Contents this month
Dialogue between the Two Cultures
In 1959 the writer C. P. Snow described, in a famous lecture entitled ‘The
Two Cultures’, the gulf between the arts and sciences:
“A good many times I have been present at gatherings
of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture,
thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto
been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists.
Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company
how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
The response was cold: it was also negative.”
This ancient division was brought home to me recently by the
work Dialogue by Design has been doing for the Office of Science
and Technology’s Wider Implications of Science and Technology
(WIST) programme. As someone who abandoned science in the early
1970s, sharing the general disdain of my arts and humanities
teachers for the physical and mundane, this abrupt introduction
to the science of the 21st century was a bit of a shock.
To get the hang of it all I started reading the New Scientist
from cover to cover; what a fascinating place the world is. I
devoured Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly
Everything”: a perfect primer for the scientific illiterate.
How on earth did my expensive education manage to make science
Our two WIST workshops, which brought together an inspiring
mixture of scientists and non-scientists (with science writers
from the New Scientist recruited to help explain to the latter
some of the more abstruse areas of innovation), were among the
most interesting I have ever facilitated.
Together with our ongoing Sciencehorizons work, it is enabling
Dialogue by Design to become good at explaining complex issues
in ways that give everyone a common understanding of what is
at stake. There are three key things we have learned so far:
1. Even very complex subjects can be discussed by non-specialists
if they are explained in the right way - and this means
experts and professional communicators working together.
2. Apparently objective information is often much more value-laden
that people realise. If the underlying values and assumptions
are not exposed, dialogue around the subject will rapidly become
3. Dialogue between lay people and experts needs to follow a
strict, pre-designed structure if it is to be productive.
Later this year we hope to produce a short guide for people
who need to foster dialogue between experts, specialists and
lay people. We hope it will be another step in bridging the ‘Two