May 06, 2008

Theory / practice

Busy and tired, but want to post something, and this idea came to surface in a lull during class, when I was feeling particularly 'on' about my ability to teach a certain thing, a skill that I never got from reading books but had to learn, like a craftsman, by doing again and again, (and failing - I'm not a natural teacher).

The idea was that however foolish people are in vast areas of their lives, everyone has an area of expertise, something that they know way more about than they should and from which something useful can be extracted. Although, of course, like craftsmen, not all knowledge can be easily codified, and most of what is important remains tacit - things that can't be learned from books.

Anyway, as with everything, it's been expressed better elsewhere before, and this time it's from Geoffrey Miller's answer to The Edge question for 2008 [What have you changed your mind about? - many interesting answers, worth a download / print]. Excerpts follow:

I used to think ... that the intricacies of human nature were not just dark, but depopulated — that a few exploratory novelists and artists had sought the sources of our cognitive Amazons and emotional Niles, but that nobody actually lived there.

Now, I've changed my mind — there are local experts about almost all aspects of human nature, and the human sciences should find their way by asking them for directions. These 'locals' are the thousands or millions of bright professionals and practitioners in each of thousands of different occupations. They are the people who went to our high schools and colleges, but who found careers with higher pay and shorter hours than academic science. Almost all of them know important things about human nature that behavioral scientists have not yet described, much less understood. Marine drill sergeants know a lot about aggression and dominance. Master chess players know a lot about if-then reasoning. Prostitutes know a lot about male sexual psychology. School teachers know a lot about child development. Trial lawyers know a lot about social influence. The dark continent of human nature is already richly populated with autochthonous tribes, but we scientists don't bother to talk to these experts.


For example, suppose a psychology Ph.D. student wants to study emotional adaptations such as fear and panic, that evolved for avoiding predators. She learns about the existing research (mostly by Clark Barrett at UCLA), but doesn't have any great ideas for her dissertation research. The usual response is three years of depressed soul-searching, random speculation, and fruitless literature reviews. This phase of idea-generation could progress much more happily if she just picked up the telephone and called some of the people who spend their whole professional lives thinking about how to induce fear and panic. Anyone involved in horror movie production would be a good start: script-writers, monster designers, special effects technicians, directors, and editors. Other possibilities would include talking with:
  • Halloween mask designers,
  • horror genre novelists,
  • designers of 'first person shooter' computer games,
  • clinicians specializing in animal phobias and panic attacks,
  • Kruger Park safari guides,
  • circus lion-tamers,
  • dog-catchers,
  • bull-fighters,
  • survivors of wild animal attacks, and
  • zoo-keepers who interact with big cats, snakes, and raptors.

A few hours of chatting with such folks would probably be more valuable in sparking some dissertation ideas than months of library research.

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