Outsiderness in the Scientific Community

an essay by Carl Martin (Rod Martin, Jr.)

The following essay was originally presented as a college writing assignment. The professor liked it so much, he entered it into an academic writing contest and it subsequently won first-place honors—Krupnick Award, Los Angeles, 1996.
Outsiderness: Shuttle launch
Accomplishments like this launch of the space shuttle Columbia would not be possible with an attitude of “outsiderness” amongst the scientists and engineers. Photo: NASA (PD).

Us versus them, me versus you, xenophobia, prejudice—these are the watchwords and phrases for division and friction. We know from experience that the more friction there is, the harder it is for things to work or move—ball bearings, engines, businesses, governments, civilization, and even science.

Cooperation is that well known lubricant for any group, while prejudice and an uncooperative spirit are the friction which can cripple a group. It might be easy to imagine blue collar workers of one ethnic group giving a hard time to a blue collar worker of a different ethnic or racial background. It is perplexing, though, how grown men and women of such education and prestige as scientists could behave so childishly, particularly how those of one scientific discipline could disparage those of another. Is this problem of outsiderness among scientists important enough to warrant a concerted effort to combat it? Two things affect the answer to our question:

  • What is lost if we don’t attempt to eliminate outsiderness in the scientific community?
  • How much of a burden is it to address and handle this issue; i.e. is it more trouble than it’s worth?

Vivian Gornick gives us the definition of our term:

Outsiderness is the daily infliction of social invisibility. From low-grade humiliation to life-threatening aggression, its power lies in the way one is seen, and how that in turn affects the way one sees oneself…. This is what makes the heart pound and the head fill with blood. This is how the separation between world and self occurs. (54)

However, outsiderness adversely affects not only the victim, but the perpetrator as well; it narrows one’s vision and chokes off the potential fruits of discovery.

In “The Trigger Effect,” the television episode which introduces the BBC miniseries Connections, James Burke entreats us to

Take a look at the room you’re in and, above all, at the manmade objects in that room that surround you—the television set, the lights, the phone, and so on, and ask yourself what those objects do to your life just because they’re there. Well, that is what this series is going to be all about. It’s about the things that surround you in the modern world and just because they’re there, shape the way you think and behave.

Only by being aware of the things that affect our viewpoint, our beliefs, and our values, can we begin to control our own behavior. But, because these things also affect the way we think, they will affect what is thought, and ultimately what is discovered. The entire miniseries, Connections, is based on this simple but profound idea. The more we allow value to the things around us and the more aware we are of them and of the effects they have on us, the more connections we can make in thought for potential discovery. Naturally, building barriers in thought against certain scientific disciplines robs one of the potential connections to be found there.

Division between sciences has existed on an unbelievably broad scale. In fact, entire branches of science have shunned one another. In his best seller, Chaos: Making a New Science, James Gleick quotes Mathematics Professor Ralph Abraham on one such schism:

“…in 1960… modern mathematics in its entirety—in its entirety—was rejected by physicists, including the most avant-garde mathematical physicists…. The romance between mathematics and physicists had ended in divorce in the 1930s. These people were no longer speaking. They simply despised each other. Mathematical physicists refused their graduate students permission to take math courses from mathematicians: Take mathematics from us. We will teach you what you need to know. The mathematicians are on some kind of terrible ego trip and they will destroy your mind. That was 1960. By 1968 this had completely turned around.” (52)

What insights were missed because of this divorce? One can only conjecture that some discoveries may have been made sooner without this division—without this barrier to opportunity. It also makes one wonder if there may be other, similar barriers in our educational system and sciences today.

The life sciences have not been immune to this disease of division, either. Gleick explains,

There was tension in biology departments, for example, between molecular biologists and ecologists. The molecular biologists thought that they did real science, crisp, hard problems, whereas the work of ecologists was vague. Ecologists believed that the technical masterpieces of molecular biology were just clever elaborations of well-defined problems. (78)

Outsiderness is such a pervasive, insidious attitude that it adversely affects our thought processes and the way we view the world around us—not just other groups. The definition of one’s identity, say as a scientist, can be a barrier to insight if it is held too tightly. An entire body of data can be inadvertently and unconsciously labeled “outsider”—something to be disregarded. Gleick gives several examples of such scientific prejudice. “Any experimentalist looks for quantities that remain the same, or quantities that are zero. But that means disregarding bits of messiness that interfere with a neat picture” (41). A great deal of confusion preceded the discovery of the mechanisms of chaos.

The microscopic pieces were perfectly clear; the macroscopic behavior remained a mystery. The tradition of looking at systems locally—isolating the mechanisms and then adding them together—was beginning to break down. (44)

The entire process of scientific inquiry depends on the ability of the scientist to look at empirical data from various perspectives.

If you want a model that will be both physically realistic and robust in the face of small perturbations, physicists reasoned that you must surely want a stable model…. Chaos and instability… were not the same at all…. A chaotic system could be stable if its particular brand of irregularity persisted in the face of small disturbances…. It was locally unpredictable, globally stable. Real dynamical systems played by a more complicated set of rules than anyone had imagined. (48)

Scientists had blinded themselves by their own self-definition. An entire branch of science lay on the outside of discovery because scientists weren’t interested in messiness.

New ideas have always been met with some resistance. The broader the effect of those ideas, the greater the potential resistance. It may be surprising to some how much scientists resist new ideas. Gleick tells us how early researchers of chaos agonized over how to talk about this new subject:

To some the difficulty of communicating the new ideas and the ferocious resistance from traditional quarters showed how revolutionary the new science was. Shallow ideas can be assimilated; ideas that require people to reorganize their picture of the world provoke hostility. (38)

For many scientists who braved this new frontier, an entire approach to science was at an end, but not without some growing pains. “Uncomprehension; resistance; anger; acceptance. Those who had promoted chaos longest saw all of these” (304). The early days of chaos research were downright dangerous, as Gleick relates:

Every scientist who turned to chaos early had a story to tell of discouragement or open hostility. Graduate students were warned that their careers could be jeopardized if they wrote theses in an untested discipline, in which their advisors had no expertise. (37)

The Renaissance was sparked and sustained by the sharing and proliferation of ideas—largely ancient Greek ideas. However, there were divisive forces at work then, as well. The most potent example which comes to mind is that of Galileo when his insights and discoveries collided with the views of the Catholic church. Newness was condemned. Not too many months ago, an announcement was made that cold fusion had been successfully produced in the laboratory. That sent a shockwave throughout the scientific community. The widespread condemnation of the announcement and of those responsible was surprising, because it was nearly instantaneous. No time was given for the purported discoverers to prove their work. Perhaps scientists have resisted newness throughout history.

Burke, in his Connections episode, “The Wheel of Fortune,” gives one of many examples to be found throughout the television miniseries which illustrates the value of interdisciplinary openness. In 1740, ships were getting lost at sea, missing their ports by miles, for the lack of an accurate time piece. Such a time piece would require a steel spring of more uniform strength than could be produced up to that date—one that wouldn’t unwind at varying rates. To create the uniform steel spring required the ability to melt steel, but no metallurgist’s furnace could get hot enough. While visiting a glass furnace in Sheffield, England, clock maker Benjamin Huntsman noticed that the glass makers were managing to melt old glass for recycling because they lined the walls of their furnaces with a kind of clay which reflected the heat back—and that sent the temperature way up. If Huntsman had thought of glassmakers as low class slobs, or used some other barrier in the mind to define them as outsiders, he may never have visited the glass furnace at Sheffield. It might have postponed his important discovery for years. Not only would the effect on the history of commerce have been dramatic, but the boom of the steel products industry might have occurred decades later.

Probably as strong an example as any for promoting the value of interdisciplinary cooperation is the story of Robert May. Some of the breakthroughs in chaos happened in the fields of biology. Gleick tells us, “May came to biology through the back door, as it happened. He started as a theoretical physicist….” (69). Graphic representation of the states of many dynamic systems showed a bifurcation, or forking, of possible states as one applies more stress to that system.

Biologists had overlooked bifurcations on the way to chaos because they lacked mathematical sophistication and because they lacked the motivation to explore disorderly behavior. Mathematicians had seen bifurcations but had moved on. May, a man with one foot in each world, understood that he was entering a domain that was astonishing and profound. (77)

Many breakthroughs have been achieved throughout history because of openness and a spirit of cooperation. From the few examples given, it is evident that the losses to civilization from outsiderness in the scientific community are probably substantial.

There may be some simple approaches to eradicating this attitude or at least to reducing its impact.

Itabari Njeri offers a suggestion for ameliorating the effects of divisive identification. Though borrowed from an unrelated subject, its strategy may nonetheless be applicable here. Divisions between scientific groups, as much as tensions between races might be softened by redefining identities. On the subject of racial divisions, Njeri suggests,

We need an ongoing dialogue in every black home… and a definition of African Americans that discards overly romantic attachments to Africa and the equally ridiculous notion of ourselves as solely the products of U.S. slavery. (62)

A dialogue between disparate groups of scientists might first focus on a similar redefinition of the roots of their separate identities.

A physicist might come to such a dialogue naming opposite sides of the chasm, “hard” and “soft” sciences. A biologist might call the opposing sides “simplistic” and “complex,” respectively. Each one infers that the other’s field is less valuable than their own. Obviously, each field serves its purpose and the functions performed by its people are valuable because its purpose is valuable. Bridging the chasm between groups might be as simple as focusing on what is valuable in the opposing group’s discipline.

A few individuals have been brave enough to straddle two worlds—to associate with two normally opposing groups. Though the subject was one of freedom of expression in human sexuality, Jan Clausen hints at another possible direction in our attempt to handle the divisiveness which creates outsiders in science.

Here, surging down Fifth Avenue, was a grand celebration of human diversity, an infinite shading of inclination—the diametric opposite of narrow correctness. (75)

Clausen finds, in her own self-assessment, a way out of the bottleneck of narrow correctness, out from the stiff association with one group against another. Her view is a celebration—a redefining her conflicting halves in terms of a broader, more all inclusive view of life and sexuality. She finds a common denominator, not to label her existence, but to give it cohesion. Scientists could learn to do as much and find their inquiries into the universe much more rewarding.

Outsiderness has cost us far too much. Its solution might be as simple as adding some of the suggested approaches to the curriculum of public education, not necessarily as separate courses, but as themes built into existing subjects.
Perhaps a trend toward this has already started, but can we afford merely to hope it’s being handled? I think not.

Works Cited

Burke, James. “The Trigger Effect.” Connections: An Alternative View of Change. A BBC-TV, Time Life Television Co-Production, 1978.
—. “The Wheel of Fortune.” Connections: An Alternative View of Change. A BBC-TV, Time Life Television Co-Production, 1978.
Clausen, Jan. “My Interesting Condition.” Our Times/3: Readings from Recent Periodicals. Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Gleick, James. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1987.
Gornick, Vivian. “Twice an Outsider: On Being Jewish and a Woman.” Our Times/3: Readings from Recent Periodicals. Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Njeri, Itabari. “Who is Black?” Our Times/3: Readings from Recent Periodicals. Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.