Field of Science

Misunderstood

In an effort to understand linguistics slightly better, I am reading Ray Jackendoff's Foundations of Language. He starts off the first chapter with the tale of woe of the modern linguist:

Language and biology provide an interesting contrast... People expect to be baffled or bored by the biochemical details of, say, cell metabolism, so they don't ask about them. What interests people about biology is natural history--strange facts about animal behavior and so forth. But they recognize and respect the fact that most biologists don't study that. Similarly, what interests people about language is its "natural history": the etymology of words, where language came from, and why kids talk so badly these days. The difference is that they don't recognize that there is more to language than this, so they are unpleasantly disappointmed when the linguist doesn't share their fascination.
This passage sounded familiar. The psychologists I know spend a lot of time trying to decide how to answer the question, "What do you do?" While there is no agreed-upon response, everybody agrees that saying, "I am a psychologist," is guaranteed to lead to requests for advice about how to deal with somebody's crazy Aunt Maude. Saying "developmental psychology" will lead to requests for parenting advice.

My wife enjoys chronicling my own choices (for a while, I said cognitive neurosciencce, then neurolinguistics, then cognitive science, and now psycholinguistics -- but never psychology). To turn things around, though, she gets tired of people assuming that just because she's studying law, she'll either chase ambulances or defend crooks, when in fact most lawyers probably never set foot in a courtroom.

It's interesting that I've heard very similar complaints from vocalists: "Nobody who had never studied the violin would consider themselves a great talent, but anybody who can make noise come out of their mouths thinks they can sing."

This leads me to wonder if there are any professions who don't think they are widely misunderstood and don't feel ambushed at cocktail parties by well-meaning but clueless new acquaintances.

1 comment:

R N B said...

Very true. The trivial answer is that all professions suffer to some extent, the mere fact that it is a "profession" implies a degree of specialisation not practised by the common person, but yet people think that they understand some professions more than others.

But the deeper point is clarified in your reference to linguistics. What common people love to discuss, to analyse and over-analyse and misunderstand, are the differences between people. Why do certain groups talk in funny ways? Why do other groups use strange grammatical idioms? Why can't people use proper spelling? You know the stuff fills magazines.

I am sure you know colleagues who do study those slightly, but yet I think the real science is looking for similarities not differences. That is surely what neuroscientists and psychologists do, what you do, to search for the common factors that make us human and define our humanity. I think most people don't get that.