Wednesday, February 01, 2006

arrogance in science

My thesis distracting google search for today was "arrogance physics" which led me to this article from Physics Today entitled "Arrogance- a Dangerous Weapon of the Physics Trade". The author, J. Murray Gibson, argues that arrogance is a two-edged sword. A valuable tool in science that is then misused outside in the scientists dealings with people and other subjects.

There are two questions I have. The first is whether the desirable quality in research is really adequately described as arrogance. And if it is, might there not be another way to accomplish the same thing? He seems to be refering to unshakable confidence. Really, what one needs is the ability to follow through. You take some (possibly counter-intuitive and doubtful) hypothesis and take it extremely seriously. But one can be confident without being arrogant, I think. Suppose you tell someone something and they respond by furrowing their brow, looking at you quizically and responding with quiet confidence: "sorry, but you are wrong." I don't think that this is arrogance, and I think that it can be very effective at getting a point across. It gives the perspective that the other person has been understood. An arrogant attitude comes across when the other person is not carefully listened to. Just the surface of what they are saying is taken in, but the arrogant person is so confident that they could not have a relevant point, that they disregard the majority of what is being said.

I think that instead of arrogance being the desirable quality in itself, it is more a side effect of putting so much of one's self into a particular idea. If that idea turns out to be wrong, or not particularly usefull to most people, then when dealing with those people it is a sad fact that you don't share so much in common. It is the protection against falling into irrelivance that underlies arrogance. An honest discussion of exactly what you are working on with an earnest attempt to bridge the gap may well result in most people shrugging their shoulders and finding you rather odd for putting so much effort into that one thing.

I admit that it is sometimes easier to be arrogant. For example, after hearing a brief overview of what my research about, if someone were to tell me that they thought my research was wrong, I would be very tempted to completely disregard what they are saying. I don't expect someone to really get what I am doing based on a 30 second blurb and thus may assume that they don't have a relevant criticism. But patience is still a better approach in this situation, if you really want to communicate something to the other person.

When two people have some common understanding, then arrogance can play a useful role in a conversation. It is a sort of posturing. It is a short-hand way of telling the other person, that they have not been careful enough to understand what you are saying. My advisor and I trade this attitude back and forth sometimes, and I think he is an extremely non-arrogant guy otherwise. It is not so serious because it is understood that it doesn't represent a true lack of respect.

So there are these games that are played. Gibson makes a good point about this in the article. He says that he knows just how to shout at his advisor in order to get what he wants and not make him mad. But if a black person or a woman were to take a similar tone, it may not work. The games are played at an emotional level and not often articulated. It is in this realm where unrecognised sexism and racism can enter. One finds that people who are not in the dominant group are not as effective at the unarticulated interpersonal dynamics because of different emotional responses based on stereotypes/generalizations about a group.

Someone like Lubos Motl would argue that such interpersonal dynamics are not really so important, and when they are, the members of the underrepresented group find different or better ways of getting the same thing. For example, he argues that because male physicists find female physicists "beautiful", they are more likely to want to collaborate with them. (I'm trying to find the exact place he said that but can't seem to. See here for a recent discussion thread on this topic that he was involved in.) Arguments along these lines show a not very subtle understanding of inter-personal dynamics. He treats that subject as if it can be discussed without an evaluation of what terms mean and the process of dialogue where people come to an understanding. It is exacerbated by the discussion being in English and that not being his native language, but I don't think that that's the main issue. When someone like Clifford Johnson tries to engage him in a more subtle discussion of similar issues he either gets defensive or says that he can't understand the logic of the discussion.

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