CP Snow, Correlli Barnett and other polemicists of British decline are wrong-Britain has not had an anti-scientific, anti-technological culture. David Edgerton argues that far from acting as a lobby for science, their theories have damaged itby David Edgerton / August 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
The first thing we know about science and technology in general is that it is growing at an ever accelerating pace. But the first thing we know about British science and technology is that it is declining. We have known this for over 100 years. It is surprising that any of it is left at all.
This “declinism” has painted a composite picture which shows British science and technology as weak in comparison to most comparable countries; which shows British higher education dominated by the arts, and latterly by the social sciences; which shows British government and big companies dominated by arts graduates; which shows British businesses to be very reluctant to invest in research and development (R&D), and so on, ad nauseam. This picture is more than something we merely know: it is part of the very fabric of British intellectual life. It is a fact beyond dispute that Britain is an anti-scientific, anti-technological and anti-industrial culture.
These beliefs, which are, incidentally, almost completely erroneous, are the stock in trade of a strong tradition of technocratic commentary on the nature of Britain. It has argued for more investment in science and technology by claiming that British science is in decline, and by attributing this decline to the fact that Britain is dominated by an anti-technological culture. Late Victorian scientists made this complaint; so did HG Wells before, during and after the great war. But it was in the years after the second world war that the complaints became strongest, especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
CP Snow’s essay on the “two cultures” is exemplary. Snow’s argument was that Britain was not producing enough scientists and engineers; its national economy was not growing fast enough. “Why aren’t we coping with the scientific revolution?” asked Snow. “Why are other countries doing better?” Snow’s response was a social and cultural history setting out to explain why British science did not penetrate the nation’s “corridors of power” (his phrase). He found that scientists did not read “books,” by which he meant novels, poetry, plays and history. There was a cultural gulf between them and “literary intellectuals.” Scientists, he argued, tended to be on the political left, and many came from poor families. “Literary intellectuals” were, by implication, more right wing, and richer; crucially, they formed the core of the national elite. Snow’s picture was risible in its crudity: all his…