Big Ideas: Understanding Versus Explaining

Over at Adventures in Ethics and Science, Janet Stemwedel has written a fabulously complex post about ethics and population, which I highly recommend for your reading pleasure and contemplation. It was inspired by a post by Martin on the ethics of overpopulation, in which he offered a grand and simple three-point manifesto:

  • It is unethical for anyone to produce more than two children. (Adoption of orphans, on the other hand, is highly commendable.)
  • It is unethical to limit the availability of contraceptives, abortion, surgical sterilisation and adoption.
  • It is unethical to use public money to support infertility treatments. Let those unfortunate enough to need such treatment pay their own way or adopt. And let's put the money into subsidising contraceptives, abortion, surgical sterilisation and adoption instead.

The juxtaposition of Martin's simple three-point proposition with Janet's long and complex disquisition on the exact same topic left me with an ironic smile, for I had just a few moments ago finished reading a quote by Germaine Greer in the December 12, 2008 issue of the Chronicle Review, in a round-up of comments about Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success.

Every week, either by snail mail or e-mail, I get a book that explains everything. Without exception, they are all written by men. Occasionally one of the male authors claims to be female, but it's a vain ploy. His maleness resounds from every monomaniacal sentence. There is no answer to everything, and only a deluded male would spend his life trying to find it. The most deluded think they have actually found it. ...

Brandishing the "big idea" is a bookish version of male display, and as such a product of the same mind-set as that behind the manuscripts that litter my desk. To explain is in some sense to control. Proselytizing has always been a male preserve. ...

I would hope that fewer women have so far featured in the big-ideas landscape because, by and large, they are more interested in understanding than explaining, in describing rather than accounting for. Giving credence to a big idea is a way of permitting ourselves to skirt strenuous engagement with the enigma that is our life. (The Guardian)**

I like Martin, as a Scibling and blogger, and don't think of him as a deluded male - on the contrary I find him to be generally progressive and open-minded. But I couldn't help being amused by this apparent bloggish illustration of Martin explaining how we should go about tackling overpopulation whilst Janet struggles to understand the complexities of any proposed solutions.

Just to be clear: I am no proponent of essentialism and do not mean to imply that there is something innate in men that drives them to propose big ideas rather than grapple with understanding complexities. I don't doubt, however, that on average men are more likely to be encouraged towards the proposing of grand schemes and ideas whereas women are more likely to be encouraged towards attention to all the nagging little details of life that make those grand schemes a bit troublesome in the actual working out.

Reminds me of when Dad came home and announced that we were going camping! for vacation! and it would be FUN! And then mom figured out how to cope with caring for six kids in a tent for a week (one of whom was still being potty-trained), cooking meals on a Coleman stove, and trying to keep meat and milk and eggs fresh in a cooler like this. Heh. Good times, good times. Amazingly enough, my mother remembers those trips as fondly as the rest of us do.

**(The Chronicle does not give a link to the original article and I was unable to find it online, so if anybody does know where it is, I'd appreciate it if you'd let me know in the comments.)

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I think Greer's rhetoric got away with her a bit in the last paragraph you quote:

they are more interested in understanding than explaining

Understanding is a prerequisite for explaining, surely? In an ideal world, anyway.

That said, when I think of the Acolytes of The Simple Theory That Explains Absolutely Everything (except all those niggly details which I'll gloss over and pretend aren't really important) that crop up in my academic world from time to time, there is a distinctly male bias: although as we all know, there are some underlying demographics which might well contribute to that...

This is one of several masculine/feminine dichotomies for which I relatively recently (probably during college) switched over to the feminine side. I guess I was socialized late. Also, in some cases the feminine side could be viewed as more mature, so maybe I just grew up. For the example here, I think older people seem more likely to understand and accept the nuances of life, and another example is that older people seem more "nurturing" (at least to me).

he he...

Michele Bachmann
Sarah Palin

they're really men eh??

Although I think you are probably correct about men having a greater tendency towards grandiosity than women, it is worth pointing out that Martin explicitly posed those "talking points" as the starting point for discussion, and not as a proposed actual grand scheme. In other words, he was explicitly initiating a process of group effort towards understanding, and was not attempting to explain what we should do.

Oh come on.

In science, grandiose unifying laws or principles is exactly what we're looking for. Whether it's Maxwell's equations or the theory of evolution, the idea is always to provide a simple, concise theory (explanation) for something, with as big of a reach as possible. Of course no explanation explains everything so then we have to find out what the scope of the theory is, but if there's a chance to make it grander and all-encompassing - why not? Of course once you have the theory down you try to apply it to reality and things get messy - no matter how simple and elegant Maxwell's equations look you can get some completely horrible-looking thing anytime you try to apply it to some realistic system.

But that doesn't mean that we don't try to find the simplest possible rules to describe what's going on. And I don't think women women are either bad at this, or not interested in it.

As a middle-aged white male, and therefore an automatic Authority, I will straighten you all out on this...
(just kidding, hold the tomatoes!!)

I think the differences you point out are real, although of course there will be exceptions, and real people will have a mix of traits, not be textbook examples of the extremes. They are role-enculturations, as I see it. Just look at how many words for different colors we teach boys, as opposed to girls. Little boys have blue, black, red, green, etc. Girls are taught colors like magenta, twilight, marmalade, peach, marigold, etc. When was the last time you heard your 9-year old son describe something as "daffodil" in color? No, it's yellow to a little boy. And there are many other examples of how we teach many more descriptive terms to little girls and encourage them to see finer distinctions. Clothing, of course, being another obvious example. If your 13-year-old daughter obsesses on what she will wear for 30 minutes, it's normal. But if your son starts that stuff up? Uh-oh!

Of course, individual women can be every bit as power-hungry, politically motivated, and subtlety-crushing as any man, and we all probably have examples from our own lives. But that is not the societal role model.

To be fair, there are counter examples for men. Males are taught, for example, to learn all the subtleties of different models of cars, or to look at an engine and be able to name all its components. But here even, the pattern still applies. Ever shop for a car with your significant other? He will asking about horsepower, cc's, braking mechanisms, suspension type, etc - and she will be looking at the color, the shape of the body, whether the dashboard is attractive and simple.

It's an interesting point to notice however, that Christianity, being a male-dominated religion has the single answer of virginity until marriage, then devotion to a single person forever. Which, of course, they don't follow in real life.

Thus insuring they will always have sinners to save, but that's another discussion...

CPP, you're right; and I certainly didn't want to be rude to Martin with my post. It was the juxtaposition of his post with Janet's in light of having just read Germaine Greer's comments that struck me so. There are many ways to start a way is with a simple three-point plan that solves everything.

Coriolis: "if there's a chance to make it grander and all-encompassing - why not? Of course once you have the theory down you try to apply it to reality and things get messy..."

Heh. Yeah.

Don't get me wrong, folks; I love me some high theory just as much as the next scientist or philosopher. It's just, well, there's a little more that needs to be said than "42".

Well this is interesting, do you think this is what Martion had in mind?

Arkansas family welcomes 18th child, a girl

ROGERS, Ark. An Arkansas woman has given birth to her 18th child.

Michelle Duggar delivered the baby girl by Caesarean section Thursday at Mercy Medical Center in Rogers. The baby, named Jordyn-Grace Makiya Duggar, weighed 7 pounds, 3 ounces and was 20 inches long.

"The ultimate Christmas gift from God," said Jim Bob Duggar, the father of the 18 children. "She's just absolutely beautiful, like her mom and her sisters."

Don't get me wrong, folks; I love me some high theory just as much as the next scientist or philosopher. It's just, well, there's a little more that needs to be said than "42".

The only thing I could think was "your unifying theory of how the immune system works, i kan haz it?" :p

And I realize that the three points were intended to spark a discussion, but the third one was particularly over-simplified (and just downright problematic): "It is unethical to use public money to support infertility treatments. Let those unfortunate enough to need such treatment pay their own way or adopt." This especially seems like an idea so caught up in classism, for example, that trying to big-picture it and leave out the financial complications/realities that affect people in the small picture would be a *devastatingly* bad idea.