But the deepest point of all — buried a little too deep, perhaps — is a practical problem that remains as pressing today as it was in 1959: how to reconcile technical expertise with the demands of policy and politics. In short — have we really had enough of experts?
The historian Lisa Jardine highlights this sentence in Snow’s argument: “It is the traditional culture, to an extent remarkably little diminished by the emergence of the scientific one, which manages the western world.” We didn’t decide we’d had enough of experts in 2016; we made that decision long ago.
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As Snow pointed out in a series of lectures he gave at Harvard in 1960, published as Science and Government, grave mistakes can result not only from a vacuum of technical knowledge in politics, but from a monopoly — the single expert, unchallenged. He cited the allied bombing of dense urban areas in Germany during the war, which not only took a terrible toll on civilians, but failed in military terms by sparing industrial targets. The source of the problem was a flawed statistical study by Winston Churchill’s scientific adviser Frederick Lindemann that no one had both the technical skill and the political clout to challenge. It is not enough to give political influence to a physicist or an economist. The corridors of power must ring with scientifically informed debate.
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None of this is to assert the superiority of a technical education over a classical, literary or vocational one, although Snow sometimes seemed to yield to that temptation. We don’t need a parliament full of chemists any more than we need one full of classicists. We need a mix. Like scientific research, good policymaking is now a team effort. It requires different perspectives and a range of specialist expertise. We all must learn to work with people who see the world very differently. That wasn’t easy to do in 1959. It is no easier today.
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Written for and first published in the Vintage Reversible Topsy Turvy Doll on 3 May 2019.