Food for Thought

I want to start with the beginning of a newspaper article on food, written in 2003, which I have just come across.

“In an age when restaurant menus are dumbed down to read like shopping lists (duck leg with pancetta, potatoes, wild mushrooms and savoy cabbage), there is something rather endearing about a traditional Chinese menu, with its pervading sense of poetry and mystery. It is clearly so much more romantic to start with Mermaid’s Tresses, go on to Beggar’s Chicken, and finish with Eight Treasure Pudding.
These are names that are more than just names. They are miniature history lessons, concise geography studies, and glimpses into social cultures and customs of long ago.”

Now ask yourself some questions – and be ruthlessly honest with yourself – after all you are doing it in private.
Question 1. Which of the two approaches do you prefer?
Question 2. Why do you prefer that?
Question 3. Why are the reasons for that preference? (that’s the hard one)
Question 4. Just speculate – what do you think might be unconsciously behind that reason? (harder again)

If you genuinely tried to answer those questions seriously you clearly would have enjoyed the play – and possibly even learned something.
Those four questions are good ones to ask yourself anytime about any of your firm beliefs, big or small.

Don Miller
20-3-2012

NB I am posting at the same time “Overkill” – to be found at http://melbournecentreforideas.posterous.com/Overkill

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Hard Science and Soft Science

Those practising the ‘hard’ sciences of physics, geology, chemistry, astronomy et.al. know (or believe) they are being rigorous, rational, thorough and patient in their pursuit of truth. A goal reached only now and then to scientists – it is hard won, but practitioners are not deterred. They know science calls for such dedication; they are proud of themselves. By and large the public holds a similar picture of scientists; it respects them (ill-tempers over the proof of global warning notwithstanding). They are the experts after all. Only they represent Science and its dedicated search for knowledge. It is interesting to think that the word ‘scientist’ automatically carries with it the word ‘expert’. We do not conceive of a scientist being an inexpert or amateur.

On the other hand, those engaged in human and social studies, such as history, anthropology, psychology, literature, philosophy are seen and labelled differently. This separation is based on the view that they are not sciences, as we know the word. Nor do practitioners ‘appear’ rigorous, testing, patient, objective researchers of the truth. Rather they are seen as amateurs, speculative, imaginative. To be enjoyed – surely at times; to be taken seriously as purveyors of knowledge and truth – infrequently. At best they are artists. They may be deemed to represent the ‘soft sciences’ – an ambivalence – both pejorative and charitable a judgment surely.

But an alternative vision is possible. ‘Scientists’ by their own admission follow strict procedures. This may be their strength – it provides a clear guideline for young scientists, to begin with. It can also be their weakness. A formula, a standard, a rule which restricts, inhibits, controls – all features limiting new, yet to be considered possibilities. Imagination, speculation, sudden inspiration are absent, disallowed. Research under restraint. It is only the exceptional scientist (usually renowned and retired) who concedes that speculation and imagination play an important role in the best scientific research.

But science can’t have it both ways: its formula is the ‘scientific method’; its (occasional) imaginative behaviour is not. Is it an aberration, which sometimes pays off?

Consider the humanities scholar: provided one does not try to ape the stereotype of the hard scientist, she is wracked with problems all the time. Beginning with language itself, with all its ambiguities, allusions, and hidden implications. None of which can be solved or resolved before you proceed; and they haunt you always.

Their studies target, in one way or other, the human condition, whether the subject matter is history and its wars, cities and their rise and fall, the quest for political power, women’s repression, and economic cycles. Human beings are always, no matter how implicitly, the subject matter. And humans change yet remain the same; they are knowable yet remain a mystery. In all, they are full of contradictions, denials, deceptions – to others and to themselves. How do we make these fitful, capricious beings an object of rigorous study? Let alone an object of ‘scientific’
study’? [The effort to square the circle may be the cause of psychology’s poor repute, and its retreat into a ‘testing’ institution].

How do we ever ‘know’ human beings in all their machinations and manoeuvres ? Can we ever ‘understand the truth’ of love, hate, fear, joy – in all their guises ? Surely these studies are the real ‘hard sciences’. And there can never be the ‘last word’ on any element of the work. In comparison the exciting subjects of physics, astronomy and hydraulics pale into ‘softness’ – there the scientist has her ‘marching orders’, they know what they have to do, and they get on with the job, in a certain pure innocence.

Pity the poor poet or ‘student’ of politics (note we never say the ‘student of the galaxies’); they rely on little helpful directions on how to manage their work. Nothing instructs them; everything obstructs them. They grope and struggle for every insight in their practice of ‘hard science’.

Don Miller
8-3-2012

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