Sunday, February 17, 2008

When Worlds (and brains) Collide

when worlds (and brains) collide....

If you've read my profile, you'll know that I'm a liberal-arts type who somehow wound up working in a science and engineering field. This is pretty unusual. Popular psychology splits things into two halves-- science types are stereotyped as hyper-analytical, literally-minded left-brain types, while liberal arts types are considered to be artistic, creative, and generally warmer-and-fuzzier right-brain types. I know plenty of people with science degrees who wound up working in sales or administrative jobs that could be performed by lib arts types, but very few cases like me; the popular mind seems to think it's easier for a scientist to slack off and pick up right-brain stuff for fun than it is for a right-brain type to adapt to the science field. Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn't—I have no problem with absorbing information and applying scientific theories and methods, but I struggle with math every day.

Personally, I think the distinction between these two 'halves' is not as great as is generally perceived, and I'd wager good odds that someone with a healthy native intelligence and a good work ethic could succeed in either field. Consider the number of figures in history who excelled at both—Da Vinci, for one, or Sir Christopher Wren. So-called 'renaissance men' were acclaimed because they were whizzes at everything, not just one particular thing, and the whole 'Encyclopedie' project of the French Enlightenment was aimed at assembling all the world's knowledge within a single compendium that everyone could use—the encyclopedia. Somewhere there is a theoretical physicist who is writing poetry, and an English major who is reading A Brief History of Time for fun. I myself have two books on my desk; one is Farley Mowat's "The Grey Seas Under," and the other is Freeze and Cherry's 'Groundwater.' This isn't a dichotomy, it's a mishmash.

Granted, I know many science and engineering types are quite patriotic, so to speak, when it comes to their disciplines, and proud of their skills and knowledge. I intend no slight; all that math and lab work probably really *is* much more challenging than your typical art, sociology, education, business, or psych major's curriculum, and engineering or medicine require an attention to detail that is orders of magnitude beyond anything required of an MBA or high school English teacher.

I have, however, become very conscious over the past few years of the big differences in the approaches that left-brain 'science' people and right-brain 'liberal arts' people take towards the world and the things in it, particularly regarding communications and technology. Broadly speaking, left-brain types seek to design the best technology they can, and generally shortchange the aesthetics and user-friendliness of the thing to the extent that the average person can't easily use it, and right-brain types are more likely to come up with something that looks nice and is accessible to the average person, but which may not actually work. I mean, I know search engine optimization makes the InterSystemoftubesWeb go round these days, but the need for balance still applies—sometimes including too many search terms on your page will give you a lot of hits, but if it's gibberish, nobody will actually read it.

If you want the best possible system for the average person, what you need is basically a compromise between the engineering/functional ideal and the aesthetic/humanized ideal. Consider architecture—you can design a structurally sound building that is ugly and uncomfortable, in which case nobody will want to live in it, or you can design a very luxurious building that will fall over in a gentle breeze. In the real world, you need a building with a balance of each side's good qualities.

Case in point, your income tax forms. Last year there was a big squabble on the letters to the editor page of the local paper about how college educations are a waste of time if college graduates (admittedly a vague term, presumably covering everything from pre-med to dance majors) cannot complete a standard 1040 form. Does it make any sense at all to rearrange the entire educational system to train people to fill out tax forms, or are we missing the point here? If college graduates have trouble with the IRS paperwork, I'm inclined to say we need a simpler form, and probably a much simpler tax system overall.

We take for granted that some things are difficult to use when they don't need to be—VCRs or whatever should be simple enough for anyone to program. Why should they be difficult? (For that matter, why are we getting commercials on cable TV? We're basically paying the cable company to pipe advertising into our households.)

I admit it—I actually have a third book on my desk; The Human Factor, by Kim Vicente. It's basically about the stuff I've babbled about so far—Vicente calls it human factors engineering. I highly recommend it. He uses a number of scenarios to demonstrate how you have to balance the human element with the technological design—from nuclear power plants on down to mechanical lathes and VCRs. For example, the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island disasters happened in large part because the reactor plant staff weren't getting enough info about what was going on—they didn't actually know the system was failing until it was too late to stop it. Nuclear power plants are complicated things, which is understandable, but the people who designed the plants didn't take into consideration the needs of the people who would actually be running them.

Communication is much the same—when writing reports, your stereotypical left-brain scientist conveys a lot of hard data, often using graphs or tables, but between a general lack of interest in writing skills and the reliance on technical jargon (I mean no offense, but I speak from experience), the result is often tedious and hard to assimilate. A right-brain person will produce something easily assimilated, but the details might not all be there. Someone with one foot in each 'half' would produce a report with all the data there, in an accessible and possibly even enjoyable form. In either case, you have to consider two things—the info you need to convey and the persons to whom you need to convey it. In other words, consider the reader as much as yourself. If the reader digests tables more easily than prose, include tables as well as text.

For the last several years, I've been trying to make the technical reports I write at work more accessible to the layman—because my boss is rather conservative in many respects (not that I can fault him for it) I've been presenting these changes under the rubric of 'conceptual site modeling,' which is one of the current buzzwords. I cannot sacrifice any of the information the reports have to convey, but rather I must repackage it in such a way that it is sufficiently self-explanatory that anyone from a senior DEP engineer to a bank loan officer to a 72-year-old retired construction worker can understand it. I admit this is still more of a goal than an achievement, but I'm working on it. Sometimes it's as simple as accompanying each contamination data table with a sentence or two which presents the same information in prose, adding explanations of jargon, using pictures to show the thing in question, or adding a paragraph explaining what a Method 1 Risk Characterization is.

This is even more important when giving direct instructions than, say, writing a report—if you're giving orders, you need to be sure that the recipient actually knows what to do and why they should do it. The biggest problem I had in the first year of my current job was that expectations and reasons for things were not made clear, so I was adrift for much of the time in a sea of rules, regulations, report formats, and other things without being entirely sure what applied where, or what was important and what was not. I was able to do my job with a reasonable degree of competence, but it was much harder than it should have been, everything took longer, and we routinely went over-budget.

If you make your orders or requests clear enough, everything will go well. This doesn't mean repeating the whole list of instructions each time; in fact, you shouldn't need to do that, and you should be able to make things clear in advance. This is the basis of boot camp military training—instructing people in how to march, shoot, and so on so that in the future officers can shout something like "forward march" rather than explaining time and again how to march in formation.

There is a vignette out of ancient Chinese history that illustrates this point perfectly. The King of Wu invited General Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War, to demonstrate some of his principles. The king provided a couple hundred concubines, to whom the general explained 'right face,' 'left face' and so on. After lining them up in ranks and files, the general shouted 'right face,' only to have the girls stare at him and giggle. The general explained things again, saying to the king that if the orders are not clear, the commander who gave the orders is at fault. Sun Tzu shouted 'right face' again and still the girls just stood there and giggled. This time the general told the king that the orders have been explained but that the troops refused to obey; it is the troops' fault. Two concubines, who had been appointed 'officers' were then executed pour encourager les autres. The third time the general shouted 'right face,' the concubines obeyed.

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