Sign In

Communications of the ACM

ACM News

Minding the Gap: A Look at the Divide Between the Sciences and the Humanities

View as: Print Mobile App Share:
C.P. Snow

C.P. Snow's influential 1959 Rede Lecture theorized that the breakdown of communication between the sciences and the humanities was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems.

Credit: Wired

In 1959, noted scientist and novelist C.P. Snow gave the Rede Lecture at the University of Cambridge. His lecture, "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution," called attention to the gap between the sciences and the humanities, and how this divide fractured the academy and undermined its ability to address the world's problems.

In the 50 years since Snow's lecture, universities have often sought to bridge the two-culture divide through academic programs which draw upon both the sciences and humanities. In this tradition of interdisciplinary scholarship, the Division of Medical Ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College is publishing a collection of essays commemorating the 50th anniversary of Snow's lecture in a special issue of the journal Technology in Society. The essays are from an academic seminar conducted last year at the Medical College featuring contributions from leading academics and policymakers from the sciences and humanities.

"C.P. Snow made a much-needed set of observations concerning academia and, while much has changed in the last 50 years, his lessons continue to have resonance. I commend my colleagues at Weill Cornell Medical College for bringing together these valuable perspectives and renewing this important dialogue," says Dr. David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University and a contributor to the publication. "As a university president, one of my top priorities is bridging 'the two cultures.' This is accomplished by encouraging multidisciplinary collaboration, based on the premise that neither knowledge nor solutions to problems fall neatly into specific categories but require broader perspectives."

The special issue was guest edited by Dr. Joseph J. Fins, a physician-ethicist who is chief of the Division of Medical Ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College and professor of medicine, public health and medicine in psychiatry; and Inmaculada de Melo-Martín, a philosopher who is associate professor of public health at Weill Cornell Medical College. Professors Fins and de Melo-Martín jointly wrote an introductory essay to the collection and contributed essays.

"The central question is how we can achieve a balance between the sciences and the humanities. While that question may never be definitively answered, it is critical that we keep asking it. What is interesting for Weill Cornell Medical College and particularly the Division of Medical Ethics is that the development of bioethics has become a sort of third culture that can help bridge the gap Snow described. Understanding science requires a humanistic lens," Dr. Fins says.

In his essay, Dr. Fins focuses on Snow's 1961 visit to Wesleyan University as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Liberal Arts, Professions, and Sciences. Dr. Fins notes that Snow's time at Wesleyan warrants examination "because it illuminates his career as a whole while providing a snapshot of the global political and cultural zeitgeist of his times, and illustrates how a liberal arts institution thought to foster dialogue between the disciplines."

In her essay, de Melo-Martín challenges some of Snow's underlying assumptions about the "two cultures" argument. She notes that the problem is the result of a particular conception of science and scientific knowledge that reduces the knowable to that which is measurable.

"As a philosopher at a medical school, I think that anything we can do to bring about a dialogue between the two cultures is a good thing," de Melo-Martín says. "Especially if it brings more attention to the humanities."

In addition to pieces by Drs. Skorton, Fins, and de Melo-Martín, essays also included contributions from Rodney W. Nichols, president and CEO emeritus of the New York Academy of Sciences; Bruce Jennings, of the Center for Humans and Nature; Stephen R. Latham, of the Yale University Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics; Stephen G. Post, of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University; and Philip Kitcher, of the Department of Philosophy at Columbia University.


No entries found