Monday, 17 February 2014

On posh cowboys, and other subject-specific heros



Peter Godfrey-Smith writes in Theory and Reality that scientists love Karl Popper because they enjoy the image he paints of them as "hard-headed cowboys, out on the range, with a stradivarius tucked into their saddlebags."

I remember well when I was scraping pennies as a grad student by invigilating at undergraduate exams,
and I would while away the boring hours by playing a game with myself of 'spot the discipline'. The exams would often be mixed, you see, with groups of biochemists taking papers alongside students of french, physics, media studies and so on. The challenge would be to see if I could guess what paper a student or group of students was taking by looking at what they were wearing. The game was fun because I was so often correct and I developed a finely tuned ability to sort undergraduates into their respective cliques in this way, but also because it was interesting to ponder on the significance of the cultural markers I identified.

It goes roughly like this -

Discipline/subject of study
Uniform
Modern languages
Stylish, ‘alternative’ gender-neutral, frequent touches of ‘flair’ especially Palestinian style scarves (boys) and dangly earrings (girls).
English
Quaint, nostalgic, cottage-feel clothes such as home knit sweaters, hipster glasses, tweed skirts (girls) and waistcoats (boys), the occasional goth.
Maths
Dark, especially black shirts with button-down collars, orthopaedic shoes.
Computer science
As maths.
Geology
Goretex, climbing shoes, lots of active wear, scruffy, slogan t-shirts.
Biology
As geology, but skinner and paler.
Physics
As maths, but with climbing shoes.
Economics
Suits (men) sharp tailoring (women).
Psychology
Suits, but shinier than economics, occasional touches of flair such as brightly dyed hair to indicate maverick streak.
History
Suits, but more conservative and tweedy, frequent waistcoats.

I may be a few years out of date here, but that depends on if/how fast these things change. I wonder to what extent these things are specific to the UK? Additions/corrections to my schema are welcome!

Philosophers?What about philosophers? Well Philosophers-of-something dress just like their of-something.
Philosophers of cognitive science dress like psychologists. Andy Clark, he’s smartly dressed, but a bit maverick, like Susan Greenfield. Philosophers of biology are casual and outdoorsy. People who do formal stuff might be smart if its real-world application stuff, or dusty and austistic-dressing if its super abstract. Core analytic philosophers are smart but in the tweedy way, so I guess they’re channeling the inner-historian.

What does a discipline’s uniform say about it? Well I think that scientists express their level of empiricism via the practicality of their clothing. This sounds commonsensical, except it isn’t as pragmatic as geologists wear goretex while on fieldwork in Siberia. They wear the goretex wherever they are, and even if they never do fieldwork. It’s a cultural thing. A physicist doesn’t need climbing shoes, but his shoes tell the world that he does applied maths – he’s not some crazy geeky formal maths type. Unless he is, in which case his clothes will scream at you ‘im on a higher plane, I’m way above mirrors and not having your mum buy your clothes, and having interpersonal skills.’
For non-scientists, the uniform is a good barometer of how paranoid the discipline is about its status relative to the other disciplines. Economists wear suits because they want the bankers to take them seriously. Psychologists wear suits because they want everyone to take them seriously. They’re like ‘look, we do maths n stuff, just like the economists, and you take them seriously, right?!’
I would wager that Godfrey-Smith’s claim about the typical scientist’s self-image is rather subject –specific. Dawkins can probably see himself out on the range, for sure. But I suspect the average psychologist, or economist, or mathematician would shrink at being compared to a posh cowboy. They have their own sartorial heros, no doubt.

Tell me - whats the dress code in your faculty? Who is your disciplinary hero?

1 comment:

Arvid said...

I was once told that the key to identifying an ecologist in a crowd was to look for the guy with a five dollar t-shirt and five hundred dollar sandals.