The Two Cultures Today: Crisis in Knowledge Translation

Commentary, Education, Masha Krylova

We are nearly twenty years into the 21st century, and we have not overcome what C. P. Snow called the conflict of Two Cultures—the culture of science and the culture of the humanities. Speaking two different languages, these cultures are unable to reach understanding.

The clash between the two groups originally emerged as an academic disagreement—with scientists emphasizing the natural order and parsimonious edifice of the physical world and humanists rejecting scientific explanations and aspiring for higher existential complexities. Each group considered itself to be intellectually superior to the other. 

But how does this conflict manifest itself today? 

Not surprisingly, we are still experiencing a gap between the scientific and non-scientific communities, the latter being mainly journalists and bloggers. The initial dislike between the two camps has now grown into a crisis of knowledge translation (KT). 

Consider, for example, the online environment. The amount of pseudo-scientific information, especially on topics like climate change or “toxic masculinity”, is constantly surging. With online platforms, information is readily available and cheap to produce. Unfortunately, there is little fact checking for reliability and validity. 

Scientists are clearly troubled by the spread of misinformation, but most of them are too busy to correct the many obvious errors. In fact, with an increasing count of bureaucratic hurdles in academia, university scientists have little time to think about deciphering their publications into a language the general public can understand. Even scholars in the soft sciences, like psychology and public health, do little to ensure their research reaches a non-scientific crowd. 

What about journalists as key players of KT? 

Most journalists seem unwilling or unable to accurately translate complex research papers into intelligible newspaper articles. As well, some news outlets will not publish articles on some topics, with science being one of those.

The fact is that journalists receive little graduate education in scientific disciplines, and why would they? They are people with an artistic quill pen, not a numerically-tuned mind!

Scientists are guilty too. They continue to speak their own languages—rife with jargon and formulae, which is only understood by a small circle of like-minded scholars. These languages are simply too opaque for even the best educated layperson. 

We often hear from media relations specialists that scientists should be more proactive in bringing their research findings to public attention. It is recommended, for example, that scientists hire media specialists to showcase their work or to manage scientific workshops for journalists and the general public. It is uncertain, however, from where the resources for such initiatives would come. Scientists get no credit for publishing newspaper articles, and most research grants have no budget for KT endeavors. 

To be fair, Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) encourage KT by requiring academics to include a dissemination plan in their research grant proposals. CIHR admits, nevertheless, that this is a relatively novel requirement with “many unforeseen challenges to overcome.” Again, no specific funding is provided for KT activities, and the recommendations on which form of KT researchers should use (e.g., conferences, open-access journals, creative media, or commercial products) are generally vague.    

So, with the clearly emerging difficulties of KT, the science-humanities communication gap persists. One solution could be to educate journalists so they are better equipped to understand academic papers and so are able to write scientific op-eds in a lay language. Another solution is to provide incentives for scholars themselves to produce such op-ed articles or to deliver TED-like talks for a general audience. 

A more comprehensive approach, however, would be to offer students in all faculties more comprehensive educational programs where courses in both science and humanities are studied in depth. This solution would reflect the original purpose of universities from the time of their formation: standing for “a whole,” from Latin “universitas,” universities were designed to deliver knowledge from multiple perspectives, not merely focusing on a single subject, as it has become the case today. 

That type of program would, of course, curtail the academic dispute between the scientists and the humanists. But more importantly, it would also help to solve the broader communication crisis; the one between science and the rest of the world—journalists, politicians, and laypeople.