Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Science vs. Art

A deliberately false title.   I was reading Noisms' System as Habit, in which he first sets up this idea and does it quite well, yet then proceeds to stray from his proposed dichotomy of antagonistic ideas into an inevitable Gortesque ( adjective. To ramble in a Gort like manner, with only a vague goal)  rambling, where he seems to back both in the end, although he seems to favor his view of art.

As he should, as science and art are merely two sides of the same coin.  Science blends into art, which in this discussion is the practical application of intuition and habit, rather than the more often considered "capital A" Art of creativity, although inevitably the classification of such things as art absorbs some of the glamour of that creativity.  Sherlock Holmes' deductions are always more impressive before he reveals just how he does his tricks.  Not everyone can appreciate the application of science, artists get laid often for being artists, scientists not so much.  Artists who explain their process are often derided as being illustrators or artisans  (You're nothing but a tracer!).

He does a bit of disservice to science as mere recipe following, as mere "book" knowledge.  Science is far more than that, as it is analysis, it is a short cut through the the traditional memorization of skills.   Science is how you get a good cup of coffee out of a surly teenager, no matter if you'd prefer a latte from your barista.

It's about pattern recognition.

Humans are particularly good at pattern recognition. What we're discussing when we speak of intuition is largely just what much of our brain has evolved to pick up, a skill set which took us out of the trees long ago.  It's what let our ancestors remember when to run or fight.  It let them remember when those sweet fruits came into season.  It's what let them pick out a good branch from a rotting one as they jumped from limb to limb.  It's the learned behavior which makes us so helpless for the first years of our life.

Our brain is a fabulous device,  a complex machine which sorts and processes our experiences, discarding some, while preserving others.  Sometimes it malfunctions, as when PTSD prevents a returning veteran or rape victim from having a normal life.  The traumatic experiences have laid down pathways in the bran which contradict those which are best for the person's health.  They have to learn to ignore some of their intuition, till the brain naturally forgets those traumas.    There are other malfunctions, such as the false pattern recognition of the conspiracy theorists, who turn coincidences into a conviction the Illuminati rules us all.  Sometimes the patterns it's recognizes and regurgitates are right, sometimes they're not.

Now back to science.  Science is merely an attempt to weed out the bad intuitions from the good. To reexamine the habits and traditions so we can avoid failures.   To use the inevitable cooking analogy (we all eat,) science is the recipe, but art is the adjustment of that recipe to fit the conditions.   I have a friend, she's a food chemist.  I'll pause for the howls of derision from those who prefer their cuisine cooked minutes ago by a skilled chef.    Few people understand her job, as it's fashionable to despise "factory made garbage" in favor of locally grown, organic, free-range, hand-assembled dishes.  The five dollar cupcakes of the world and the fifty dollar entree.   Yes in an ideal world, we'd all eat handcrafted dishes which come with a personal story.

 In the real world, we're trying to feed kids a nutritious meal for seventy-five cents and produce a shelf stable protein shake for feeding invalids.  OK so we're also trying to make a ten dollar pizza including delivery, a low fat snack cake which still tastes fresh after a week in a vending machine, and a low-salt, no-fat, shelf-stable vegetable stew for a buck.  In the real world, your food isn't minutes old produced just for you. She's the one who produces butter pecan protein shakes without using butter or pecans and makes them stable enough to sit in a warehouse, yet three of them are a liquid way to keep your grandma from dying, without intravenous feedings.   She's a chemist who has to know how the molecules she is dealing with act. Science, not an art.   You can also apply this same label to the guy who wrote the franchise book for a fast food company, because it's his science to produce a system which virtually anyone can follow to produce a consistent hamburger or cup of coffee, while not killing their coworkers one night because they mixed ammonia with bleach.  Take another step back, it's the difference between that guy who sells you tomatoes at the farmer's market and the farmer who produces a hundred acres of soy beans every year.  One has nice tomatoes, the other guy is feeding Africa.

Science gets a bad rap, often because in order to be real science, it requires an absurd amount of control.  Anyone who has ever baked simple bread knows that there are a lot of variables involved, the humidity, the heat of your kitchen, the vagaries of your stove, and the batch of yeast all go into producing a wide variation of product.  Usually you control this by art. You nudge the process.  You stick the bowl on the fridge or water heater for the extra heat.  You dump in a little extra sugar to get the yeast excited.  Science instead seeks to eliminate this variation, by controlling the production process.  You chop everything uniformly, so it all takes your ideal cooking time.  You use a gas oven, because the temperature is more stable than a oak wood fire.  Which is why some of the social sciences do such bad science, when you can get a ten percent bounce in data by rearranging questions or using a different picture, proving your theories are often just so much nonsense.

Yet we're not discussing the ripples in the grass which reveal the lion, the paranoid's discourse on the number 23, or how to make a fifty cent school lunch, as interesting as those subjects can be.  We're discussing gaming and by extension world design.

Intuition is fine. As Tolkien did you can immerse yourself in the great legends and myths. Read the eddas, Homer, and Chrétien de Troyes.  Or to take a less pretentious angle, you can devour the pulps as Michael Moorcock did, wallowing in the conventions of genre fiction.  There are plenty of schools to absorb narrative through, teen novels, Shakespeare, westerns, or samurai movies can all serve to instill a intuitive sense, a taste for what you like and wish to produce.  The idea that Robert Persig bedeviled so many with in his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that it's difficult to define what makes good writing, good writing.  (Good world design or good D&D Gming, etc...)  That absolute rules can always be tripped up in questions of quality. You tend to know it when you see it, so it often seems like the only way to learn to recognize it is to read massive amounts of it.   The weakness of this produces fan fiction.  It often produces the novels of R.A.Salvatore and Dennis McKiernan, rather than a new Tolkien.  Not everyone has the ear of Anthony Burgess in scifi.

This also requires every DM to be a middle-aged person with plenty of time to devote to his hobby, rather than a family or career.

Science gives a short cut even here.  Joseph Campbell and others have analyzed the great sagas and myths, providing you a short cut to mimicking the great sagas.  For that matter Elmore Leonard has written a book on screenwriting, which allows you to skip a year of film class.  They're not the only ones, there are plenty of books on literary analysis, which will tell you about the author's preferred pacing and window dressing, George Orwell, Roger Ebert, or an industry article on how you need five scenes in the trailer to sell a movie.  It's not that such "rules of thumb" allow you to always be right, but they allow you to at least bat .500.

 ( I've now resorted to both cooking metaphors and a sports metaphor, do not worry I'm coming up on a gratuitous music metaphor for the pop-blogger hat trick.)

Once again, such a view will likely offend some people's sensibilities. We have quite the cult of Indie films and books these days, just as well have the cult of the chef.   I freely admit the excesses of the formulas, except to produce a truly innovative movie or book, you need to know what the standards are.  To play around the boundaries, you need to know what they are.  You can't make clever in a vacuum,  as it's a response to the dominant culture.  It's hard to understand the Sex Pistols, without hearing Yes.

Let me point out the obvious.  D&D and most such games rely on formula, it's in their very nature, because they're based in the pulps.  They're based in genre fiction.  There is a defined sense of style in such fiction stronger than any school of artisanship.  Now I do like genre fiction, but it has different strengths and weaknesses than regular fiction.   Those strengths tended to lead many of the pulp writers into television writing. It also results in fan fiction.

In D&D or other role playing games, Science can be relying on the rule book, on  rules, charts and tables.   It lets the GM focus on things other than "well what kind of low level monster should be in the forest?"  or "how far can he fall before it is too far?"  It's a crutch for those who haven't spent years acting as a game master or at least reading and watching endless novels and movies, who know the right balance of silliness and bloodshed for their party.  The rule book allows someone to not be 100% acquainted with the world within which he is making adventures.

Art is great, but most people need science, because there are no apprenticeships to gaming.

(Even if some guy named Dave offers you an unpaid internship putting primer on his figures and demanding you call him Sensei)


  1. Hmm - I think I didn't explain myself or Oakeshott very well if it seemed as though I was saying science and art are different. They aren't - at least not insofar as technical and practical knowledge are required in both. Good science is technical rules combined with intuition; his position on this is rather similar to Michael Polanyi on that point. (Here's the wiki entry.) Good science, Oakeshott would probably say, is not rational but a product of trial and error which is rationalised post hoc.

  2. This does help a bit in understanding your second post as well.

    "a product of trial and error which is rationalised post hoc" puts me in mind of a number of discoveries in plastics, which were largely trying to come up with ways of making money from inventions and innovations. Polyvinyl chloride, the post it note, and cellophane all started out as the products of pure research, handed off to other scientists who had to come up with ways to make money off of them. A decidedly different model of research than Edison's "we need a filament for this light bulb" style of trial and error.