Sunday, April 15, 2012

Mystery People Vs. Research People

Kerner, a German-Russian physicist, in Tom Stoppard's "Hapgood," discussing spy stories, though it could as well be mysteries.
I don't understand this mania for surprises.  If the author knows, it is rude not to tell.  In science this is understood; what is interesting is to know what is happening.  When I write an experiment I do not wish you to be surprised, it is not a joke.  That is why a science paper is a beautiful thing: first, here is what we will find; now here is how we find it; here is the first puzzle; here is the answer, now we can move on. This is polite.  We don't save up all the puzzles to make a triumph for the author.
An amusing contrast. I wonder if it reveals something deeper. Some people prefer to provide information sequentially: After church we went over to Harrison's, and Tom told me that their daughter is looking at colleges. She isn't sure whether she wants a specifically Christian school, but she knows she wants it to be medium-sized, and she needs it to have a good biology department. I asked if she had taken her SAT's yet and Janet said she had done pretty well...

It's a perfectly good way of disclosing non-emergency information, and lots of folks prefer it. It is hard on global thinkers, however, who want to know where things are going right up front: Kayla Harrison is thinking of going to (William & Mary/Asbury/North Park/Grove City/Simmons/some other school we have an interest in).

It is tempting at this point to be humorous and say we shall call this first group of people "Women," just for the sake of convenience, and the second group we shall call "Men," but the trend isn't strong enough to get away with that. My personal experience is that the female/male breakdown is more like 80-20. I will bet it is related to brain preferences in Wayfinding, which we discussed at some length in the summer and fall and for which there is gender difference.

It is well-known that women figure prominently as mystery writers*, (and readers) and were accepted there earlier than other genres. OTOH, some part of the reluctance of many women to go into the sciences may stem from the fact that research papers are just less fun in form than they are for men; but there are enough exceptions in an 80-20 world that we don't notice that part of the trend. (Yes, I know women scored less well on math portions of tests and got a boost when they "changed" the method of choosing SAT questions starting in the 70's, and that has some effect. I just wonder if that is overemphasised and some other brain difference is being overlooked.) Perhaps women like the finding-out-stuff part of science just as much but have an extra barrier in the research and presentation parts in that it is less congenial to their approach.

No, I am not advocating that we devise a publishing guideline for papers that reveals its results at the end, or a mystery genre that tells you who the murderer was first and then explains it to you. I'm just noting the difference.

*And poets, another form where the destination is known to the author but revealed more gradually to the reader. Come to think of it, the more direct poets - Kipling, Frost - are more often men, aren't they?


Texan99 said...

There is a mystery genre that tells you whodunnit right up front, and that is "True Crime." The drama is more about the obstacles overcome in the quest to identify and capture the killer.

I'm sure we all know people -- in my experience, mostly women -- whose narrative style seems to be to play back a tape, where no detail is obviously more important than any other, and where it's not clear whether the story is ever expected to develop a point. Is that a left-right brain thing? Are men more inclined to impose a structure on data, while women take them as they are?

But surely, also, there's a big difference in the pleasure we get from reading a well-organized exposition of a scientific investigation, vs. what we get from a narrative with a plot, including suspense. What will the character do next? -- Though of course a ripping good story continues to give pleasure on re-reading, even though we know perfectly well what everyone is going to do next.

Texan99 said...

Another thing -- I always recommend to people an obscure BBC production called "The Race for the Double Helix," which in part is about the very different research styles of Watson and Crick, on the one hand, and their sort-of colleague, Rosalind Franklin. Brash young Watson & Crick want to be the first to guess the structure of DNA and are impatient with what they view as Franklin's plodding approach. She believes it's a kind of cheating to get ahead of the data. "When you read a mystery, do you read ahead to the end to see whodunnit?" she asks. She can't understand the competitive spirit that makes Watson & Crick want to be first. "Little boys," she thinks. Still, they do figure out the mystery a hair ahead of her, and she admires them for it.

It's not easy to find a copy of this production on DVD, but now and then they pop up on used lists, and the movie is well worth your time.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

#1 Merely excellent
#2 Brilliant example.


Sam L. said...

People think differently? I'd never have thought so!

Donna B. said...

"Chiefs" by Stuart Woods is a great example of a book where you know whodunit right up front. IIRC, it's fiction based on fact.

Woods is an example of an author that had one good book in him too. Or maybe I'm being too harsh, but none of his other books even come close to "Chiefs".