The end of the ‘two cultures’

Financial Times, by Janan Ganesh
17th April 2020

In his elliptical book about the death of his wife, Julian Barnes attempts a running metaphor that connects love and aeronautics. Levels of Life is big on buoyant gases and 19th-century mechanics. In the end, the thing flies, and often soars. Perhaps a subject as raw as bereavement is best addressed with this kind of indirection.

Throughout, however, the reader senses the risk of a cultured man (Barnes could curate the Louvre if the fiction dries up) veering into science. Ian McEwan and Don DeLillo often commit the same intellectual transgression.

That it feels so subversive proves the point made in 1959 by CP Snow. Himself both a novelist and a physicist, he regretted the wall between the “two cultures” of humanities and science. They exhibit “mutual incomprehension”, but the real prejudice, he said, is from the first towards the second.

To this day, a “civilised” person is one who is steeped in the arts. Quantitative knowledge still has associations of clammy-palmed geekery. I am able to carry on a career in public life without being able to say in detail how Einstein amended Newton, or what calculus is.

For how much longer, I wonder. There have been enough guesses as to the long-term legacies of the pandemic, but allow me one more. An ignorance of science will no longer be viable in polite company. Two cultures will become one. And the accommodation will have to be made by those of us in the humanities.

It is not just medicine and epidemiology that have become central to our thoughts in recent weeks, but quantitative science, too.

Last month, the health academic Hugh Montgomery told a broadcaster that a flu victim, with an infection rate of 1.3, would cause 14 cases of flu after 10 “layers” of interaction. Someone with an infection rate of 3 would infect 59,000. Neither the interviewer nor I, nor probably you, had clocked how a seemingly small difference in contagiousness could ramify. And it is no longer cute or raffish to be so innumerate.

The problem is playing out on our screens. Lots of Americans dread their president’s press conferences, which, with his CEO-flattery, his unscientific itch to reopen businesses, could be situationist pranks on capitalism.

But a subtler problem afflicts the equivalent briefings in Britain and elsewhere. Reporters trained in the humanities must hold governments to account on the specificities of science and mathematics. The ministers themselves are no less generalist. The misalignment of skills and duties makes for queasy viewing.

What distinguishes this pandemic as an event in living memory is not its scale. The second world war killed many more people. Even the cold war, when it turned hot in Vietnam and elsewhere, was deadly enough. One failed state can wipe out millions.

No, the strangeness of the crisis lies in its biological origins. Historians and political scientists, our usual points of call to fathom the course of events, cannot illuminate us. Writers will not be asked, as they were after 9/11, for their mystifyingly impressionistic takes. The realm of ideas matters less now than the tangible.

Perhaps climate change would have brought about this shift in consciousness anyway, but that is a process and this is one clarifying event. It could end up affecting the school curricula. It should certainly affect who gets to dominate public life. Above all, it will change what it means to be an educated person, at last.

The unified culture that Snow envisaged is not all that implausible. It is there in the kinship of philosophy and mathematics. It is there in the principle of falsifiability, which is the scourge of the political ideologue as much as the shaman or the quack doctor. It is there in some of our professions. If the most engaging people I know are architects, it is, on reflection, because of their intellectual balance: between the quantitative and the qualitative, between the laws of physics and the principles of the sublime.

It is just that, as long as the natural world left us alone, this desegregation of the two cultures was a mere nice-to-have. It is now the stuff of mortal urgency.