Wednesday, February 15, 2006

two cultures, nodding and smiling

tideliar writes:

I think it would terribly helpful to have scientists interested more in the philosophy of science. I thnk nowadays we lack a broader understand of life, or a view of the bigger picture if you like. Public perception of science and scientists is at an all time low. The "public" are generally distrustful of science, yet seem to lap up what is spoon fed to them by the media. I think if we engaged with our work and what it does, and what it means on amore emotional level, things could change. However, most scientists I know pride themselves on being rational and thus cold and logical (even when it's patently not true). I think this may be a difficult bridge to cross...

I talked recently with a friend at Michigan's School of Information (OK, the silliness of the name is wearing off after a year), where they regularly hold informal, interdisciplinary conferences with usability people, library science people, policy people, and some others. I was curious about how they understand each other well enough to have meaningful conversation on the chosen topics, and asked if the topics are recognized by all of them as problems or Major Important Things to Grapple With. No, he said, not really. And yet, according to him, the conferences are lively, useful, and well-attended. Not a source of unmanageable frustration about those _____ people who just don't get it. It occurred to him that he might be seeing the fruit of several years' worth of teaching these groups to talk to each other.

I wonder how much of that might be necessary in getting artists and scientists to talk to each other usefully & interestingly. Maybe it'll be largely a matter of finding the right seed people: well-read & serious scientists already thoughtful about the philosophy of science, serious/deep artists with unusually flexible views of creativity, patience with logical trains of thought, and quick grip on abstractions, and conversations that develop some language and conceptual girders for more conversations among other artists & scientists.

Again, only limited undergrad exposure, but I'd guessed the "just the science, ma'am," culture came mostly from two facts: One, you have to make things work, which means being extremely careful about what you don't know and what you believe from other people; two, it takes a lot of money to do science, and you have to compete for it, so there's tremendous pressure to look reliably smart. Which means not gassing around sounding stupid/wifty/whimsical more often than you must. But I expect people in the business have better ideas about why scientists sound like scientists, and why "sound like scientists" is an irritating & misleading thing to say. (There are some conversations on this over at LabLit, which is mainly about representations of science and scientists in fiction. Mostly sci fi, but literary when they can get it.)

There's not a hell of a lot of money in art, and I can do without watching it dawn on more scientists and other professionals how often literary writers work for free, and how small the money usually is when we do get paid. But there's also little penalty for talking absolute bullshit most of the time, thinking out loud and getting most of it wrong. You even can wander around being an unbearable flake, I mean spouting real idiocy, but no one will stop not paying you for it. If you can pan for gold in all that crap and write something striking or beautiful ten years later, that's really all that counts.

Might help for participants from both sides to understand, some, why they talk the way they do, how the others talk & why. Might help the conversation along. I wonder if it's possible or even all that important.

I hadn't heard that, btw, about public perceptions of scientists. Who says?

Oh. On the celebrity nightstand now: The Blind Watchmaker. I've had three Ted Chiang recommendations, so I'll read him & welcome story or collection recommendations. And I guess it's time to read C. P. Snow.


JohnM said...

I've had more trouble at my own school of information in the past few years getting people to recognize the value in collaborating with scientists. I haven't had much trouble at all convincing scientists of the value ILS brings to information problems in science.

Amy Charles said...

Funny, I was just talking about this problem with someone else. Scientists willing, others not. I wonder if it's because of the relative invisibility & arcaneness of science. No perceived need or connection to the rest of life. Despite ACS's pleading. ("Chemistry Is Everywhere.")

Too bad about that napalm, eh?