Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


On the interface of the two cultures of modern society
October 24, 2010 9:07 PM   Subscribe

An examination of the differences between the literary and scientific cultures, by John Allen Poulos.
posted by jjray (32 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
In the end, whether we resonate viscerally to King Lear’s predicament in dividing his realm among his three daughters or can’t help thinking of various mathematical apportionment ideas that may have helped him clarify his situation is probably beyond calculation.

or he could have listened to the Fool.
posted by clavdivs at 9:21 PM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Scientists have jobs is one difference.
posted by vapidave at 9:40 PM on October 24, 2010 [7 favorites]


The so-called “conjunction fallacy” suggests another difference between stories and statistics. After reading a novel, it can sometimes seem odd to say that the characters in it don’t exist. The more details there are about them in a story, the more plausible the account often seems. More plausible, but less probable.

That's and odd argument - as though, if I were to tell you everything there is to know about Denmark, the more I told you the more your only rational conclusion could be that Denmark doesn't actually exist. Certainly the characters in novels don't exist any more the Golden Rule, the Oxford Comma, or John Allen Poulos' name exists. Somebody just made them up, but those things are in some sense real nonetheless.
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.
That's C. P. Snow's now-classic Two Cultures argument, cited very early in Poulos' article, but Snow was talking about facts, rather than people's mathematical ability to evaluate the veracity of claims about those facts. Given that, I found it a little perplexing that he'd undermine his main thrust of his argument by muddying the waters about what constitutes "existence" before he gets much more than warmed up.

There's the seed of a really good article about the pernicious effects of statistical illiteracy on modern society in here somewhere - in my own experience, discussing risk management with people who think a standard deviation is something that happens in a boring nightclub is particularly infuriating - but I am 98% certain that this article wasn't it.
posted by mhoye at 9:47 PM on October 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ok I'm regretting my tone but I don't know any scientists that have been looking for work for a substantial period but most writers that I know or read complain of sporadic employment.
posted by vapidave at 9:59 PM on October 24, 2010


In listening to stories we tend to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained, whereas in evaluating statistics we generally have an opposite inclination to suspend belief in order not to be beguiled.
That's until we start arguing about gun crime in the United States, at which point the tendencies reverse.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 10:06 PM on October 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


Hah, like statistics is a real science.
posted by ke rose ne at 10:16 PM on October 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


I read this twice and I don't really understand the purpose of it, to be honest. It seems like comparing apples to oranges and arriving at no useful conclusion.

Yes, narrative and statistics are very different. So are stories and couches. Stories represent a character and my couch has a plaid pattern. Also, people read stories to be entertained but you sit on a couch to be comfortable.

Maybe I'm taking something for granted in reading this. I assume it was published for a reason. I'm a bit baffled, unless the point is simply to rebuff scientifically-minded people who expect everything to be rational.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:17 PM on October 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


She is single, in her early 30s, outspoken, and exceedingly smart. A philosophy major in college, she has devoted herself to issues such as nuclear non-proliferation. So which of the following is more likely?

A) Linda is a bank teller.
B) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

Although most people choose b.), this option is less likely since two conditions must be met in order for it to be satisfied, whereas only one of them is required for option a.) to be satisfied.


Sure, if you read A on it's own, you'd only see one condition, but if you read A and B together, you imply a second condition into A. So people instead see these two options, each with two conditions:
A) Linda is a bank teller and is not active in the feminist movement.
B) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.
And, fine, there are probably more bank tellers that are not active in the feminist movement than there are bank tellers active in the feminist movement. But how many of the latter are outspoken, smart, philosophy majors in their early 30s with a tendency to devote themselves to causes?

Which is more likely?
A) I have completely missed the point.
B) I have completely missed the point and I am a law student?
posted by doublehappy at 10:35 PM on October 24, 2010 [15 favorites]


Scientists comment on metafilter like THIS,

...while writers comment like this,

amirite.
posted by not_on_display at 10:53 PM on October 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


"a woman named Linda is described. She is single, in her early 30s, outspoken, and exceedingly smart. A philosophy major in college, she has devoted herself to issues such as nuclear non-proliferation. So which of the following is more likely?

a.) Linda is a bank teller.
b.) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement."



Stories are about character. Literature plays on our preconceptions and prejudices. If you said this "backward", what would be more likely?

Linda is active in the feminist movement. She is more likely to be:
a) a bank teller
b) a photographer

People would probably pick b. "Bank teller" has it's own unspoken characterizations. A bank teller who is also active in the feminist movement is indeed more likely to be the Linda of the premise rather than a generic bank teller. It's not that people don't understand statistics - it's that statisticians don't understand people. A computer model would pick "a" in the first question, because computers don't immediately and subconsciously add a number of attributes to a human being based solely on their occupation.

This is a fundamental flaw of economics - trying to rationalize that which is intrinsically irrational. It's a worthy effort - but it's a significant reason why predictive models will ultimately fail to predict human behavior.
posted by Xoebe at 10:55 PM on October 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


Dammit, doublehappy, I had to go get my kids some ice cream, and you hadn't posted when I composed my "original" thought. Well, I am glad the point, or something similar, had occurred to someone else!
posted by Xoebe at 11:00 PM on October 24, 2010


doublehappy, according to Wikipedia, the authors of the original study claimed that most people picked option B even when option A read, "Linda is a bank teller whether or not she is active in the feminist movement."
posted by Serf at 11:54 PM on October 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


but can Linda still get us into the bank?
posted by clavdivs at 12:40 AM on October 25, 2010


I read this twice and I don't really understand the purpose of it, to be honest. It seems like comparing apples to oranges and arriving at no useful conclusion.

I don't see any purpose either. There are certainly interesting things to be written on the subject, but that there are words that have some sort of connection to statistical concepts or that people tend to be bad at statistics don't seem to be particularly interesting arguments in this context.

I guess this (not sure I can honestly call it an) essay delivers what it promises: "an oblique look".
posted by ssg at 12:49 AM on October 25, 2010


Dammit, Xoebe, you put it much better than I could.
posted by doublehappy at 1:29 AM on October 25, 2010


Its nyt, what the fuck did u expect?

Its just masturabatory drivel for times readers.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:30 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


The author isn't referring to academic literary culture, that's for certain, and it's a real shame. This sentence makes it quite clear: In listening to stories we tend to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained, whereas in evaluating statistics we generally have an opposite inclination to suspend belief in order not to be beguiled.

I'm not getting my Masters in comparative literature in order to be entertained. I'm analyzing literature. There's a reason that serious lit programs often encourage, if not require, at least a few courses in psychology and/or anthropology and/or ethnology. I've taken courses in all three (as well as first-year university calculus, chemistry and astrophysics — I liked math and astronomy). One of the many things that comes up in literature is to what extent an author's story, be it fiction or non-fiction, reflects reality. From an anthropological/ethnological point of view, we can learn a lot about a culture and a time even from fictional accounts. Take Jane Austen's works, for instance.

Then there are authors who, for example, wrote purportedly non-fiction accounts of their experiences in the New World a few hundred years ago. Take this experience from one "eyewitness account" (I'm writing from memory, not quoting exactly, but you'll see that this doesn't matter much): "I heard the hooting of an owl in the dark night. 'Begone!' I shouted. Clearly, the beast took fright, for it spread its wings and beat the air in a devilish racket. The noise from its flight sent chills down my spine, for it must have been immense."

If any of you believe that account, I certainly hope you're not of "scientific culture". Owls don't make a racket when they fly. They're the stealthiest of all birds. I've seen them myself in real life, thanks to an owl rehabilitation program near my hometown, and it is impressive to see such huge wings coming at you in total silence. Why is this important? Well, the same account goes on to attribute all sorts of "factual qualities" to Native Americans that "clearly qualify them as needing civilization". For instance. Manipulation and invention of bad-faith "facts" has a long, sad history in that sense, and science is not free of guilt in the matter.

Suspending belief can be fine when reading for entertainment, but assuming suspension of disbelief on the part of "literary culture" as a whole pings my fallacy radar and... makes me believe that the author isn't qualified to be writing such a piece.
posted by fraula at 2:22 AM on October 25, 2010 [9 favorites]


The two cultures phenomenon is a genuine problem, and although this is a light piece, he is providing an interesting angle on it. He claims that the different cultures may align with differences in psychology or what counts as a valid inference. But at the same time, these differences look more like a shift of emphasis than a fundamental rift (since both methodologies require fictional thinking and judgements of probability).

Having said that, what Xoebe said above does seem like a useful corrective to the implication that people in the humanities just make a load of fallacies. There is an important difference between the 'intentional stance' required when studying human nature whereby we add in all kinds of background knowledge about how humans work, and the non-intentional stance where we treat the phenomenon as a brute causal process.

Whether both sides then make the mistake of over-using their preferred stance when dealing with other circumstances is another matter. He suggests that everyone must balance between errors of type I (too open, accept fictions) and type II (too closed, miss facts). That scientist types tend to be too closed and humanities types tend to be too open seems like a stereotype in need of evidence (this maths prof sounds too open right??).
posted by leibniz at 3:14 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Good points, fraula. And here's another point about Linda the bank teller--we're not responding, as readers of narrative, to our statistical sense (good or bad as it may be). We respond from our sense of verisimilitude (Wikipedia, here's the SEP on "Truthlikeness"), among other things. Linda may be, in some sense, a more "accurate" character if she's not feminist, but she's certainly a better character if she is.
posted by Mngo at 4:21 AM on October 25, 2010


Bruce Schneier linked a study a while back that was the Linda phenomenon only with pipe bombs. In it they detailed a security threat in a generic way and then in a detailed way - "bag guy blows up building with truck full or explosives" vs. "bad guy from rust-belt with ties to white supremacist movement blows up building with Ryder truck full of explosives", etc. People always tended to pick the detailed story rather than the general story - his point being that this is how homeland security dollars are spent.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:00 AM on October 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


What often goes unsaid of course is that the "two cultures" are only different to each other. Together they form a group which is distinct from the majority of the population and the majority of the world's population which has no post-secondary education could hardly tell the members of one group from the other.
posted by atrazine at 5:06 AM on October 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


> A bank teller who is also active in the feminist movement is indeed more likely to be the Linda of the premise rather than a generic bank teller.

This is irrelevant, because it's not what the question asked. "How likely is Linda to be X?" is an entirely different question from "How likely is an X to be Linda?"

> It's not that people don't understand statistics - it's that statisticians don't understand people.

You've undermined the point you were trying to make with your basic misunderstanding of the problem, above. The conjunction fallacy has been demonstrated robustly: look it up.
posted by infobomb at 5:23 AM on October 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


So which of the following is more likely?

A) Linda is a bank teller.
B) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

Although most people choose b.)...


Most people?? These things never fail to make me feel less like a human being.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 5:40 AM on October 25, 2010


Linda is active in the feminist movement. She is more likely to be:
a) a bank teller
b) a photographer

People would probably pick b. "Bank teller" has it's own unspoken characterizations.



This is neat because it brings up my favourite fallacy along these lines that Paulos didn't mention. People pick b, but they are almost certainly wrong, because they're still responding to the story.

Bank tellers are in a very common occupation; photographers much less so. Courtesy the BLS, there were 57,760 professional photographers in the US, and 576,580 bank tellers. A 10:1 ratio of bank tellers to photographers. If we adjust for sex, since people named "Linda" are almost 100% women, the ratio jumps closer to 20:1; photographers are 44% women, and tellers are 87%.

Unless photographers are 20 times more likely to be feminists than bank tellers -- which is very unlikely; I'd buy 50% more likely or 2-3x, but not 20x -- she's actually much more likely to be a bank teller.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 6:06 AM on October 25, 2010 [7 favorites]


If any of you believe that account, I certainly hope you're not of "scientific culture". Owls don't make a racket when they fly. They're the stealthiest of all birds. I've seen them myself in real life, thanks to an owl rehabilitation program near my hometown, and it is impressive to see such huge wings coming at you in total silence. Why is this important? Well, the same account goes on to attribute all sorts of "factual qualities" to Native Americans that "clearly qualify them as needing civilization". For instance. Manipulation and invention of bad-faith "facts" has a long, sad history in that sense, and science is not free of guilt in the matter.

I'm a scientist and I believe that account. Now, my belief is based on experience, not on the reliability of the historic writer. While hiking, I have startled large owls off of branches on two separate occasions, both times scaring me half to death. Owls can fly (or glide) almost silently when hunting, but when they take off for such a flight, they aim themselves in the right direction, semi-spread their wings and launch into a glide. However, when frightened they propel themselves off the branch with flapping and it makes noise. Maybe much less noise than similarly sized non-owl avian, but noise. Not something you can observe at sanctuaries or on National Geographic videos, where startling is avoided.
posted by 445supermag at 6:47 AM on October 25, 2010 [6 favorites]


I don't know any scientists that have been looking for work for a substantial period...

Allow me to introduce you to a concept called the post-doc treadmill.
posted by bonehead at 7:53 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I’ll begin by noting that the notions of probability and statistics are not alien to storytelling. From the earliest of recorded histories there were glimmerings of these concepts, which were reflected in everyday words and stories. Consider the notions of central tendency — average, median, mode, to name a few. They most certainly grew out of workaday activities and led to words such as (in English) “usual,” “typical.” “customary,” “most,” “standard,” “expected,” “normal,” “ordinary,” “medium,” “commonplace,” “so-so,” and so on. The same is true about the notions of statistical variation — standard deviation, variance, and the like. Words such as “unusual,” “peculiar,” “strange,” “original,” “extreme,” “special,” “unlike,” “deviant,” “dissimilar” and “different” come to mind.
Perhaps it's because I've done a fair bit of writing for general and other non-science audiences recently, but this really struck me.

It's the normal state of affairs now in a scientific paper to to put a significance value (p<0.05) on conclusions (tested hypotheses, really) and to bracket a measurement with a degree certainty (sig. figs and std. uncertainty, and even a degree of confidence in the uncertainty value: 1.0 +/- 0.1 at 95% confidence). When a scientist writes for a non-scientific audience, the natural tendency is to replace those numbers with words, modifiers, adjectives and adverbs to shade their meaning.

Statistical nuance in scientific writing is about establishing trust. This blizzard of numbers tells the informed reader how much to trust the stated conclusions and data. I've seen standards, even participated in standardizing meanings for words with definite degrees of numerical uncertainty: unlikely < 5%; 5% < possibly < 50%; 50% < probably < 95%; and 95% < certain. This is a real-life example. It is used in court. Millions of dollars of fines are assessed every year based on these definitions. Nuance is very important in this limited intersection of science and the law, for example.

What's striking, to me, however, is that when I hand this carefully shaded language to my communications person, a former journalist, all of those "seldoms" and "tendencies" and careful "possibilities" get trimmed out because it makes my writing "weak". Perhaps that's true. My writing is easier to read and my point clearer when I am definite. They, my editor, wants a "clean storyline".

It is easier to communicate in a simple form. But when talking about scientific results, adverbs are not weak writing. They are important nuance. If you don't get the nuance right, you're not doing good science. Your results aren't going to be trustworthy. Or, better, it's impossible to know how much to trust your assertions. This is one reason scientists can be clumsy, wordy writers.

The discussion of probability is part of it, but only part of it. "Linda is a feminist and a bank teller." How sure of that are we? Did she tell us, or did we hear it from a friend? Is the narrator reliable? Has Linda always been active in the feminist movement or is this a recent thing? Which bank does she work for? Is it really a bank or is it actually a credit union?

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say: "Sally told me that Linda is working at the Federated Savings and Loan now. I guess that gives her lots of free evenings for her work at the women's shelter." More accurate, shaded with possibilities, but perhaps not as compelling.
posted by bonehead at 8:29 AM on October 25, 2010


What's really funny on this is that he's ignoring that there's a rigorous method of investigating the particulars of a tiny number of persons or events: the case study. The fact that we can't make a statistical inference from the improbable collection of tiny individual errors that created disasters like Chernobyl, the Titanic, or Space Shuttle Challenger doesn't mean we can't say useful or accurate things about those events. Fiction and narrative is about the application of generalizations as theories to specific cases.

In the classic illustration of the fallacy put forward by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, a woman named Linda is described. She is single, in her early 30s, outspoken, and exceedingly smart. A philosophy major in college, she has devoted herself to issues such as nuclear non-proliferation. So which of the following is more likely?

Certainly it's a fallacy from the standpoint of classical statistics. It's fairly well established that classical statistics is unnatural to human thought and requires a fair amount of discipline. However, they've stacked the deck by adding enough traits that can be stereotypically associated with feminism so I'm not certain what this is trying to prove.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:09 AM on October 25, 2010


And it strikes me as a bad and biased question with multiple ambiguities. Should "Linda is a bank teller" be read as exclusive or inclusive of b)? What exactly is meant by "likely?" It's an interesting concept but I don't think this particular question has the construct validity to really address it.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:27 AM on October 25, 2010


KJS, "likely" means 75% +/- 10%. I'm 95% sure of this.
posted by bonehead at 9:38 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hah, like statistics is a real science.

I know you were being funny, but it isn't a science, it is a method, or, more accurately, a systematic set of methods.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:38 AM on October 25, 2010


I just started listening to Natalie Angier's 'The Canon'. In the intro, she's telling a friend that she considers herself a writer, but she wants to write about science. The friend says 'Well aren't you a little C.P. Snow White in two cultures!'
posted by MtDewd at 11:06 AM on October 27, 2010


« Older “When it comes to user privacy, SSL is the elephan...  |  Stef reviews free jazz.... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments