Guardian: The New Age of Ignorance

James Watson and his DNA modelGuardian Unlimited (the online version of the Manchester Guardian newspaper) has published an interesting column by Tim Adams about why so few people today take an interest in science (which often means, in the popular context, the history of science). Much of the column is framed by C. P. Snow’s famous Two Cultures (1959), in which Snow pleaded for a rapprochement between scientists and humanists, both of whom seemed to take a kind of perverse pride their studied ignorance of even the basics of the other’s domain. Snow related a story in which he was engaged in conversation among humanists decrying the illiteracy of scientists, only to see them all fall silent when he asked any of them to explain the second law of thermodynamics, “Yet,” as Snow put it, “I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: have you ever read a work of Shakespeare’s?” Demonstrations of scientists’ ignorance of the humanities were equally easy to produce.

Today, Adams argues, things are much worse. Not only are humanists ignorant of science, in the main, but so is practically the entire population. Citing a passage from Natalie Angier’s book, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, he writes,

Andrew Knoll, a professor of natural history at Harvard’s earth and planetary sciences department, suggests that ‘the average American adult today knows less about biology than the average 10-year-old living in the Amazon, or the average American of 200 years ago’.

How is this possible, in an age in which education is mandated for twelve years of every child’s life, and many pay for the privilege of taking an additional two-to-four years? Part of the problem appears to be that science is regarded as a child’s pursuit. Angier notes that many parents trade in science museum and zoo memberships for the presumably more “adult” pursuits of art gallery and concert subscriptions when the kids reach their teens. But why not do both? Adams describes John Brockman’s online group called Edge which promotes “what Brockman calls the Third Culture, a marriage of physics and philosophy, astronomy and art.”

James Watson who, with Francis Crick, formed the legendary duo that discovered the structure of DNA in the 1950s, thinks that movies, music, video games, and the like may have become so irresistible that they have finally undermined people’s desire to learn about the real world:

It may be that entertainment culture now is so engaging that it keeps people satisfied. We didn’t have that. Science was much more fun than listening to the radio. When you are 16 or 17 and in that inherently semi-lonely period when you are deciding whether to be an intellectual, many now don’t bother.

All in all, a worthwhile read.


About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.