March 3rd, 2009
I get into fights sometimes. Usually only verbal disagreements, ranging from discussions of differing opinion to outright explosions of internet flaming. While I usually have a lot of confidence in my positions as I’m a smart and thoughtful guy, I don’t always come across as nice, and that’s usually when I’m thinking like a scientist.
Science thrives on conflict, on the battle between ideas, on the interplay between theory and observation.
And it’s people who have those fights.
Normally in the world of science we have long-established rules about how to sort out these conflicts. While we may chat in the hall or over lunch how Dr. So-And-So is a total idiot for saying this or doing that, in the public face of science “idiot” never comes out. What comes out are very direct and forceful criticisms that, while aggressive, are not personal or overtly insulting. This is usually the case at meetings as well, where personal attacks do happen, but are very rare. The refereeing process, where direct criticism takes place, is filtered through editors and often anonymous.
Science, very often, is not creative. It is destructive. We strive to tear down weak ideas, to identify what is well supported and what is speculative, and it doesn’t matter sometimes if it is our friends putting out bad ideas. We attack anyway. We like our friends, but we’re trained to go berserk when we see something wrong promoted as right. Metaphorically beserk. Sometimes the beserker rage will result in a telescope proposal to do an observation to disprove the idea, or a friendly email suggesting that the friend reread an important paper they seem to have forgotten.
Now, most face-to-face conversations between scientists and others don’t often fall into the kind of claims that bring out the attack dog scientist mode. Casual conversation doesn’t lead to that. Internet communications, email, website forums, etc., does. You can see exactly what someone has claimed and reasonably expect them to be able cite evidence to support those claims.
That’s when you get a unique sort of conflict, that between polite society in which a friend’s odd ideas about astrology, or gender roles, or whatever, can be aggressively attacked.
Strangely for the scientist it is usually not about being right. It’s about reaching consensus about what is the truth.
And let me tell you, it drives me crazy that so many people have trouble doing this. And I am sure I drive them nuts when I think their new age guru, half-remembered article they can’t find anymore, illogical chain of reasoning, or gut instinct isn’t good enough to base an opinion on when the question can be addressed quantitatively. Or when I won’t let it go. It’s a culture clash.
For a scientist, creativity is a small part of the procedure while most is being critical and careful destroying wrong ideas in order to reach a consensus about what we do understand.
So this is a long-winded introduction to some problems I see scientists having engaging the wider world, and vice versa. It’s a specific issue that is among problems any specialized group has in interacting with non-members. ( Racefail09 comes to mind.)
I want to contrast this with how fiction writers think, and think there’s something to this from the perspective of fostering communication more generally.
What I think really good writers consistently do, and I strive to do, is to see every character from their own point of view. Nearly everyone is a hero in their own mind. Nearly everyone thinks their own concerns are the most important in the world. Nearly everyone sees themselves as above average in most things they bother to argue about. And a good writer recognizes this about people and writes them honestly, without stacking the deck into some pre-ordained morality.
I don’t mean that stories don’t mean anything or don’t have a morality, but that great writing is honest about the people.
This is really, really, hard to do. But just attempting it is liberating and leads to great creativity.
It can also lead to understanding, if not actual consensus about tough issues. Thinking like a writer is not about getting at the right answer. It is about understanding character and point of view. Why does she react like that? Why did he say what he said? What are their goals? Are they working toward their goals, or sabotaging them? What are their core beliefs?
These kind of questions are the kind of questions that writers ask of their characters, questions that we so rarely ask of each other, so wrapped up in our own stories we are. We tend to be keeping score for ourselves, not for the big picture or society. It is possible to figure out which questions are reasonable ones to discuss (often things like science questions that have answers that can be determined) and those that are actually manifestations of axioms of belief or personality that have no agreeable conclusions.
If you can identify which type of question you’re dealing with, you can figure out how much of the scientist to apply, and how much of the writer. Even with clear cut topics of both types, it can be helpful to mix both approaches.
When a scientist encounters someone holding irrational ideas, it is useful to see it from their side and figure out why they have these ideas, and if it is something that can be discussed rationally. Oftentimes creationists don’t understand enough about evolution to reasonably disbelieve it, so calling them idiots isn’t constructive, even though their positions may well be idiotic. You have to be patient and educate bit by bit, if you decide the conversation is worth having.
When a writer encounters someone holding strong opinions brought about by extreme circumstances, they may find their position understandable, but some measure of objectivity is handy. Skillful writers can make nearly anyone, no matter how heinous, seem sympathetic. It doesn’t mean we should give everyone a pass for spouting hate and causing harm, even if they have good reasons to go around being nasty. I mean, I can understand Rush Limbaugh, and empathize with him wanting to achieve high ratings and fame and fortune, but I can’t condone it. That understanding makes me less personal in approaching that sort of problem person.
Anyway, this is long and rambling. I’m just trying to work out why I have some problems with some people, why some people have some problems with me and people like me, and how here in the dawn of the internet we’re going to be able to survive and moreover thrive the way we should. I mean, scientists can communicate better and easier with the public than ever before. Writers can research their characters better and easier than ever before. Those are potentially powerful capabilities, but scientists can also more easily get into stupid fights with the non-scientific and drive them away from science, and writers who want to write about different sorts of people can quickly alienate them if not careful.
On the internet, there is conflict, fighting, as people can interact in ways they never could before. The best solution to that fighting is not the segregation that happens when liberals flock to Daily Kos and conservatives camp out on Free Republic, only mixing to mock each other. It’s civil and respective ways of reaching agreement when possible, and identifying the fundamental differences when not.
And it’s also useful to remember that most people don’t or won’t think like scientists or writers. Many people will champion their own issues, heroes in their own minds, looking to win. Be patient.
(This was inspired by reading a few giant flamewars recently keeping in mind how many hours of my life I’ve wasted on them, both participating and watching. If I’m going to watch, I’m going to try to learn something from it even if it’s the adage from War Games: The only way to win is not to play. But sometimes we have no choice but to play.)