Thursday, January 10, 2013

Trust in the experts: A theory. (AKA, There are two kinds of people...)

I tend to loosely categorize people into "science types" and "non-science types." Like all binary distinctions, it's a bullshit overgeneralization, but I do it anyway. "Science types" are people whose academic backgrounds and careers have largely focused in math and/or the hard sciences. My ex, sometimes-commenter Allen, is a classic science type. "Non-science types" are people whose academic backgrounds and careers have focused on soft/social sciences or liberal arts. (See me, John, and most of our friends.) They're not perfect categories, but I find them useful to my outlook on the world nonetheless.

So, I have a theory, and here it is: Non-science types tend to place too much confidence/trust in the opinions of "expert" science types, and science types tend to place too little trust in the opinions of "expert" non-science types. Another way of putting this: Scientific expertise is overvalued in our culture, relative to its actual value and relative to the value of other types of expertise.

This is on my mind because of a quasi-debate I just had with a Twitter friend I know only by his pseudonym, @rotatingskull. I don't know his life story (or, indeed, if he's a he), but for whatever reason, I have always mentally categorized him as a science type, or more science than non-science anyway. The argument was about the capitalization of "web":


I assume this was a subtweet, because I had just used "the web" in a tweet, uncapped. I pointed out that this is a style issue, not a hard and fast rule, and most style guides now advocate lowercase "web." (Non-experts in the glories of copy often confuse grammar and style.) Rotating Skull insisted the style guides are "wrong," and then suggested that "web" is exactly as wrong as "mona lisa." I find this to be a silly strawman of a counterexample; no one anywhere questions the fact that the Mona Lisa is a singular artwork and as such must be capitalized. "Web" on the other hand is morphing into a common noun because in popular usage, it functions more like a generic than a proper noun. It's an unusual case; the closest analog I can think of is referring to Europe as "the continent." It's almost metonymical.

The conversation reminded me of a heated Wikipedia debate that has gotten some media attention lately, over the capitalization of "the" in "the Beatles." One side maintained that consensus among all major style guides and editors (the experts!) is that the "the" before most proper nouns is not capitalized when used in the flow of a sentence. (I say most because this applies to band names, organizations, and newspapers, but not necessarily works of art with "the" in the title.) The other side stubbornly rejected this expertise and insisted that the band itself had the final say in whether or not the "the" was capitalized.

When I mentioned this, Rotating Skull agreed with the naysayers: You have to write it the way that the band writes it. But this is a crazy principle. 99% of the time, the band wouldn't be self-consistent, and anyway you'll have no idea how a band refers to themselves in writing (what, in their correspondence? in their memoirs?) except for how it appears on album covers and posters and T-shirts, but in those cases the "the" will almost always be capitalized because it is functioning as a title or heading, and therefore follows the rules of title case (first word always capped). But capitalization, much like punctuation, is fluid; it depends on context. Just because it appears as "The New York Times" on the front of the paper (title case!) doesn't mean that you can't refer to it in a sentence as "the New York Times" (and NYT editors would agree).

What sticks out to me is this willful ignorance of the fact that the people who create and maintain style guides, and work as copyeditors (or have in the past, ahem!) have thought about this more than you. Science types tend to think that if something non-sciencey "feels wrong" intuitively it must be wrong, and they are not interested in the opinions of those with more expertise on the matter. (See the guy on Wikipedia arguing that the Encyclopedia Britannica is incorrect.) Whereas, it seems to me, non-science types are far more likely to give science types the benefit of the doubt, to trust that they've "done the math."

What do y'all think?

58 comments:

  1. I don't think scientific expertise is overvalued in American society. On the contrary. See the percentage of Americans who don't think evolution and global warming are real, or the prominence of the anti-vaccine movement and of "complementary and alternative medicines." If anything, Americans tend to subscribe to quackery.

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    1. I'm really just talking about generally smart educated people here. Sorry that wasn't clear. It's a trend I see among people with college degrees and potentially some post-graduate education as well. Joe Schmoe with his rifle arsenal in Alabama may place no trust in any kind of expertise whatsoever.

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    2. I am actually including post-graduate people in my statement. I can't tell you how many well-educated people I know actually buy into woo and quackery.

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    3. Indeed -- but I bet some of the "science" you buy into is in fact woo and quackery.

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    4. I guess it's a good thing I don't buy into anything, except socialism and science-based medicine. Oh, and mathematics. Mathematics are cool.

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    5. What, no votes for poetry?

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    6. Nope, not even poetry. I only got into poetry because I failed as a mathematician.

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    7. And I because I got a B in computer science. Sort of.

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    8. Oh, I actually did well. I just got bored and didn't feel rehashing the stuff they drilled into my head pretty hard in lycée. Seemed to be a step backward (well several) doing single-variable calculus when I knew the ins and outs of Fourier's Transform.

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  2. I am tempted to claim I believe in a special limit of this. "Science" is overvalued; non-science types trust science types too much; science types do not distrust non-science types enough, most people are not to be trusted at all.

    I think science types tend to see grammar/style arguments as arguments about what's "logical." They are very likely to believe in and follow nonexistent rules. My thesis adviser (and my other UIUC coauthors) HATE the word "with" in phrases like "a girl with kaleidoscope eyes" and keep trying to replace it with "having" on the (weird) grounds that "with" is ambiguous. My attempts to provide counterexamples from the OED have been in vain. But I think they all picked up this rule from a scientific writing workshop that was conducted, prob. by a nonscientist, before I got there...

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    1. How is the "with" ambiguous? I'm having trouble even thinking of another read on that. Like the girl and the eyes are riding on the train together, but the eyes don't belong to her??

      I agree that most people are not to be trusted at all, to an extent, but we need some heuristics to get through life and it's just easier to place some trust in experts rather than trying to figure EVERYTHING out on your own from scratch.

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    2. Yes I love this "with" story but am not sure what relation it has to science. At the least, lawyers have a similar problem. Law teachers, law students, and lawyers are always trying to impose dubious usage rules on each other.

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    3. The "They are very likely to believe in and follow nonexistent rules" claim has the ring of truth, like this Wikipedia editor idea that bands get to determine whether their "the" is capitalized. (Naturally, most Wikipedia editors are "science types.")

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    4. E: yes, it's weird. I guess it's easier to persuade yourself that the objection isn't nonsensical if you're dealing with technical terms, even if it is.

      G: yes, I think the truest version of the statement is that scientific expertise is overvalued and non-scientific expertise undervalued, by scientists and nonscientists alike.

      PS WHY IS THE CAPTCHA BACK?!!

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    5. I was getting tons of comment spam all the sudden so I re-enabled it ... but I'm getting spam anyway, so I may disable again soon. Sorry!

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  3. Hmm I think I had a somewhat similar Twitter exchange w/ rotatingskull . . . don't remember what it was about.

    Oh it was about the interpretation of a letter from Yoko Ono regarding whether John's killer should get parole -- so also about the Beatles. This tweet and replies to it. I am tempted to say there is a similar inflexibility and narrowness of reading exhibited here as in your example, but again not sure it has anything to do with science. I might loosely associate it with "self-taught computer programmer," but that's just a guess too of course.

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    1. Keep in mind that "science types" aren't necessarily actual scientists ... it's a loose distinction. I think it might be similar to the T/F binary in the Myers-Briggs system, i.e. do you approaching the world primarily in a thinking (logical) or feeling way, where feeling is not illogical exactly, but not driven primarily by logic ...

      But I'm a "non-science type" who approaches the world logically, so I put the lie to my own distinction.

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  4. Of course the t in the "the" can be either upper- or lower-case. If McCartney can complain about women's voices "on a Beatles record," or if the news can say that "a former Beatle" has been shot to death, then obviously "Beatles" can be detached from that definite article with the upper-case t. If you can write, "When asked about his paintings, the Beatle replied blah blah," then you can write "the Beatles" in some contexts. In other contexts, however, "The Beatles" would be more appropriate.

    Let's fuse the T/F binary by feeling our thought as immediately as the odor of the rose.

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    1. Thoughts are feelings, anyway! Or feelings are thoughts, at least.

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  5. It seems to me that most people have an attachment to their own predilections; at least it's not all that common for people to say "I really don't know what I'm talking about." Unless they are face to face. And there are quite a few style guides, some of which may call for Web to be capitalized, some of which may think web's ok.

    Lennon once famously sang, "Don't believe in Beatles" ... so maybe "the" isn't part of the name.

    But doesn't all this right / wrong stuff really mean that most people are terrified of conceiving of language as a living breathing thing?

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    1. And there are quite a few style guides, some of which may call for Web to be capitalized, some of which may think web's ok.

      This is exactly the point. It's a style issue, not a universal law. It doesn't make sense to say one way or the other is "wrong."

      Someone pointed out, in the Wikipedia Beatles debate, that they sometimes left the "the" out entirely, so you really can't look to them as some kind of definitive source for a consistent style.

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  6. When I worked in Documentation at AOL in the mid-90's, the "I" in Internet was always capitalized and there was a hyphen in e-mail. Those were the RULES. That wasn't a company-wide policy, just within the Documentation department. Nobody else in the company cared. I left AOL and long followed those rules until the mid '00s when I realized I was the only wanker capitalizing I's and using hyphens. Around that time it was also brought to my attention that you aren't supposed to put two spaces after a period. Well, fuck me, but two spaces after a period was the RULE in Typing I in 1986 when I learned to type. My husband still bitches about people not excerpting email text in the early 90's style we were taught in Computer Skills Workshop at CMU (1990). He excerpts a big paragraph and is always shocked that nobody scrolls down to see his response underneath. I tried to tell him that battle was lost in the mid-90's thanks to AOL style email. It's like he's one of those WWII pilots trapped on an island that didn't realize the war ended a decade earlier. It's over! Let it go.

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    1. Oh yes, I learned two spaces after a period in junior high and kept on keeping on until grad school, I think, when I learned that one space is now the done thing, and I'm so glad, because it's much prettier.

      I too find it hard to kick the habits I learned while working as a copyeditor at a "web" company that followed AP style. We used email, not e-mail, thank god, but Internet was always capped and I still do it reflexively most of the time. Something I absolutely despise: website as two words, "Web site." Kill me now, as they say!

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    2. P.S. I prefer Chicago to AP in almost every way.

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    3. Sometimes I still type "90's," but I gather that new style guides omit the apostrophe. Have we gone from "'90's" to "90's" to "90s"? Are apostrophes an endangered species of airborne shrimp? Few of my students can use apostrophes; many of them just don't "do" apostrophes. And for some reason they can't retain the rules after you go over them. And hyphens! Hyphens are scarcer than hens' teeth in their writing. I don't think I'm just being a Confederate bushwhacker who's still wandering around Kansas in search of Yankees. Something sinister is happening here.

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    4. I'm a stickler for a hyphen in a compound adjective.

      And of course no one knows how to use an en-dash.

      My favorite mistake is when people use random numbers of dots in an ellipsis ... like 5, 8 dots.

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  7. * Non-science types tend to place too much confidence/trust in the opinions of "expert" science types: possibly
    * science types tend to place too little trust in the opinions of "expert" non-science types: possibly but highly variable
    * Scientific expertise is overvalued in our culture, relative to its actual value: Um no. You have a laptop right? Ride in cars and planes? See doctors? Have insurance of some kind? Watch TV and use the phone? Get lattes from Starbucks? Cook on nonstick cookware? Cook at all? Have food to cook in the first place? Have tshirts from the Gap? Ad infinitum. There is hardly any aspect of modern living in the material world that doesn't rest hugely and fundamentally on "science"
    * Relative to the value of other types of expertise: I doubt it-- college football is quite highly valued in the culture and you can go fer it and try to sell me that it's more worthwhile than that annoying "science"

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    1. Myeh... I never said science wasn't actually valuable. I'm pro-science, dogg, chill out. I mean, duh.

      As I mentioned above to Francois, I was thinking more of people I know and respect, not the average schmo.

      I still think science is overvalued. See your comment about seeing doctors. Most of the time, seeing doctors is worthless. Seriously. Except in cases where you need surgery or something, most of the time stuff goes away on its own, or you need to figure out the cause independently, and doctors can't do shit. Even my dad, who is a doctor(as you know), agrees that most of the time doctors can't do shit. Take an Advil and wait it out. I went through most of my life never going to doctors because I could always ask my dad if I was worried about some random pain or concern, and generally he always said "It'll go away on its own, take an Advil," and guess what, it worked. When things got more complicated, in my case, doctors weren't helpful, only trial and error was. I'm glad I live in a civilized country where I can go to a hospital if I need to, but our health outcomes are awful compared to other rich countries.

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    2. take an advil? where'd you get an advil?

      I got a theory for ya. My theory is, if I were a person totally ignorant of science, I'd be pretty scared. Cause I'd look around at all the things that my life depends on, and I wouldn't have the first clue about how any of it worked. Refrigerator. Use it every day. All my food's in it so I can eat it without getting sick. Can't explain how it works. Not like, can I build or fix a fridge. But, can I explain, even at the most basic conceptual level, why it works. Flames coming out of my stove so I can cook. Why are they there? No idea. What does it mean for something to burn? Why is it hot? No clue. Might as well say that it's Zeus's breath right? The utility company calls up Zeus when I flick the switch. What's the difference? Turn on the computer to check my email. Now that's a real stumper. I mean there used to be a wire coming out the back, no there isn't. I mean damn! Sometimes I go on "iTunes" and listen to good ole Zeppelin. Damned if I know how they got into the computer!

      But anyway have it your way, yeah it's all BS.

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    3. Why are you being so defensive about science? I never said science wasn't actually valuable. This is totally off to the side.

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    4. i'm not being defensive, i'm not a scientist and have no axe to grind. your statement about science being overvalued is just so wrong to me i had to speak up (against my better judgement).

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    5. But that's not what I actually said. I said "Non-science types tend to place too much confidence/trust in the opinions of 'expert' science types ... Scientific expertise is overvalued in our culture, relative to its actual value and relative to the value of other types of expertise." Granted it's probably not the best way to put it, but contextually I think it makes it clear that I'm talking about how much we trust "experts," based on my rough categorization.

      It seems to me that skepticism w/r/t anything "non-sciencey" is highly valued by "science types" but skepticism w/r/t science is seen as anti-intellectual quackery.

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  8. My alternative theory, which I believe meshes with yours, is that people tend to assume that science and engineering always has accepted rules and practices and The Way It Is Done, all thought out and vetted, so they respect those practices and customs and actions that they think are customs but are in fact just the way somebody thought would be cool that day.

    While when they're dealing with a non-science area that they're not personally familiar with, they tend to assume that everyone is just doing things the way that they thought would be cool that day, so they don't put any particular value on any single person's methods, even if it may turn out that those methods are used by absolutely everyone who knows anything about that subject.

    That's my theory. I have no evidence whatsoever for it. I just thought it was cool.

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    1. I like the way you put it, and I agree. It seems like a variation on my theory. Thanks!

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  9. You should write a post just about the doctor stuff discussed here in the comments. I tend to agree with you...I am getting more and more distrustful of the medical profession as I get older and I don't know if I'm turning into a crazy herbal fringe hippie, but I think our society as a whole is WAY too medicalized (I also had a really terrible personal experience that changed the entire way I think about the medical system, hospitals, and doctors)

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    1. Did you see the article I tweeted earlier this week comparing US health care to other rich countries? There was a quote like "We expected some good and some bad, but the US was at the very bottom on almost every index of health."

      So, yeah, I think a lot of our current "health care" is just for-profit quackery, expensive procedures that do nothing and in some cases are worse than nothing.

      I don't mean to discount the value of what good doctors do, I really don't.

      What was your experience?

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    2. I'll email you about it later as I'm not sure I want it floating around in the internet ether; it's quite personal. I didn't see that article, but that's interesting. As a doula,as a member of the "natural birth community" there's a big mistrust of the medicalization of childbirth (and endless endless fighting over it in the birth community. It's insane) and I'm not all like YEAH GO SQUAT IN YOUR YARD AND HAVE A BABY (there's reasons why it's good to have a doctor around or be in a hospital or birth center when you give birth as birth is unpredictable, even if you're super healthy and have a textbook pregnancy) but there is some truth to the backlash against the medicalization of childbirth, undoubtedly. The WHO recommends a Caesarean section rate of 5-10%....and the rate in the US is over 30%. That's ONE IN THREE women having a baby by Caesarean section and that just doesn't add up. If you want to read more: http://www.childbirthconnection.org/article.asp?ck=10456

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    3. Don't a lot of women have C-sections because then they can schedule the birth? More convenient!

      I used to think that a lot (most?) of what doctors did was diagnosis, figuring out the cause of the problem. But as I've gotten older and actually had health problems it seems that most of what doctors do is treat symptoms with drugs and occasional procedures, and treatments generally don't work perfectly, are expensive, and have side effects. (There is also a lot of testing, which again is expensive, and in my case none of the tests ever resulted in anything; it was just testing for testing's sake.) There's very little focus on diagnosis because it's harder/more time-consuming and less profitable. In other words, most doctors aren't humanitarians, they're just people in business, trying to make money like anyone else.

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    4. Some do, yes, but I think more often C-sections happen when interventions (like Pitocin, being confined to bed, etc) collide and create a situation where it's easier to just get the baby out ASAP rather than waiting for labor to progress, etc. There are so many variables...breaking the bag of waters, and one and on. I won't get into it too much because I could go on for days. Inductions are also commonly responsible (http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2007754,00.html). Obstetricians have one of the highest malpractice insurance rates and it is in their interests to guarantee a healthy, live baby and increasingly.

      And I completely agree with the rest of what you said.

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    5. whoops! and increasingly, the way for doctors to do that is the perform a C-section.

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    6. Am I correct in thinking that if you have a C-section once, you have to have C-sections forevermore? So perhaps it's partially that first births end up as C-sections unexpectedly, and then if the woman has more babies she has to schedule those as C-sections.

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    7. I mean, that could help account for the very high 30% rate?

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  10. you CAN have vaginal birth after C-section (called a VBAC) but it's somehat risky (as always, more so for certain people than for others) and many doctors basically won't allow you to do it. So yes, that's definitely part of it, as well. And having multiple C-sections is in and of itself pretty risky. Tori Spelling had four (two in a year) and her uterus ruptured a couple of weeks ater she gave birth. (I don't know if it was necessarily related to all the C-sections, though, I'll say that as a disclaimer.)

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  11. Oh, interesting.

    In cases where I see wiggle room ("and the Beatles"), I always go lowercase. Unnecessary capitalization of an article often seems to lend a weird undue power to the noun it precedes: "It's true because I read it in The New York Times."

    To generalize, I think people who insist on The Beatles are the same fans who think "Love Me Do" was beamed down to Lennon on golden tablets.

    Because this stuff ultimately comes back to holiness. The ultimately use of undue caps is in Christian rhetoric. "Have you read The Bible?" And then in Bibles themselves, some of which trot out ALL CAPS when referring to "THE LORD."

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    1. Also red text. You KNOW it's important if it's in red!

      As a copyeditor I am constantly un-capping everything. Random capitalization is my nemesis!

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  12. Haha, it is significant maybe that Jews' method of showing deference is to not say the name of God, and that the American Christian tradition is to print it in the SIZE AND COLOR THAT BEST IMPLY ANGRY SHOUTING.

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    1. Totally. Without God there'd be no !!!1

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    2. You remind me of Paradise Lost--a wonderful poem, but there's something presumptuous and ineffective about Milton's attempt to elevate his style to the supernal realms he describes. Why not suggest their ineffableness by using using homely images, in Jesus or Dickinson fashion?

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  13. Somewhere years ago I ran across the following essential distinction between science and art:

    The goal of science is to create results that can (at least theoretically) be repeated an infinite number of times: 2 plus 2 always equals 4; an atom of sodium combined (under the right conditions) with an atom of chlorine always results in a molecule of salt; and so on.

    Whereas, the goas of art is to create results that are unique; or, at any rate, even if the results might in some sense be repeated, that's not the point. An image of the Mona Lisa printed on 10,000 T-shirts doesn't augment the artistic achievement of the original painting, or increase its validity as a work of art (except maybe by negative example).

    I suspect that one reason why science types are reluctant to credit the validity of expertise in non-scientific fields, or of people with non-scientific backgrounds, has to do with a general distrust of (or skepticism about) results that can't be repeated indefinitely.

    It also has to do with why, when science types try to apply hard science principles to non-science phenomena, the "rules" they come up with tend to seem to weird or generally off-kilter.

    How it seems to me at the moment.

    Last evening when I saw this blogpost, I attempted to post a somewhat lengthy comment, responding to a bunch of the sidebar discussions here (e.g. "the Beatles vs. The Beatles," etc.), but Blogger gave me an error message, claiming that my html had too many characters. After attempting to post the comment several times, I gave up. Maybe just as well -- I do tend to go on sometimes. ;~p

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    1. That's interesting, though it's funny that someone would even feel the need to define the difference between science and art based on one basic principle. It's like coming up with one statement to define the difference between donuts and alligators.

      I think you're on to something about trying to apply the "rules" or principles of science in realms where they don't apply -- and further assuming that if those realms aren't as rigorous as science (is supposed to be), it's all total bullshit.

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    2. I don't see the notion of defining a distinction between science and art as similar to defining the difference between donuts and alligators. To my thinking, science and art (considered as general practices or methodologies) form a dialectic with each other, and so could be said to occur on a continuum or in a spectrum with each other, not as rigid objects or categories, but as tendencies in development.

      I agree, generally speaking, with the distinction between science and art that I described in my previous comment above; I agree that this is likely the most significant distinction between them, though certainly not the only one, and certainly there are other principles one could consider that could be relevant, and certainly there can be overlap, interplay, etc., between the "poles" of the dialectic (i.e. between the realms of science and art).

      Years back when I went to vo-tech school to learn typesetting and printing, in the printing press class, on the first day of class, the teacher (a man who had worked as a printer for some 17 years) said: "There are something like 42 or 43 variables that can affect the quality of printed work. And the way to keep the quality of the work consistent is to learn how to control the variables, by the adjustments you make the the machine controls on the printing press and the chemistry in the ink and water and the type of paper you're using."

      It occurred to me sometime after that that this could also be a way to think about writing poetry, though with poetry there are probably more than 43 variables (maybe, at a minimum, a couple of thousand), and the variables are mostly in the words and how the words are put together with each other. And a couple of thousand might be a really low estimate for the number of variables that could come into play.

      So, another way of describing some of the differences between science and art is that in scientific work, control of the variables might be crucial for obtaining reliable results; whereas with art, leaving a large number of variables untouched might be more important in whatever the end result (the poem, painting, piece of music) turns out to be.

      *

      When I read your post here, something that came to mind was a joke I found online a few years ago (in the website of the literary magazine Jacket):

      "There are only 10 kinds of computer programmers: those who know binary, and those who don't."

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  14. I've encountered two science types: the ones you mention who think things that intuitively feel wrong are therefore wrong (most people who care about matters of language and style but aren't educated about them fall into this camp, I think) and those who are just utterly clueless and happy to let the experts deal with all such matters. Guess which ones I prefer working with?

    P.S. I am, and have always been, on the side of "web." Thank God Chicago finally got on board. It pained me to disagree with them.

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    1. I think I can guess?

      Capitalized "Web" always stuck out to me and looked wrong, but wasn't as offensive as "e-mail" with a hyphen.

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  15. Thing is, no reason a band shouldn't determine the proper capitalization for a "the" in their title. If there's some evidence that the band fucking gives a shit, then follow their convention. So if they called themselves "THHHHHHE Beatles," then it might be appropriate to insist on that spelling and capitalization wherever the name is used.

    But that's not what's going on most of the time when a band calls itself "The" somethings. Instead they are like opting into the ordinary rules governing the use of "the."

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    1. Exactly, and I'd go so far as to say it's naive to assume most bands give a shit.

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    2. I once saw a video interview of the Pixies in which they were asked about their name. The band members themselves couldn't even agree on whether they even had a "the" in front of their name, forget capitalization. And this was like 20 years after they formed. Pretty funny. (I think they ended up deciding that it is indeed "the Pixies".)

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    3. Good reason to forgo a "The Blanks" template for your band, avoid these questions entirely.

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  16. Related: I was just cruising through Wikipedia's list of cognitive biases (by far my most visited page on the site), trying to remember the name of one bias or another, and learned there's something called the "Nonsense math effect": "the tendency to judge information containing equations higher regardless [of] the quality of them."

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