Friday, May 01, 2015

The Difference Between Cats And Dogs

I'm sure many of you have noticed this, but have you sat down and really analyze it? Or maybe in my case, over-analyzing it?

A bunch of friends and I were sitting around and just talk (y'know, the stuff you do face-to-face and doesn't involve moving your fingers over a virtual keyboard). Of course, the conversation went over various topics of politics, the economy, etc...etc. At some point, it inevitably meandered into science, and physics in particular, since everyone there knew I am a physicist. It was when we got to that point that I noticed how the nature of the conversation changed.

We were comfortable with just talking when we were discussing politics, etc. But when we got to physics, we had to bring out several sheets of paper and started to either do sketches, or in my case, having to write simple, basic equations and numbers. This shouldn't be surprising because sketching something in physics is often the simplest and most direct way to demonstrate or explain something. We physicists, engineers, and other scientists tend to grab almost anything we can get (napkins, crumpled papers, etc.) when we sit and talk about what we do. Even in school, the way different subjects are taught can be evident. I remember being in a literature class where the instructor barely wrote anything on the board. This is unheard of in a math, physics, etc. class where it is not uncommon for the instructor to need several boards, or had to erase the one board over and over again throughout an entire class session.

I can't help thinking that, among other things, this signifies clearly the differences between one type of discipline versus another. While certain the field of economics, politics, etc. have more exact components, it is interesting that we all find that we can simply just talk verbally about it to get out point across... or can we? On the other hand, a STEM subject often requires illustrations, rudimentary calculations, etc. when we discuss things. I certainly find it significantly easier with a pen and paper to illustrate various topics that are being discussed.

So that led me to consider why that is so. Is it because there's a lot more "ambiguity" when we discuss politics and economics and other social matters? Are they more qualitative in nature? Is the discussion of STEM subject more well-defined and more quantitative? One example I have is the a topic of discussion that we had about politics and the issue of cutting taxes. This is a popular topic when there is an election coming. It takes no knowledge of anything to say that one wants to cut taxes. Yet, the issue of "by how much" and "how did you arrive at that figure" very seldom enters into any form of public discussion. It is as of the public is either incapable of understanding the details of such issue, or they don't have the patience to pay attention into such boring stuff.

We all want to pay less taxes! Who wouldn't? But we also depend on many services provided by various parts of the government, be it local or federal. One should not just say one is going to cut taxes, because frankly, saying just that, to me, is idiotic! One can cut it by $1 and that would have been a tax cut. Rather, I want to hear answers to : (1) by how much are you going to cut such-and-such taxes (2) how did you come up with that number (3) what were your assumptions that you used to arrive at that number (i.e. you must have made some estimates on what it would cost to provide the necessary services, and how much revenue you'd exact to make in that fiscal year)? etc.. etc. In other words, there are PLENTY of details that has to be revealed beyond just saying that you want to cut taxes. Otherwise, that statement is really empty and meaningless, and might even be totally irrelevant.

But this is usually missing from many political discussions, and it may even be something that the public simply don't care to hear, especially if they can be seduced by just sound bites. A lot of discussion in this area are often simply statements made without a lot of justification, and even if there were, they were mainly anecdotes. To me, this is why discussion on such topics can often be done verbally, because they are mainly "abstract", qualitative ideas (i.e. what goes up, must come down) without diving into the details (i.e. when and where it comes down).

But then you could turn around and ask me "But ZapperZ, isn't this how science articles and news are also done? I seldom seen pictures or number to explain the science that is being reported."

That is true, but that is because scientists and science writers (who are often not scientists themselves) have learned to communicate more effectively with the public, i.e. we can't bore then with the details and the numbers if we want to get their attention. Instead, we have to use bells and whistles, and we must be perky and superficial. But in my case, I find that being superficial and qualitative were sufficient in my discussion on political and social matters, but it wasn't sufficient when I had to answer a question on why centrifugal force is a "fictitious force". In fact, I had to get up from my chair and had to illustrate certain things by acting it to be able to get the message across. I didn't have to do anything close to that to discuss the latest local election in my area.

So maybe there is an inherent differences in these two board areas that can't be changed or eliminated, very much like dogs and cats. But I've seen dogs and cats get along very well and learn from each other. And certainly while those in STEM areas are learning how to communicate better to the public, and those in politics, economics, and social science are applying more quantitative aspects to their studies, are the public aware of such differences and how they could learn from it to look internally on how they analyze and conclude something? Have they looked at the differences between dogs and cats deeply enough beyond just the superficial level?

I don't know.


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