Traditional intellectuals –thinkers, writers, political and social commentators, and artists- have historically played a major role in the diffusion of the ideas that shape the ways people see the world and their own society and lives.
In the prominent book The Third Culture (1995), John Brockman claimed that these kinds of intellectuals have “become increasingly marginalized”. They are being replaced by scientists who, “through their work and expository writing”, communicate directly with the general public. These “third-culture intellectuals” would be represented by the likes of Paul Davies, Martin Rees, Richard Dawkins, Steve Jones, Daniel C. Dennett, Brian Goodwin, W. Daniel Hillis, Nicholas Humphrey and many others.
The culture of traditional intellectuals, says Brockman, “dismisses science”, is “often nonempirical”, uses “its own jargon”, and “is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost”.
The idea of a Third Culture has its origin in C.P. Snow’s influential “Two Cultures” essay (1959), in which the British scientist and novelist deplored the “mutual incomprehension” –“sometimes hostility”-- between science and the arts. Scientists shared a “culture” –no matter their political, religious, social class and even disciplinary differences-, with common attitudes, standards, approaches, assumptions and patterns of behavior, At the opposite pole, attitudes were more diverse, but the total incomprehension gave an “unscientific flavor” –often almost “antiscientific”— to the whole “traditional culture”. Moreover, scientists largely overlooked traditional literature, which they perceived as irrelevant to their interests, while most intellectuals were unable to describe something as basic as the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
Snow saw such disconnection and polarization as a “sheer lose” to society and stressed the need to build bridges between the sides. In a second essay, published in 1963, he suggested that the gap would be closed by a “Third Culture” that would eventually emerge. In his version of this new culture, intellectuals would communicate with scientists.
Not long ago, a column in Scientific American stated that Snow’s vision “has gone unrealized” (see Krauss, Lawrence M.: “An Update on C.P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’”, August 17, 2009).
What is your opinion? Is there such a cultural divide? Are intellectuals scientifically illiterate? Do scientists ignore the basics of the humanities? Which of them have more influence on the public? What kind of Third Culture –if any- is emerging?