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Newsletter, April 2007

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Dialogue between the Two Cultures

In 1959 the writer C. P. Snow described, in a famous lecture entitled ‘The Two Cultures’, the gulf between the arts and sciences:

“A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative.”

This ancient division was brought home to me recently by the work Dialogue by Design has been doing for the Office of Science and Technology’s Wider Implications of Science and Technology (WIST) programme. As someone who abandoned science in the early 1970s, sharing the general disdain of my arts and humanities teachers for the physical and mundane, this abrupt introduction to the science of the 21st century was a bit of a shock.

To get the hang of it all I started reading the New Scientist from cover to cover; what a fascinating place the world is. I devoured Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything”: a perfect primer for the scientific illiterate. How on earth did my expensive education manage to make science so boring?

Our two WIST workshops, which brought together an inspiring mixture of scientists and non-scientists (with science writers from the New Scientist recruited to help explain to the latter some of the more abstruse areas of innovation), were among the most interesting I have ever facilitated.

Together with our ongoing Sciencehorizons work, it is enabling Dialogue by Design to become good at explaining complex issues in ways that give everyone a common understanding of what is at stake. There are three key things we have learned so far:

1. Even very complex subjects can be discussed by non-specialists if they are explained in the right way - and this means experts and professional communicators working together.

2. Apparently objective information is often much more value-laden that people realise. If the underlying values and assumptions are not exposed, dialogue around the subject will rapidly become meaningless.

3. Dialogue between lay people and experts needs to follow a strict, pre-designed structure if it is to be productive.

Later this year we hope to produce a short guide for people who need to foster dialogue between experts, specialists and lay people. We hope it will be another step in bridging the ‘Two Cultures’.

Andrew Acland


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