facets of our problem need to be tackled in a range of ways. Like Imran, I believe that greater involvement of everyone in science requires that we see it as part of our general education, whether or not an individual pursues it after school finishes. That is the way to make everyone feel confident about thinking about scientific matters.

Responsibility for spreading an appreciation of science more widely lies with many people and organisations. It can’t just be a single effort, by the British Science Association, for example. And it does start with education. It is no good calling for more open exchange between science and society if people are turned off in school. Teachers confident to do so (at both primary and secondary schools), coupled with better funding for hands-on practical work, should encourage children to engage and stay engaged. But it’s also the responsibility of many other people and organisations too.

All of us as scientists have to support the call, too. Some, it’s true, are happier being left alone in their cubicles and not all of us are suited to engagement. But all of us as scientists should at least facilitate the effort to draw others into discussing our work. Indeed, we should cheer them on: the professor who does not let their PhD students go into schools should be called out.

Science already inspires some artists, and that too should be a cause for celebration. Examples like 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 show what is possible. But I still think they are the exception. We need to go beyond these scattered efforts.

That will only happen if we see culture as seamless, all of a piece, not divided into two separate domains.

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”.

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

  1. T. H. Huxley, Science and Culture, in Huxley, P137, Collected Essays, Volume 3, p137. Cambridge: University Press, 1983 (2011)
  2. Matthew Arnold, Literature and Science. The Nineteenth Century, August, 1882, P224. Also in: R.H. Super (ed), Philistinism in England and America, Ann Arbor,
  3. Michigan, University of Michigan Press, 1974: pp53-73. [Accessed: 6 October 2015]

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