Random finds (2018, week 5) — On Snow’s The Two Cultures, the fallacy of meritocracy, and why we forget most of what we read

Mark Storm
17 min readFeb 2, 2018
Ángela García de Paredestwin houses within the walls of a 15th-century castle, in the foothills of Spain’s Sierra de Gredos, has been shortlisted for Woman Architect of the Year 2018 award.

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity and thinking. (This week I learned not to use periods in the title.)

C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures

In 1959, the British physicist and novelist C.P. Snow delivered his famously controversial lecture at Cambridge University, in which he lamented the great cultural divide that separates two great areas of human intellectual activity: science and the arts.

Snow’s thesis was that shifting attitudes had caused a polarization between intellectuals of these two great culture streams. The loss of a common culture and emergence of two distinct academic disciplines, he believed, could only drive a wedge between scientists and non-scientists, with a resulting negative effect on intellectual life. According to Snow, intellectuals on both sides, who remained willfully ignorant of each other, were to blame (but especially those in the humanities).

C.P. Snow in 1969. (Phography by Jack Manning for The New York Times)

“Snow identified this as a newly emergent divide, across which each party was more than happy to sneer at the other: scientists proudly unable to quote a phrase of Shakespeare, and literary types untroubled by the second law of thermodynamics,” Richard Lachman writes in STEAM not STEM. Today, this division seems more deeply entrenched than ever before. “And those working within the arts and the sciences face a third antagonist in society: populism, with its attendant and increasing distrust of intellectuals,” Lachman claims.

For the past two decades, the editor and agent John Brockman has promoted the different notion of a ‘third culture’ — one “of scientists who communicate directly with the public about their work in media, such as books, without the intervening assistance of literary types. At the same time, many of those in the humanities, arts and politics remain content living within the walls of scientific illiteracy,” Lawrence Krauss writes in his update on Snow’s epochal essay, The Two Cultures.

Peter Dizikes believes The Two Cultures embodies one of the deepest tensions in our ideas about progress. “Snow, too, wants to believe the sheer force of science cannot be restrained, that it will change the world — for the better — without a heavy guiding hand,” Dizikes writes in an article in The New York Times, Our Two Cultures (2009). “The Industrial Revolution, [Snow] writes, occurred ‘without anyone,’ including intellectuals, ‘noticing what was happening.’ But at the same time, he argues that 20th-century progress was being stymied by the indifference of poets and novelists. That’s why he wrote The Two Cultures. So which is it? Is science an irrepressible agent of change, or does it need top-down direction?

This question is the aspect of The Two Cultures that speaks most directly to us today. Your answer — and many different ones are possible — probably determines how widely and deeply you think we need to spread scientific knowledge. Do we need to produce more scientists and engineers to fight climate change? How should they be deployed? Do we need broader public understanding of the issue to support governmental action? Or do we need something else?”

Dizikes feels that Snow’s own version of this call for action, finally undercuts his claims. “The Two Cultures initially asserts the moral distinctiveness of scientists, but ends with a plea for enlisting science to halt the spread of Communism — a concern that was hardly limited to those with a scientific habit of mind. The separateness of his two cultures is a very slippery thing. For all the book’s continuing interest, we should spend less time merely citing The Two Cultures, and more time genuinely reconsidering it,” he writes.

“But the greatest enrichment the scientific culture could give us is — thought it does not originate like that — a moral one. Among scientists, deep-natured men know, as starkly as any men have known, that the individual human condition is tragic; for all its triumphs and joys, the essence of its loneliness and the end death. But what they will not admit is that, because the individual condition is tragic, therefore the social condition must be tragic, too. Because a man must die, that is no excuse for his dying before his time and after a servile life. The impulse behind the scientists drives them to limit the area of tragedy, to take nothing as tragic that can conceivably lie within men’s will. They have nothing but contempt for those representatives of the traditional culture who use a deep insight into man’s fate to obscure the social truth — or to do something prettier than obscure the truth, just to hang on to a few perks. Dostoevski sucking up to the Chancellor Pobedonotsev, who thought the only thing wrong with slavery was that there was not enough of it; the political decadence of the ‘Avant garde’ of 1914, with Ezra Pound finishing up broadcasting for the Fascists; Claudel agreeing sanctimoniously with the Marshal about the virtue in others’ suffering; Faulkner giving sentimental reasons for treating Negroes as a different species. They are all symptoms of the deepest temptation of the clerks — which is to say: ‘Because man’s condition is tragic, everyone ought to stay in their place, with mine as it happens somewhere near the top.’ From that particular temptation, made up of defeat, self-indulgence, and moral vanity, the scientific culture is almost totally immune. It is that kind of moral health of the scientists which, in the last few years, the rest of us have needed most; and of which, because the two culture scarcely touch, we have been most deprived.” — C.P. Snow in The Two Cultures

In his article for The Conversation, Lachman writes, “There are major issues of debate in our scientific and technological community, with serious questions about bias, power and control,’ including the influence of algorithms or the challenge of climate change through geo-engineering.

“These are not technological issues. They contain technological issues but they are not fundamentally technological issues. They are ethical ones,” Lachman says. “And how else do our universities teach empathy, ethics and citizenship than through our arts and humanities fields?”

Further reading: Leavis v Snow: the two-cultures bust-up 50 years on about the blistering row between Snow and the literary critic FR Leavis, which was big news in the 1960s In this 2013 article in The Guardian, Stefan Collini explores today’s significance of the Two Cultures bust-up.

The fallacy of meritocracy

According to Scott E Page, a professor of complex systems, political science and economics at the University of Michigan, and the author of The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy (2017), “The complexity of modern problems often precludes any one person from fully understanding them.”

The multidimensional or layered character of these complex problems also undermines the key principle of meritocracy: the idea that the ‘best person’ should be hired. There simply is no best person, Page argues.

“When putting together an oncological research team, a biotech company such as Gilead or Genentech would not construct a multiple-choice test and hire the top scorers, or hire people whose resumes score highest according to some performance criteria. Instead, they would seek diversity. They would build a team of people who bring diverse knowledge bases, tools and analytic skills.”

“[F]irms are figuring out that where you need teams are on high-dimensional, complex problems. I’m a professor of complex systems. When I look at complexity, whether I look at ecosystems or engineered systems, I realize the […] right way to harness that complexity is through diversity. Not all diversity. Don’t turn that dial all the way to 11. There’s an appropriate amount and an appropriate type. I think firms have seized the new challenge: Who should be in the room and how do we get the right people in the room, interacting in the right ways, to lead us to innovative, new ideas and products?” — Scott E Page in How Diversity Powers Team Performance

“Believers in a meritocracy might grant that teams ought to be diverse but then argue that meritocratic principles should apply within each category. Thus the team should consist of the ‘best’ mathematicians, the ‘best’ oncologists, and the ‘best’ biostatisticians from within the pool.

That position suffers from a similar flaw. Even with a knowledge domain, no test or criteria applied to individuals will produce the best team. Each of these domains possesses such depth and breadth, that no test can exist. Consider the field of neuroscience. Upwards of 50,000 papers were published last year covering various techniques, domains of enquiry and levels of analysis, ranging from molecules and synapses up through networks of neurons. Given that complexity, any attempt to rank a collection of neuroscientists from best to worst, as if they were competitors in the 50-metre butterfly, must fail. What could be true is that given a specific task and the composition of a particular team, one scientist would be more likely to contribute than another. Optimal hiring depends on context. Optimal teams will be diverse.”

“What I’m trying to do with the book is speak math and logic to metaphor. You know how people say, ‘Oh, diverse perspectives are useful,’ and that sounds like a reasonable thing? You want to ask, what do you mean by diverse perspectives? And what types of perspective are useful? You want this to move in the direction of science and away from feel-good metaphorical statements about different people being in the room. […] The reason the book is called ‘The Diversity Bonus’ is that it’s not a marketing ploy, it literally is a bonus. One of the most amazing pieces of research that I talk about in the book is a study that looked at 28,000 predictions by economists over a 40-year period. The best economist is 10% better than a random economist. If you average the best economist with the second-best economist, who is 9% better, you get 18% better. Bringing somebody in who is demonstrably worse makes you better because of the fact that they’re different. There literally is a bonus. It’s not marketing. It’s math.” — Scott E Page in How Diversity Powers Team Performance

The fallacy of meritocracy persists, however, Page writes. “Corporations, non-profits, governments, universities and even preschools test, score and hire the ‘best.’ This all but guarantees not creating the best team. Ranking people by common criteria produces homogeneity. And when biases creep in, it results in people who look like those making the decisions. That’s not likely to lead to breakthroughs. As Astro Teller, CEO of X, the ‘moonshoot factory’ at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has said: ‘Having people who have different mental perspectives is what’s important. If you want to explore things you haven’t explored, having people who look just like you and think just like you is not the best way.’ We must see the forest.”

Why we forget most of what we read

“Pamela Paul’s memories of reading are less about words and more about the experience. ‘I almost always remember where I was and I remember the book itself. I remember the physical object,’ says Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, who reads, it is fair to say, a lot of books. ‘I remember the edition; I remember the cover; I usually remember where I bought it, or who gave it to me. What I don’t remember — and it’s terrible — is everything else,’” Julie Beck writes in Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read.

Although some people can read a book or watch a movie once and retain the plot perfectly, for many, the experience of consuming culture is like “filling up a bathtub, soaking in it, and then watching the water run down the drain.” In Too Much Music: A Failed Experiment In Dedicated Listening, James Jackson Toth wrote about a similar experience with regard to his music consumption. “A few years ago, I started noticing that my brain was no longer retaining song titles,” Toth writes. “I struggled to recall the names of labels, compilations and the members of bands I liked. Partly due to the ubiquity of music playlists and partly due to supply outweighing even my most insatiable of demands, all music was becoming Muzak.”

Also Michel de Montainge complained “unwearyingly of his bad memory,” as Stefan Zweig noted in Montaigne (1942): “He forgets the books he has read, has no memory for dates and misplaces the momentous events in his life. Like a river, all flows over him, leaving nothing behind: no deep conviction, not solid opinion, nothing fixed, nothing stable.”

Me, Myself, And I — What made Michel de Montaigne the first modern man?, by Jane Kramer. (Illustration by Floc’H for the New Yorker)

According to Faria Sana, an assistant professor of psychology at Athabasca University, in Canada, “Memory generally has a very intrinsic limitation. It’s essentially a bottleneck.”

“The ‘forgetting curve,’ as it’s called, is steepest during the first 24 hours after you learn something. Exactly how much you forget, percentage-wise, varies, but unless you review the material, much of it slips down the drain after the first day, with more to follow in the days after, leaving you with a fraction of what you took in.

Presumably, memory has always been like this. But Jared Horvath, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne, says that the way people now consume information and entertainment has changed what type of memory we value. And this isn’t the kind that helps you hold onto the plot of a movie you saw six months ago.”

In the internet age, the ability to spontaneously call information up in your mind, known as ‘recall memory,’ has become less necessary. More important now is ‘recognition memory.’ “So long as you know where that information is at and how to access it, then you don’t really need to recall it,” Horvath says.

“When people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself,” as one study puts it. (Signs of the times, by Douglas Coupland)

“People are binging on the written word, too. In 2009, the average American encountered 100,000 words a day, even if they didn’t ‘read’ all of them. […] In Binge-Reading Disorder, […] Nikkitha Bakshani analyzes the meaning of this statistic. ‘Reading is a nuanced word,’ she writes, ‘but the most common kind of reading is likely reading as consumption.’”

We read merely to acquire information, especially on the internet. “It’s the momentary giggle and then you want another giggle,” Horvath says. “It’s not about actually learning anything. It’s about getting a momentary experience to feel as though you’ve learned something.”

“The lesson from [Horvath’s] study is that if you want to remember the things you watch and read, space them out,” Beck writes. “I used to get irritated in school when an English-class syllabus would have us read only three chapters a week, but there was a good reason for that. Memories get reinforced the more you recall them, Horvath says. If you read a book all in one stretch — on an airplane, say — you’re just holding the story in your working memory that whole time. ‘You’re never actually reaccessing it,’ he says.”

“[I]f you consume culture in the hopes of building a mental library that can be referred to at any time, you’re likely to be disappointed,” Beck writes. “Books, shows, movies, and songs aren’t files we upload to our brains — they’re part of the tapestry of life, woven in with everything else. From a distance, it may become harder to see a single thread clearly, but it’s still in there.”

“If we are cursed to forget much of what we read, there are still charms in the moments of reading a particular book in a particular place. What I remember most about Malamud’s short-story collection The Magic Barrel is the warm sunlight in the coffee shop on the consecutive Friday mornings I read it before high school. That is missing the more important points, but it is something. Reading has many facets, one of which might be the rather indescribable, and naturally fleeting, mix of thought and emotion and sensory manipulations that happen in the moment and then fade. How much of reading, then, is just a kind of narcissism — a marker of who you were and what you were thinking when you encountered a text? Perhaps thinking of that book later, a trace of whatever admixture moved you while reading it will spark out of the brain’s dark places.” — Ian Crouch in The Curse of Reading and Forgetting

“It’d be really cool if memories were just clean — information comes in and now you have a memory for that fact. But in truth, all memories are everything.” — Jared Horvath in Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read

“[Montaigne] forgets the books he has read, has no memory for dates and misplaces the momentous events in his life. Like a river, all flows over him, leaving nothing behind: no deep conviction, not solid opinion, nothing fixed, nothing stable.” — Stefan Zweig in Montaigne

And also this …

From the October 1932 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Bertrand Russel’s essay In Praise of Idleness.

“From the beginning of civilization until the industrial revolution a man could, as a rule, produce by hard work little more than was required for the subsistence of himself and his family, although his wife worked at least as hard and his children added their labor as soon as they were old enough to do so. The small surplus above bare necessaries was not left to those who produced it, but was appropriated by priests and warriors. In times of famine there was no surplus; the warriors and priests, however, still secured as much as at other times, with the result that many of the workers died of hunger. This system persisted in Russia until 1917, and still persists in the East; in England, in spite of the Industrial Revolution, it remained in full force throughout the Napoleonic wars, and until a hundred years ago, when the new class of manufacturers acquired power. In America the system came to an end with the Revolution, except in the South, where it persisted until the Civil War. A system which lasted so long and ended so recently has naturally left a profound impression upon men’s thoughts and opinions. Much that we take for granted about the desirability of work is derived from this system and, being pre-industrial, is not adapted to the modern world. Modern technic has made it possible for leisure, within limits, to be not the prerogative of small privileged classes, but a right evenly distributed throughout the community. The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.”

“[O]nly a foolish asceticism, usually vicarious, makes us continue to insist on work in excessive quantities now that the need no longer exists.” — Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness

“It will be said that while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours’ work out of the twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern world it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake. Serious-minded persons, for example, are continually condemning the habit of going to the cinema, and telling us that it leads the young into crime. But all the work that goes to producing a cinema is respectable, because it is work, and because it brings a money profit. The notion that the desirable activities are those that bring a profit has made everything topsy-turvy. The butcher who provides you with meat and the baker who provides you with bread are praiseworthy because they are making money but when you enjoy the food they have provided you are merely frivolous, unless you eat only to get strength for your work. Broadly speaking, it is held that getting money is good and spending money is bad. Seeing that they are two sides of one transaction, this is absurd; one might as well maintain that keys are good but keyholes are bad. The individual, in our society, works for profit; but the social purpose of his work lies in the consumption of what he produces. It is this divorce between the individual and the social purpose of production that makes it so difficult for men to think clearly in a world in which profitmaking is the incentive to industry. We think too much of production and too little of consumption. One result is that we attach too little importance to enjoyment and simple happiness, and that we do not judge production by the pleasure that it gives to the consumer.”

Ángela García de Paredestwin houses within the walls of a Spanish 15th-century castle has been shortlisted for Woman Architect of the Year 2018 award.

The castle, built in 1402 as the residence for a noble family from Toledo, who undertook the construction of an unfinished aerial connection between the castle and the Nuestra Señora de la Asunción church, is supported by arches and walls that cut across the city, and in which these houses are embedded. The houses were small, with many divisions, and in ruins. They had two shared courtyards behind one of the facades, with wide brick arches crossing them. The project opens a long, narrow courtyard/crack, which defines two asymmetrical houses on either side, built for two siblings. The roofs were dismantled and rebuilt a meter higher, reusing the clay roof tiles. The two structures are linked together by the two powerful brick arches, which are protected as historical monuments.

Jointly awarded by the Architects’ Journal and The Architectural Review, the award recognises the architect of a single, recently completed project.

“Oslo studio Rever & Drage Architects used a variety of cladding materials and traditional construction techniques to distinguish the different functional spaces at this mountain cabin in Norway’s Sunndal region,” Alyn Griffiths writes for Dezeen.

“A key requirement of the design was to ensure the building is robust enough to withstand the area’s harsh climate, while fulfilling its function as a place for resting, changing and storing equipment.”

“The cabin features several spaces arranged in a sequence that addresses the needs of the family as they arrive back from their activities. […] Each area is constructed differently and clad in materials chosen in response to its function and the weather conditions it is are exposed to.”

Rever & Drage Architects designed the Cabin at Troll’s Peak for an active family who enjoy hiking and skiing in the mountains of the Trolltindane ridge. (Photography is by Tom Auger)
“[Mary Beard] looks at the world through the deep lens of the ancient world, and she shifts arguments.” — Jonty Claypole, the BBC’s director of arts (Illustration from The Guardian)

“One reason [Mary] Beard is so widely beloved is that her interventions in public life — whether one agrees with her or not — offer an alternative mode of discourse, one that people are hungry for: a position that is serious and tough in argument, but friendly and humorous in manner, and one that, at a time when disagreements quickly become shrill or abusive, insists on dialogue.” — Charlotte Higgins in The cult of Mary Beard



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought