The Luvvies and the Boffins

Education in the UK divides people in to luvvies and boffins to the detriment of progress – or so said Eric Schmidt, Google’s Chairman in his MacTaggart Lecture last week in Edinburgh.  I agree with the spirit of what he says but I find his choice of words oddly ill informed.   The term “luvvie”, according to online dictionaries, is used in the UK to refer, facetiously, to a person involved in the acting profession or theatre especially with a tendency to affectation.   The names of several luvvies spring to mind including Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham-Carter and of course Stephen Fry, who apparently first used the term in 1988.  I believe Schmidt is using the term erroneously to refer to those with qualifications in the humanities.  Many who work in the media and theatre will of course be humanities graduates.

As for “boffin”, this is a term beloved of the tabloid and red top press who use it as a somewhat pejorative description of a scientist, engineer or other expert.  Apparently the term originally arose in service circles in World War 2 referring to the people (scientists and engineers) who designed new weapons and equipment. 

What Schmidt is trying to say, I believe, is simply a restatement of what CP Snow enunciated more than 50 years ago in his “Two Cultures” lecture.   Snow highlighted the separation of two strands of intellectual activity in the UK, the humanities and the sciences – the “Two Cultures”.  These two groups rarely interacted and each group had little knowledge of the other’s discipline.   Indeed, the two groups mistrusted one another.  He proposed that there would be much to be gained by broadening the education system to reduce this divide.

Schmidt is concerned that in the 21st century the “Two Cultures” separation will hold back the development of new media companies in the UK unless those working in the sciences and in the humanities recognise one another’s worth and get together.   He cited Apple as a company that embraced the two cultures with the resulting creative ferment leading to iMacs, iPhones, iPods etc.  Schmidt feels that it is the UK education system that needs to be adjusted to get round this separation with an additional increased emphasis on training of more scientists and engineers.

I fear that Schmidt (and Snow) are right about the separation in to humanities and sciences but that the problem is worse than they stated.    In academic circles, despite a few attempts to bridge the gap, the sciences and humanities remain largely separate.  Within the sciences there has been separation in to multiple “cultures”.   Specialisation has driven scientists in to separate camps who don’t talk much to one another because the language of the different camps prevents this.  Most of these are separate from the humanities and there is still little influence or knowledge of humanities in the sciences and vice versa. 

If we consider society more generally, there is little appreciation or understanding of science.  In an age dominated by scientific issues, the majority of people, including politicians, are poorly informed about these issues and scientists themselves rarely stray outside their narrow area of expertise.  The quality of public discussion of science issues is lamentably low, degraded further by crass science reporting in most newspapers and on television.  Look at how the fear of the MMR vaccine, fuelled by fallacious evidence and extensive uncritical and misleading reporting in the media, lead to a decline in herd immunity in the UK.

What can be done?  Society faces serious threats, the foremost of these being global climate change but bioterrorism and global pandemics should also be of great concern.  We need to discuss these issues widely and spread some understanding of the science behind them.   We have to find ways to enable society to engage more with science and scientific research needs to be informed and driven by the needs of society. 

How can we engage people more in understanding and relating to these issues?  A less specialised education system in theUKwould be desirable so that a basic scientific education is given to all.  Here I don’t mean that we should teach detailed science to students specialising in humanities but that everyone should be given the chance to debate science issues and have some understanding of science methods and concepts.  Similarly, students specialising in science should be given a chance to see how their discipline relates to society’s needs and look at some of the depictions of science and its effects in literature. Science should have a much higher profile in newspapers and in other news media and we need to see an improvement in the standard of science reporting.  Accurate and full reporting of scientific issues in the media in a manner that treats people with respect would help people to feel engaged. 

How can we get scientists to come out of their bunkers and think about the needs of society?  Scientists need to engage more with society’s requirements and cooperate in efforts to fight the issues such as global climate change that may threaten the very future of life on earth.  Scientists will not organise this by themselves and so bold government action will be required to mount coordinated efforts to attack the world’s problems.  These are big issues and so governments will need to set up multi-disciplinary teams, including social scientists, and should channel research monies to these areas so that a major effort can be mounted.  This may divert some scientists away from their favourite problems, which they may resent, but being part of a team fighting global threats may ultimately be very fulfilling.  This is not a new idea; the precedent was set with the Manhattan project and the Enigma code breakers in World War II.  Will it work now? We need to try.  We cannot afford the luxury of inaction.



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