Saturday, April 26, 2008

Elves and Dwarves

A message has been received in coded neutrino pulses from the stars. A Manhattan-style project has been set up in the strictest secrecy to try to decode it. After months of frustration, a brilliant mathematician is invited to join. This is the plot of Stanislaw Lem’s His Master’s Voice.

The mathematician finds that the government has cast a wide net. The practitioners of hard science have been joined by scholars from all the relevant humanities. And ‘relevant’ has been widely-drawn indeed. The scientists describe themselves as dwarves: the humanities guys they call elves. When the latter put up notices advertising their seminars with the word “science” in the title, the dwarves deface them by appending “-fiction”. And they are not wrong.

Robert Milne, a colleague back in Standard Telecommunications Laboratories in the 1980s, used to distinguish what he called precise thinkers and fuzzy thinkers.

More elf examples.

- People who say that Darwin was mostly right, but has to be amended insofar as his theory doesn’t account for mankind being divinely ordained as the centre of the cosmos.

- People who believe that everyone is exactly the same “really” but that poor and discriminatory environments cause all social problems and it’s only political selfishness that prevents such problems being fixed once and for all.

- And of course the apocryphal “You gotta slow down, Jim. The crew canna take it much longer” from Dr McCoy.

What elf-think has in common is that the arguments sound appealing, are based on desirable human values, and fall to pieces on closer examination. Not that the elves will ever agree.

We have an elf vs. dwarf situation in my present assignment and I was trying to think how it plays out in Myers-Briggs terms*.

I came to the conclusion that dwarf/elf is just a polite synonym for the NT/NF Rational/Idealist distinction (Thinking or Tough-Mindedness vs. Feeling). This explains why there are more women elves and more male dwarves, why politicians who are values-driven are often woefully short of effective policies, and why the truth often hurts.
* The Myers-Briggs community is strongly elven, while the "five-factor model" academics are ferociously dwarvish. This explains some of their mutual animosity.