(Books and Culture) Alan Jacobs–The sciences, the humanities, and their common enemy

I don’t suppose anyone today would say that the problem with our politicians is that they are too deeply immersed in humanistic learning. Even in Snow’s time and in Britain, the picture was far more complicated than he let on. When Snow delivered his Rede Lecture, the prime minister of the United Kingdom was Harold Macmillan, an Old Etonian who read classics at Oxford (and received a first-class degree); Macmillan fit to a T Snow’s picture of the “traditional culture,” But by the time Snow died in 1980, the holder of that office was Margaret Thatcher, who often said that she was less proud of being the first female prime minister than of being the first with a science degree. I suspect that Snow, a lifelong member of the Labour Party, was not especially consoled by Thatcher’s status as a chemist. Moreover, the P.M. who made Snow minister of technology and elevated him to the peerage was Harold Wilson, the most academically gifted of 20th-century British politicians, who read Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Oxford and then became a lecturer in economic history there at the ripe old age of twenty-one. (Wilson’s father was a chemist, though.) The arrows here point in many directions; they don’t tell the coherent story that Snow would like them to tell. It is hard to discern what connects politicians’ academic training with their political judgments.

Snow wanted to believe something like this: political decisions in the modern world often concern how to deploy science and technology, so people well-trained in science and technology will be better prepared to make those decisions. But that’s a syllogism without a minor premise. And before we fill in that minor premise, we might reflect on one little story, which I offer, though it’s a true story, as a kind of parable. At the height of the Red Scare in the 1950s, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had directed the American atomic bomb program during World War II, found himself under scrutiny for alleged Communist sympathies. He was interviewed at length, and at one point found himself reflecting on how he and his people had made their decisions. Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That’s the way it was with the atomic bomb.”


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