Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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Clash of cultures

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I was about to append this to the previous post because the link is from the same source. But seeing that the topic is vastly different and I have the tendency to get carried away length-wise here comes another post.

Also in Ars Technica a link to an article on the different cultures in science and humanities. Strangely, 'hard' scientists seem to be less up their own arses than their 'soft' counterparts. Which may have to do with the fact that their ego plays a smaller part in their work than it does for their 'soft' colleagues.

This is an interesting observation that I have made myself as well – albeit not in such a clear and strong way. The situation may arise partly from the fact that 'hard' science is further from everyday life, thereby forcing scientists to make an effort of communicating their topic instead of simply (and frequently wrongly) assuming that their subject is interesting and comprehensible to the layman. Plus the ego thing, of course.

At the same time, however, the popular image of people in the 'hard' sciences is that they are somewhat autistic (cf. A Beautiful Mind or Good Will Hunting if you must) while people in the 'soft' sciences are generally more the social skills people. On average, I think this picture isn't wrong either. Can these two pictures co-exist? And if they can, how?

I think both pictures do go together quite well. In 'hard' sciences, people tackle problems head on, with little respect for other people's ideas – or their own. At the end of the discussion it often turns out that someone is right and someone else was wrong. You'll have to accept that, there's nothing you can do about it, it wasn't personal, even an opportunity to learn something if you're lucky. No reason for hard feelings.

Following discussions in maths seminars, as rare as they are, often is a rude experience. It sometimes seems that people start shouting at each other. But – at least when I'm in a benevolent mood – they're not trying to shout down the other person, they're simply trying to rid the discussion of errors. And if someone else is following a wrong thought while you see his error, well – there isn't really a point in letting him finish his sentence. Add in two people who are rather sure that they're right and you'll have them shouting soon. At some point it will turn out that (at least) one of them was wrong.

Quite the contrary happened in the philosophy seminars I attended. People are very civilised there. The discussion is conducted in an orderly fashion, everyone gets their say in order without being interrupted, everone is polite even if they completely disagree with what someone else is saying. Probably people are aware that everyone is personally attached to their ideas and thus exclaiming Bollocks! or This is wrong. is not considered an option. You'll have to wait until it's your turn to speak and then say I don't quite agree with what Sven just said... Of course people can be mean as well. But they'll be so subtly – and they'll actually mean it.

This seems to re-inforce the 'hard'-science-is-male, i.e. go have a fight, then forget about it and 'soft'-science-is-female, i.e. be all nice and cheerful while doing a bit out badmouthing and backstabbing where needed stereotype. Quite funny. It even goes along nicely with the 'hard'/'soft' terminology.

I can't decide which of both cultures is better and – to use a worn conclusion – probably a balance has to be struck between both. I don't feel particularly comfortable in either of the situations described: I frequently find mathematicians too rude and dismissive while I've been known to misbehave in philosophy seminars and interrupt people because they were wrong (err, because I didn't quite agree, that is: everybody knew it was wrong and was sneering secretly but they were still tolerating it). This is not to say that I don't enjoy the other aspect of the respective seminars, by the way. Just hoping that the discussion styles would be more similar.

A punchline for this might be:

Mathematics: Formal thinking – free-form discussions.
Philosophy: Free form thinking – formal discussions.

which strangely reminds me of the following quote I once read:

Philosophy is a game with objectives and no rules.
Mathematics is a game with rules and no objectives.

Perhaps some non-conscious working going on there.

Disclaimer: I used the expressions 'hard' and 'soft' sciences as neutral terms not wanting to judge the respective subjects and deliberately being vague on which subjects I mean by these terms. I surely have strong opinions about how to classify certain subjects but that's not the subject here.

May 5, 2003, 20:44

Tagged as uni.

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