Science as a “job” versus a hobby (with an aside on negentropy)

I’ve been reading Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s work on creativity and flow (I can do this now that Wikipedia has helpfully allowed me to pronounce his name so I can actually talk about his work!  (“cheek-sent-me-high-ee” [note by me: presumably this is the American pronunciation, which is probably the best I can aspire to but nothing like the orginal]. Originally Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Hungarian pronunciation: [ˈmihaːj ˈtʃiːksɛntmihaːji]).

He has many interesting things to say, and his concepts of positive psychology / optimum experience resonate strongly with how I view the world. As with Vygotsky’s work, the way his ideas are represented in educational and psychology literature (actually, more likely I’ve read text books or review articles) does not do them justice. In particular, his description of attentional processes and their relationship with flow deserves much closer examination on my part as it is at the heart of expert skilled performance. But probably most pertinent to my current area of study are his comments on formal study (extrinsically driven “inquiry”) versus informal study (intrinsically motivated “hobby”) and their influence in organising “psychic energy” (flow). (And as an aside re psychic energy: I love the idea of  negentropy or “the specific entropy deficit of the ordered sub-system relative to its surrounding chaos” which can be used “as a measure of distance to normality” – in fact, it is probably an extremely important concept to get my head around. I suspect that Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of psychic energy, far from being New Age mumbo-jumbo, provides an opportunity to understand the “Chi energy” of martial arts in terms of cognitive science … this aside should probably be a new post …)

So back to the comment on formal study (“real scientists”) versus informal study (“amateur scientists”) from Csikzsentmihalyi, M. (1009) “Flow: The psychology of optimal experience”, New York: HarperPerennial, p137-138). It is pertinent to my current way of thinking particularly as a comment on the push for output / performance metrics to determine whether or not academics are “active researchers” and quality assurance of academia by ensuring all academics have Ph.D.s. to prove their research credentials …

Is it really true that a person without a Ph.D., who is not working a one of the major research centers, no longer has any chance of contributing to the advancement of science? Or is this just one of those largely unconscious efforts at mystification to which all successful institutions inevitably succumb? It is difficult to answer these questions, partly because what constitutes “science” is of course defined by those very institutions that are in line to benefit from their monopoly.

There is no doubt that a layman cannot contribute, as a hobby to the kind of research that depends on multibillion-dollar supercolliders, or on nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. But then, such fields to not represent the only science there is. The mental framework that makes science enjoyable is accessible to every one. It involves curiosity, careful observation, a disciplined way of recording events, and finding ways to tease out the underlying regularities in what one learns. It also requires the humility to be willing to learn from the results of past investigators, coupled with enough skepticism and openness of mind to reject beliefs that are not supported by facts.

Defined in this broad sense, there are more practicing amateur scientists that one would think. Some focus their interest on health, and try to find out everything they can about a disease that threatens them or their families. Following in Mendel’s footsteps, some learn whatever they can about breeding domestic animals, or creating new hypbrid flowers. Others diligently replicate the observations of early astrononmers with their back yard telescopes. There are closet geolgistists who roam the wilderness in search of minerals, cactus collectores who scour the desert mesas for new specimens, and probably hunderds of thousands of individuals who have pushed their mechanical skills to the point that they are vergin g on true scientific understanding.

What keeps many of these people from developing their skills further is the belief that they will never be able to become genuine “professional” scientists. and therefore that their hobby should not be taken seriously. But there is no better reason for doing science than that sense of order it brings to the mind of the seeker. If flow, rather than success and recognition, is the measure by which to judge its value, science can contribute immensely to the quality of life.

Csikszentmihalyi has many more quotable quotes and pertinent comments, and it is an interesting study in motivation to note that I only blog things when the book I’m reading and the computer (rather than note pad) are in close proximity (I also have hundreds of photos taken at each single event that I photograph, but very few occasions where I take out the camera …)

While specialisation is necessary to develop the complexity of any pattern of thought, the goals-ends relationship must always be kept clear: specialisation is for the sake of thinking better, and not an end in itself. Unfortunately many serious thinkers devote all their mental effort to becoming well-known scholars, but in the meantime they forget their initial purpose in scholarship.

There are two words whose meanings reflect our somewhat warped attitudes toward levels of commitment to physical or mental activities. These are the terms amateur and dilettante. Nowadays these labels are slightly derogatory. An amateur or dilettante is someone not quite up to par, a person not to be taken very seriously, one whose performance falls short of professional standards. But originally amateur from the latin verb amare, “to love,” referred to a person who loved what he was doing. Similarly, a dilettante , from the latin delectare, “to find delight in,” was someone who enjoyed a given activity. The earliest meanings of these words therefore drew attention to experiences rather than accomplishments; they described the subjective rewards individuals gained from doing things, instead of focusing on how well they were achieving. Nothing illustrates as clearly our changing attitudes towards the value of experience as the fate of these two words. There was a time when it was admirable to be an amateur poet or a dilettante scientist, because it meant that the quality of life could be improved by engaging in such activities. But increasingly the emphasis has been to value behaviour over subjective states; what is admired is success, achievement, the quality of performance rather than the quality of experience. Consequently it has become embarrassing to be called a dilettante, even though to be a dilettante is to achieve what counts most – the enjoyment one’s actions provide.

An addendum … and possibly why I don’t blog often. It’s the unfinished nature of blogging that concerns me – by the time I’ve “finished”, what there is to write is a full-blown paper, not a quick comment. But when I do actually blog something while I’m still developing an idea, the logical continuation of the thought keeps popping up after I’ve published the post and I add addendums like this:

The bad connotations that the terms amateur and dilettante have earned for themselves over the years are due largely to the blurring of the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic goals. An amateur who pretends to know as much as a professional is probably wrong, and up to some mischief. The point of becoming an amateur scientist is not to compete with professionals on their own turf, but to use a symbolic discipline to extend mental skills, and to create order in consciousness. On that level, amateur scholarship can hold its own, and can be even more effective that its professional counterpart. But the moment that amateurs lose sight of this goal, and use knowledge mainly to bolster their egos or to achieve a material advantage, then they become caricatures of  the scholar. Without training in the discipline of skepticism and reciprocal criticism that underlies the scientific method, laypersons who venture into the fields of knowledge with prejudiced goals can become more ruthless, more egregiously unconcerned with truth, than even the most corrupt scholar.

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