Friday, 5 December 2008

Art V Science: Personification

Greetings, seasons wishes and merry new year and all that. First December entry, so I thought I'd get into the spirit of things. And why not start with a bit of self-indulgence and talk about my recent talk? Why not indeed.

I recently did the monthly Science Cafe, which was three days ago as I write this. It's a monthly forum for the open discussion of Science ideas and thinking, or just something novel about the field of science that someone wants to talk about. It's all good, and takes place in the lovely cafe-bar at the Gate, not too far from where I live. So far, so good.

I've never done this before, but am currently promoting an upcoming gig (see link above) which is billed as a science-themed comedy night. Now, I am totally aware that this may be a stupid idea. It may all go horribly wrong, it may be the most confusing gig ever, but I don't think it will be. My hypothesis is that it will be great and a novel experience. But I don't know, this gig is in every way experimental, which is somewhat appropriate.

But if I feel this way, and I'm the one who organised it, surely others will have stronger doubts? Curiosity alone may not be enough to get an audience, which is integral to any gig. So, what we need is strong evidence to support the claim that Science can be funny. Unfortunately, I can't provide that. All I can show are my own efforts at this (see what I did there? Self depreciation? It's all the rage). And that's what I was doing at Science cafe. The concept of science being a valid source of comedy most people consider inter sting in it's own right, but I was to put together a semi-talk, semi-routine to both provide a sneak preview of the gig and a talking point for the assembled masses.

It was a good night. The highlight of which was an almost literal personification of the ongoing clash between art and science. Here's my report of the evening, which may differ wildly if you ask anyone else. That's the problem with subjectivity, it's subjective.

Evening began with the first speaker, Science journalist Dr. Toby Murcott, discussing his talk about 'Why Scientists are always wrong, and why it's a good thing'. The main point he makes is that scientific reports can't offer what the media demands as a straightforward yes or no. When a scientist makes the claim that they definitely know something, then they will invariably be proven wrong with further research. Fair point, but I sort of disagree with the 'scientists are always wrong' claim on similar grounds as that in itself is a definite conclusion. Several examples he used could easily be picked apart, and the people I was with didn't really buy what he was saying, finding their own opinions reaffirmed rather than challenged. But that can happen in any debate, so no worries.

My turn then. Went very well, started talking about my background, school, education, tendencies, and my experience at dealing with the general public, always throwing in as many punchlines or humorous anecdotes as I could, most of which worked very well. This was reassuring, as it's always a risk when you try and do comedy in front of people who aren't out for comedy. It can help or hinder. If it's a music night or something like that, it can be annoying as people think you're just getting in the way. Whereas when it's more a whatever you'd define what I was doing as, people aren't expecting to be made to laugh, so it can be more effective.

Did my talk thing, got laughs, people liked, I got given a card, jobs a goodun. Break, then Q and A with me and the first guy. Most questions are aimed at the first speaker, as he made an actual claim that could be questioned/challenged, whereas my talk seemed to result in a more sort of 'fair enough' response. I said science can be funny, effectively demonstrated it, no worries.

During the Q and A, someone mentioned that school seem to favour arts over sciences when teaching. Toby came up with some reasoning, can't remember it now. At this point, our roles seemed to be that of someone asks him a question, he gives a very long answer, I jump in at the end with a humorous observation, move on. I simplified his argument, in what I thought was a clearly jokey manner, by pointing out that schools need high pass levels, and arts are easier, turning to the rest of the room and declaring "We've all thought it, don't deny it!". Much laughter. Followed by shriek of disapproval.

Intense looking middle-aged woman at the back takes exception to my ribbing. She did an arts degree. There followed some back and forth which seemed to kick off a room-wide debate. I will know highlight the main point made and my thoughts therein, and where they deviate from what I said if this occurred.

Arts woman:
"I have an arts degree" (I can't disprove that either way, lets take it as true).

"Arts subjects are just as hard as science!" (I had made no claim to the contrary, it was clearly a joke I thought, but her statement was overconfident, as she has no basis of comparison to test her claims, at best it seems to be based largely on the fact that she found her arts subject difficult but assumed she's equally/more intelligent than most people)

"Anyone could do science if you (an aggressive 'you', meaning all scientists present) just demystified it!" (A bizarre claim. Science, with it's rigid structure, logic, cause and effect mentality and absolute adherence to the laws of nature, where every claim has to be rigorously tested with approved methods and be sanctioned by a group of well informed experts and every published piece has to be explained meticulously, that's mysterious. Whereas arts, a largely subjective medium based on a shared belief system, personal opinion and with no measurable qualities, that's perfectly normal. In fairness, someone nearby immediately replied 'you could say that about arts'. Arts lady attempted to be more precise)

"But you can do arts, and you can't do science. (looks at me) I could get up and do stand-up (she really couldn't, but I was very tempted to let her try) but I couldn't just go and be a neuroscientist if I wanted! (no, she couldn't. This seemed to mean that you have to be a scientist to do science, whereas anyone can be an artist, a claim which normally enrages artists as it cheapens their profession/talent/livelihood etc. She appears to resent the fact that us scientists keep it away from the public. This is clearly just a malicious attempt on our part to keep 'normal' people in awe of us. Rather than, say, some rational attempt to stop the system collapsing entirely. Would you fly on a plain where the pilot was someone who just fancied having a go? I doubt it. Everyone is allowed to do science, as long as they know how things work, and that takes a bit of learning. What do you get if you do 'science' without knowing how things work? Homeopathy, bogus medication and Gillian McKeith, that's what you get).

Me in response
"I don't believe that scientists are any more intelligent than artists overall" (This is true, it's a ridiculous thing to say, like all women are bad drivers, such a sweeping statement can never be true. Plus I've met some incredibly stupid people who are qualified scientists. A scientist invented homeopathy, don't forget)

"I would never claim to be more intelligent than someone just because I'm a scientist" (I wouldn't it's true) Art's lady: You're not more intelligent than me (All evidence to the contrary thus far). Me: That's what I said (in a way). Arts lady: ....

"Science is seen as complex and difficult, so anyone who does it is believed to be more intelligent, but it's just another form of intelligence. You could have someone who's just as good at music as I am at Neuroscience, that would make us equally "intelligent" (I didn't mention the quote marks while talking out loud, but you get the idea) But you ask most people they'll say I'm the smarter one. I have no clue whatsoever as to how music works, but because it's more common, to more people it's not as impressive, that's the only reason scientists are seen as they are. If people can get over this misconception then we'll all be happier." (I believe all this)

This went on for some time, I managed to maintain the moral high-ground by not getting into a slanging match. It was obvious that most people in the room were not on her side, and I was coming across as the more rational, thoughtful, considerate person. it was Obama V McCain all over again (this is what I was told afterwards, not an arrogant self-appraisal)

The sad thing is I believe what I said. She'd turned up to an event called science cafe clearly expecting a dispute and to score some points off the arrogant boffins who think they're so smart, and she was going to get her argument even if no-one was willing to give it. So what we got was the scientist on one side, making calm statements, taking opinions on board and thinking rationally about the claims being made, and the artist on the other side, shouting passionately about their own opinions which made no sense and no-one agreed with but fuelled largely by self belief. Ironic how the person defending the artists was probably the worst possible ambassador. But not to worry, she'll be fine, she clearly was the sort of person who's convinced they've won a non existent argument in spite of all evidence.

But it was a fun night overall. I hope she comes to the gig this Sunday, it'll be a rude awakening. I was being polite and restrained because of where we were. Some of my fellow comics aren't so generous, if she wants to shout her mouth off again she might as well paint a target on her face. So, if anyone's free, anyone fancy walking round an art gallery shouting 'This Is Bollocks'! as loud as possible? See if they show similar restraint?


Gilder said...

It's always good to keep your head during arguments, it seems like you let the sense speak up for itself.

I was caught in a debate in a seminar awhile back where someone was arguing that doctors were inherently more intelligent than, say, an engineer. I would definitely agree with your different kinds of intelligence standpoint.

Also, I don't know whether it's my browser but I can't get the link to the comedy gig to work.

Toby Murcott said...

Nice article and a very enjoyable evening. And in the true spirit of blogging I wanted to come back briefly on the idea I was talking about, namely that scientists are always wrong. I stand by that but, as I said on the night, its a very particular type of wrong. Knowing that someone, somewhere, will come up with a better description of the evidence, a better hypothesis, a better set of experimental results. And that is part of what keeps science striving to improve. A powerful, simple idea that keeps innovation going.
And this formulation is also wrong, its a useful one for getting the idea across, but please pick it apart and replace it with a better one.

Dean Burnett, Neuroscientist said...

Excellent point Dr. M. The general perspective was more than accurate. I thought it was particularly pertinent, your point about media expecting straight yes/no answers and Science being unable to provide such things, I just worry that saying Scientists are always wrong is a risky venture, despite your underlying correctness. Some things are confirmed, the Earth is round, the genome exists and is catalogued, the atom has been split etc. Granted, myself and companions weren't really sold on everything you said, but then we're not the people who need convicning, as we're all scientists. If you're intetion is, as you say, to make people think about such things, then mission accomplished. Good work. The major problem we have is that myself and others would like to see less of the generally submissive attitude toward opponents and critics of general science, like the Homeopathy thing. Granted, it does have very potent placebo powers, but then so does actual medicine, with the added benefit of actually doing some treatment. But because other people are convinced it works, we have to accept it as a valid treatment, when all physical evidence proves otherwise. The number of times we've heard, as in your Yeti example, that something 'cannot be proven' conclusively is alarming, but that's not a reason to accept the alternative. I can't prove there aren't dragins living in the clouds of venus, but I doubt it. But like you said, it's more a useful tool than a genuine claim, and my version isn't how the world works. Your approach is clearly having some effect, so keep it up!

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