The two cultures and the dementia revolution

dark matter


In the Senate House, on 7 May 1959, C.P. Snow gave the seminal Rede lecture at Cambridge entitled “The two cultures and the scientific revolution”. 

One seminal passage goes as follows:

“Literary intellectuals at one pole—at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted image of each other.”

C.P. Snow’s  blistering attack on the arts, promoting the importance of the scientific culture, was in the tradition of a former conflict between the arts and sciences viz Matthew Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy” (published in 1869, viewable here on Project Gutenberg) and H.E. Huxley (in the Royal Academy of Arts and elsewhere.) Arnold’s position, defending the arts, according to Prof Simon Shaffer, Chair of the history and philosophy of science at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge, is defined as a “defender of human values”.

Even today, if you were to study dementia in finals at Cambridge, you would do it in the Natural Sciences Tripos Part II rather than study literary accounts of dementia (such as John Bayley’s “Iris”) in English Part II.

Late in the 19th century and onwards in England, science had developed prestige, given science improved rights to access resources on the political stage. This indeed was a real cultural change. In Arnold’s world, the laboratory is not a central hub of culture compared to the new dominant scientific movement such as John Tyndall’s “scientific naturalism”.

Triumphantly, it was announced by the world that there would be a cure for dementia or treatment by 2025. I think this is exactly consistent with this ‘scientific technocracy’ of HG Wells’ “samurai” – called “evil” by the brilliant don at Cambridge and scholar of the English essay, FR Leavis. Like Leavis, I believe that this myth that scientific technocracy demeans our overall progress on dementia and understanding the lived experiences.

It is inescapable to conclude that in England that the social care system is currently ‘broken’.

I think it would be wonderful if some resources, in addition to enhancing shareholder dividend for Big Pharma or surpluses for Big Charity, could be diverted into finding breakthroughs in treatments for dementia. But it potentially it is a smoke and mirrors job to promote the ‘cure’ culture without addressing the ‘care’ culture.

And like C.P. Snow, we’re at danger of oversimplifying the dichotomy. Technology and innovation can be viewed as the creative part of science, and might be essential in improving care in dementia; creativity is thus important to both arts and sciences.

Living better with dementia is a vision I fundamentally believe in, for example, and one which transcends both cure and care. I do happen to believe that living better with dementia is possible by innovative ways in which one might live your life with dementia (as brilliantly reported for Dr Jennifer Bute recently.)

C.P. Snow’s lecture at Cambridge in 1959 came at a time when there could have been better representation of the sciences from decision makers in Government, but even then the claim always appeared to be science appeared to be downtrodden. You can hardly claim that science is downtrodden in 2015 with such emphasis on the scientific cure. Ironically, the English government as much now (if not more) is not predominantly composed of science graduates from a diverse range of universities, but from a pool of PPE graduates from the University of Oxford.

C.P. Snow can be legitimately viewed as an “anti-arts” by me, I feel. But I think the promotion of the scientific cure in dementia in 2025 is also, too, a modern alchemy. In the same way, there was magic in the way you could convert one substance to another by varying combinations of earth, wind, fire and air, I think there still remains a hope that by varying combinations of elements in chemical potions there might be an agent from Big Charity and Big Research which could ‘turn the tide against dementia”.

But this is to elevate science to a level of sophistication it may not merit yet. Most of the Universe, predicted with Earth veering towards a “large attractor” full of dark matter in 50-60 billions time, consists apparently of invisible dark matter exerting an influence on the visible universe we can’t understand.

There’s so much we don’t understand in science and specifically the future of the universe. At the time of C.P. Snow, Paul Dirac held the prestigious Lucasian chair of mathematics at Cambridge (a post recently held by Stephen Hawking); his seminal work consolidated the birth of modern cosmology and quantum physics, and indeed attracted the Nobel Prize “for the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory”.

There is currently no reason to believe that understanding the molecular biology of dementia is at all any different. Whereas billions of neutrinos pass through us everyday, we have no idea what is passing through all those plaques and tangles in Alzheimer’s disease forming some of those 47 million people living with dementia currently.

We do not have sufficient monies for high quality research in care and living better with dementia, including lived experiences, compared to cures for dementia. This is a national and international disgrace. I believe that we are ‘due’ a revolution in dementia, but, unlike C.P. Snow, I don’t think it will be a scientific one.



1 Response

  1. petermittler June 21, 2015 / 10:37 am

    What appeared to be an iron curtain between science and the humanities in the days of Snow and Leavis is now becoming a transparent room divider and sometimes an open door. Even in the 1970s Sussex University enabled its undergraduate students to take modules in other departments: eg students taking a Child Development course in the Psychology Dept. could go the English Dept for a module on The Child in Literature.

    The Alzheimer’s Society is now getting many more high quality research grant applications from the social care field. A panel of several hundred Research Network Volunteers (of whom I am one) scrutinise a lay version of grant applications from both sectors: our comments are considered, alongside those of the academic peer reviewers. We also have the opportunity to mentor projects that are of particular interest to us and are giving training and support by the Society to do this. Mine is with the Bradford Dementia Group where Tom Kitwood’s pioneering work on personalisation continues to be inspirational.

    There are some promising signs of progress of breaking down barriers in dementia research. For example, Manchester University has created an inter-disciplinary forum to enable communication and sharing amongst the huge range of research and teaching staff working in dementia – under the strap line From Cell to Society. I am one of two people on the steering committee with a diagnosis.
    This is also involving a wide range of statutory and voluntary agencies, as well as people living with dementia. There are public lectures and discussion forums and we’re talking about a dementia-friendly University as part of a dementia-friendly conurbation. A user-friendly Dementia@Manchester website is nearing completion.

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