10 August 2013

Understanding the academic

One of the consequences of uprooting oneself from an environment where most of one's time was consumed by extremely taxing mental exercises into an environment where thinking is often viewed as more of a liability than an asset is that one is constantly reminded that one, quite simply, does not fit. One is an outcast, a freak for most of the inhabitants of this new environment. Often, surreal images flash into one's head - the inhabitants of this new environment have placed one into a cage, and charge tourists to marvel at the other-worldly being that is so unlike anything they know.

That the world in general views academics as freaks is something one had known in one's subconscious, but never really had to experience in person. One was lucky - when one was a child, one was too innocent to notice or care, and when one grew old enough, one happened to be surrounded by others with an academic bent of mind at St. Stephen's, at Oxford, and at the economic consultancies in London. Come to think of it, one was accused of being too academic even in London. Back in Mumbai, however, one is in a situation never encountered before - old enough to notice and care, and interacting mainly with people without an academic bent of mind. The consequences are startling, though, on reflection, somewhat understandable.

Here is a delightfully amusing definition of 'academic' from dictionary.com:
"adjective. learned or scholarly but lacking in worldliness, common sense, or practicality."

Though, at first glance, one could take offence at this, it is true that academics and non-academics, in general, think differently. And because they think differently, they behave differently. The only part of this definition that could, in one's view, reasonably be taken offence to is the implication that academics are somehow 'deficient' when compared to non-academics because they think and behave differently (in general). One would have thought that if the world has reached a place where people who look different are not regarded as better or worse but simply different, the same would apply to people who think or act different. Sadly, it seems, this isn't true.

The key to understanding the academic is to appreciate the way they think. One was (unwittingly) brought up to be an academic - one's mother constantly pushing one to question everything, to never do anything unless one was convinced it was the 'right' thing to do. Social constructs like 'listen to your teacher' never quite passed muster - one's questioning of one's teachers was subsequently defended in front of the very same bewildered teachers by one's mother. The academic's default stance is to question, to understand the logic behind an instruction or a conclusion, and to accept it if convinced it is reasoned.

Reasoning is attractive to the academic. It provides a (more or less) common framework that facilitates the advancement of knowledge. The attractiveness of reasoning is amplified because it can use abstract logical operators to derive inferences about situations or objects that are not directly observable, but which have bearing on things that are, in fact, observable and effect us. It can lead us to making generalised conclusions about relationships between observable things. Logic is the single most important tool that allows academics to reason.

Closely related to reasoning is the 'argument'. Now, detached from the social connotations attached to the word, wikipedia defines it simply as "an attempt to persuade someone of something, by giving reasons for accepting a particular conclusion as evident." An argument essentially involves two (or more) different starting points, and an attempt to find agreement. Amartya Sen wrote 'The Argumentative Indian' and made argumentation out to be a generally positive characteristic.

Sometimes, it is possible to agree on a definite conclusion - as when debating what the square root of two is. Here, the conclusion under contention can be reached with simple deductive argumentation - we start with a premise (XYZ is the way the square root operator works), apply an operator (XYZ, when applied to two, yields this number) and get a conclusion (this number must be the (positive) square root of two). We reach a logically certain conclusion.

Sometimes, however, it is impossible to reach a logically certain conclusion. This is because some things being argued about are influenced by some factors that are yet to manifest themselves, and are therefore uncertain. Here, argumentation is inductive - premises are used to provide support for, not absolute proof of, a conclusion. Here a person's estimation of the likeliness of various outcomes is often the person's past experience, or the limits of his/her knowledge. The movement towards agreement often arises in this type of argument through revelation of new information that might change the other person's estimation of the likeliness of various outcomes. Of course, no amount of new information in a conversation can lead to completely matching information sets available to two people - and so quite often estimations of likeliness of various outcomes remain incongruent. This is where academics usually 'agree to disagree'. And agreeing to disagree is a very favourable conclusion - it means that the points of difference are understood and accepted. There is no winner or loser in these arguments - they are dispassionate (or at least, meant to be, in an ideal world).

Of course, the main underlying methodological characteristic is accepting an argument only if its underlying reasoning is rigorous. This implies two things about the academic - s/he must be prepared to present the basis of her/his opinions in terms of an argument, and s/he must be willing to dispassionately accept arguments if they are rigorous.

To an academic, this is the way things are done. To non-academics, logical reasoning is not that important. In fact, many studies of how people interact in person reveal several kinds of reasoning based on informal logic, and some that are blatantly illogical. These kinds of reasoning are obviously anathema to the academic, because they leave too much scope for misinterpretation and disagreement. Logical reasoning is almost entirely responsible for the pool of scientific knowledge we possess, and the resultant benefits we enjoy. It is responsible in large part for the pool of non-scientific knowledge we possess, and the resultant applications. It is responsible for a computer screen being able to display this text in a manner that is recognisable to you. It is responsible for the principles of economic governance (which, incidentally, differ - inductive argumentation). It is responsible, interestingly, for several social customs even.

The key to understanding an academic is to understand that they think differently. What might appear to be a heated personal argument from the outside is more often than not simply the beautiful (and quite poetic) process of two people comparing premises and information sets in order to arrive at a common conclusion, or at least a common understanding of differences. What might appear to be an inflexible position is more often than not simply an opinion arrived at based on logical operations upon premises given the information available to the academic. What might appear to be someone attempting to show their superiority by forcefully putting their point across is more often that not simply an academic putting forward not just their opinion, but the whole argument they used to arrive at that opinion.

Academics aren't freaks anymore than people from different races are. And just as you don't begrudge a musician breaking into song once in a while, don't begrudge the academic breaking into inductive reasoning once in a while. Variety is the spice of life. Accept this as just another beautiful way someone can be different from you.

1 comment:

  1. People are uncomfortable with academics primarily because they themselves either lack the finely developed power of logical reasoning the academic has developed, or have given up using it. But being in a minority must not heckle the academic, as it should be obvious to him that the world was/is changed by 'freaks' more often than not. Academics are respected and valued in all fields of human endeavour today, including in your current environment. So this is nothing to be apologetic about. Perhaps the only rider is that to the average person, a good deal of things other than logic matter, and so it would be prudent to ensure that you do not, in the course of your 'arguments' trample upon some of those. That's a cool way to co-exist with the non-academics!