Friday, November 03, 2006

Sci-Techs Are People Too

I've a few thoughts of my own in response to Sara's musings about the best and brightest in White Supremacist groups. Mostly she seems to be on track, but she's really falling back on some hoary stereotypes in her discussion of "sci-techs", most notably that they can be lumped into a single group from a cognitive standpoint. I'd like to start by asking her to point out specific studies that show that sci-techs really are distinctive from a cognitive standpoint. Sci-techs, taken as a whole, share a vague and nebulous cloud of similarities ("good at problem solving", "love of science", etc.), but they don't really start to look alike until you get into particular specialties. Engineers are good at engineering, mathematicians are good at math, etc., but its not necessarily the case that an engineer will be good at math or vice versa. Sci-techs are drawn to their fields because they have a natural aptitude for the type of work to be found therein, but this is no more significant that a natural musician being draw to music. Nor is her description of problem-solving among sci-techs particularly accurate. Most of the problems which sci-techs tackle are abstract and bloodless; suspension of emotion simply isn't a prerequisite for solving these problems effectively. The biggest single requirement for successful problem-solving within technical domains is the ability to concentrate on a problem for long periods of time. Incidentally, that's why people w/ Asperger's make good sci-techs, since they have the ability to focus (occasionally obsessively) on an issue for long periods of time. What Sara is actually alluding to, I believe, is the tendency of some sci-techs to apply analytic problem-solving techniques to the world at large. Of this tendency I will point out the following:
  • It is by no means universal; many sci-techs are just as passionate (and just as irrational) as the general public when it comes to discussing the world at large.
  • It can be taught; dispassionate consideration of public policy doesn't require any specific cognitive hardwiring, but rather a firm dedication to principle unclouded by personal biases.
I also disagree with her treatment of emotion as it relates to sci-techs. In addition to the above, where I argued that problem-solving doesn't require the suspension of emotion, I'd like to make the following points:
  • Suspension of emotion for the purpose of problem-solving doesn't imply that a person has no other emotional outlets.
  • Treating emotion like some sort of a fluid that builds up over time is trés Galen. There's been very little empirical study to support what is ultimately a folk view of emotion.
The heart of my gripe, getting down to it, is that Sara is falling back on a sterotype of sci-techs as cold, dispassionate individuals. These people are few and far between, even in the sci-tech community, so to speak of them as representative of even general trends among sci-techs is inaccurate at best. Making generalizations about the cognitive functioning of sci-techs is no more (or less) valid that making generalizations about people who work in the liberal arts or banking.

2 Comments:

Blogger Sara Robinson said...

Hmm. That post is proving problematic for a lot of people, mostly in the way they are either extending my argument beyond its original narrow scope, or projecting stereotypes that I never intended.

The research on scientific/technical personalities, as I've laid out in the comments at Orcinus, comes from Dr. Jean Hollands, who has a stellar reputation in Silicon Valley as a consultant to people living and working with sci-techs. She's written several books on the topic, most of which are based on lines of research that go back to the early 50s. In other words, this is about as well-documented as Bob Altemayer's description of authoritarian personalities.

These studies aren't about specific aptitude so much as a specific style of attention (as you mention), motivation, and emotional processing. A lot of people read this and thought I said they don't have emotions; but I was very specific that they do (often passionate ones.) But they do tend to have better mechanisms than most people at stepping back from their emotions to look at a situation calmly. Sometimes, this is because they're far more comfortable in the realm of ideas than the realm of feelings, and have developed very strong strategies for deferring emotional expression altogether. (Ever notice how many geeks idolize Mr. Spock? It's not a coincidence: they're in awe of his emotional control.) Sometimes, it's because they've found very effective ways to expressing themselves in other ways.

About your other comments:

Suspension of emotion for the purpose of problem-solving doesn't imply that a person has no other emotional outlets.

If you go back and look at the post again, I was quite specific that they do find other emotional outlets -- or else those outlets find them. I also said in the comments that the outlets vary widely, depending mostly on the nature of the emotion to be expressed. As with everyone, some are more deliberate and conscious about this than others.

Treating emotion like some sort of a fluid that builds up over time is trés Galen. There's been very little empirical study to support what is ultimately a folk view of emotion.

Freud wrote extensively about repression. Jung said it was why people constructed shadow selves. Alice Miller documented the role it plays in creating violent people (and no, I'm not saying sci/techs are any more violent than the rest of the population). If this is a "folk view", then psychology as a field is, in its entirety, a "folk" science.

The heart of my gripe, getting down to it, is that Sara is falling back on a sterotype of sci-techs as cold, dispassionate individuals.

I come from a long line of scientists and engineers, and am married to my second uber-geek. I love these guys. I know a LOT about their capacity for passion (and have two kids to show for it). I also spent 20 years working alongside them in Silicon Valley, and am more aware than most people that they are neither cold nor dispassionate. At their best, their rationality and uniquely ethical commtiment to truth make them my very favorite kind of people to hang with-- which is why I took pains to seek out Dr. Hollands and learn more about how they think.

As I said: that post has attracted a lot of unwarranted snarking, mostly from people who seem to have heard many, many things I never said or intended.

9:04 PM  
Blogger GG said...

Sara -

Thank you for the detailed reply. I was having a hard time reconciling your/Dr. Holland's observations with my own personal experience, but then you said Ever notice how many geeks idolize Mr. Spock? and I had a bit of an epiphany. Perhaps we're describing different populations?

I graduated from a specialty engineering school (~700 students on a small campus studying nothing but hard sciences) not terribly long ago. I would consider all of these people "sci-techs", but the subpopulation that might conceivably be accused of idolizing Mr. Spock is/was fairly small and limited to a couple of majors. Additionally, the Amazon review of The Silicon Syndrome make it appear that the book assumes that the engineer is male. This assumption, coupled with your statement regarding some of Dr. Hollands' source material (interviews w/ Lockheed engineers), makes me wonder if perhaps you/Dr. Hollands are describing "the sci-techs that were" rather than "the sci-techs that are".

Your descriptions seem apt if they are limited to the crew-cut types who work for aerospace firms. But what about current 20-/30-somethings who work in technical fields? This work is a lot less stifling that old school engineering and, consequently, attracts a diversity of people, women and minorities especially, who would not have been found at Lockheed in the 1980s. Very few of the people I went to college with fit your description of a technical personality (esp. outside of math and computer science), and the ones who did weren't terribly popular.

W.r.t. the "Galen" comment, I was thinking specifically about the efficacy of catharsis. I seem to recall having read about recent studies (in relation to video games, perhaps?) indicating that catharsis actually amplified internal tension rather than dampening it. I realize that's not terribly helpful absent a specific citation.

8:02 PM  

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