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Are answers in this part of the forum unneccessarily pedantic?

  1. Feb 15, 2012 #1
    Maths is a precice science*, but when using maths in the real world most people, including many mathematicians, generally take 'short cuts' which result in specifications of a problem or descriptions of a solution which are strictly incomplete. This has a number of advantages:
    • it is quicker
    • it enables problems and solutions to be described in language which is accessible to non-specialists
    • it avoids hiding the essence of a problem or a solution within a cloud of definitions, qualifications and jargon
    I have observed over many years in a number of situations that when non-experts in a field ask a question, some experts are inclined to 'help' the questioner by pointing out shortcomings in the definition of the problem, perceived errors in the assumptions made by the questioner about the context of the problem, or theoretical limits which could apply to any potential solutions.

    This seems to be particularly true of this part of this forum. I have noticed on a number of occasions that posters ask a question which is naively and incompletely specified, such as 'I measure the weight of 100 boxes of cereal marked 500g, how do I work out the probablility that the supplier is underfilling the boxes' and instead of providing an outline of a null hypothesis and how to use the normal distribution to provide confidence limits, perhaps together with some of the key assumptions and limitations of such an approach, the response is a monologue on Bayesian statistics.

    Is this a good thing?

    * except of course for statistics which attempts to make precise statements about data which is essentially imprecise
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 15, 2012 #2
    I understand your concerns. I know I have at times given answers that weren't really what the OP was originally looking for. The problem is that it is very hard to give help on the level of the OP.

    I once had a professor who had to give calculus to engineers. This is normally a very easy, computational course. However, that professor made things always very complicated. When discussing two-dimensional integration (for example) he always described in great detail on which domains you could or could not integrate. This was totally unnecessary for a first calculus course to engineers: almost every domain which occurs in practice would be ok to integrate on.
    So, once I asked him why he made things so complicated. And he said to me that he didn't want to lie to students.

    I didn't understand it back then, but now I do. I am often pedantic, because leaving out something would be lieing. If the student later makes a mistake, then I might be to blame because I didn't specify things enough.

    Furthermore, I think most mathematicians are pedants. I think you need to be pedantic in order to succeed in mathematics. And it's a habit you don't easily forget.

    I try to help the people here the best way I can. And I think that sometimes includes a bit pedantry.
  4. Feb 15, 2012 #3
    I agree - I consider myself a first class pedant. That's why I make a conscious effort to be pragmatic when using expert knowledge* to guide a non-expert towards a solution to their problem, avoiding cul-de-sacs and diversions along the way. This is a matter of balance - and from what I have seen micromass you appreciate that too.

    * although I have a first degree in Maths, my core expertise is in another field. I'm probably not even very good at Maths, however after about 30 years repetition some of the concepts have begun to sink in :biggrin:
  5. Feb 15, 2012 #4


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    Hey MrAnchovy.

    I think micromasses response is very important in the context of your question.

    One thing you should be aware of is that many of us have different forms of training through university whether that include a bachelors, masters, a PhD or otherwise.

    Because of this factor it is expected that these people have a communication style and a particular focus that they bring to the conversation. It is most likely going to be a result of many things including their initial scholastic training, the nature of their job experiences, their colleagues (both work and non-work related) and also their own personal attributes.

    The other thing is that it is important to put the above into context when a question is being asked.

    If you ask a theoretical statistician, or a statistician that is more concerned with the application of high-level algorithms as opposed to someone who primarily does consulting work with non-specialists in statistics, then the approach is bound to be different.

    Realize that for many of us, it takes a bit of effort to adjust our mindset to another and this is seen to be more profound when you see experts giving advice to non-experts.

    In saying the above, it really is a two-way street between the OP and the people that reply and both people will need to make some kind of effort to reach a compromise where they are both working on the same level.

    Understandably if we get questions here where the OP is unwilling to put in the effort on their part to learn some basic language and terminology or make an effort to reword or clarify the question in a fair way, then it is of no consequence that this person will not be met with any more effort of further help by some of the readers and the more extreme this is, the more that they will isolate themselves from getting an answer or advice that they can use.
  6. Feb 15, 2012 #5
    Yes I think I generally agree with all of that. Perhaps I can put my personal feelings more bluntly:
    • using specialist knowledge to correct an inaccurate or incomplete description of or solution to a problem is precision, and is a Good Thing;
    • using specialist knowledge to add unnecessary accuracy or completeness to a description of or solution to a problem is pedantry and is usually fairly harmless;
    • using specialist knowledge to confuse or demean another person is hubris and makes you look like a prick.
  7. Feb 15, 2012 #6
    What does this word mean?
  8. Feb 15, 2012 #7
    Trying to look clever at the expense of another person.
  9. Feb 15, 2012 #8


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    hubris = "excessive pride or arrogance"

    such as:

    Senator Schmoe felt no obligation to double-check his tax return. This was hubris on his part, and did not go over well at his tax-evasion trial.
  10. Feb 15, 2012 #9


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    ... and in ancient greek mythology and drama, it usually provoked a visit from Nemesis, who was the goddess of divine retribution.
  11. Feb 15, 2012 #10
    Oh Jeez, of course I knew what "hubris" meant. I guess no one got the irony of my post and who looks "like a prick".

    Oh no, hang on. That makes me behaving hubris-like too. :smile:
  12. Feb 16, 2012 #11


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    Mathematics has developed formality to achieve precision. Precision is not pedantic.

    In the "real world" ( as though mathematics is in an unreal world), fuzzy reasoning leads to failed experiments. Mathematics helps to make the reasoning clear. This is one reason mathematics is indispensible for science.

    Intuitive reasoning comes when formality is second nature. In mathematics this takes a long time. But the beginner should try always to get the idea of a mathematical fact or structure rather than memorize definitions and computations. But this takes an extra effort which most students do not even realize they should be making.

    that said, I agree that responses to questions should try to bring out the ideas and not only regurgitate the formalisms.
  13. Feb 16, 2012 #12


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    well, half the battle when communicating in any forum (oh, gee, a pun), is clarity.

    often, people assume "i know what i mean, so they know what i mean" but intention is a hard thing to divine. ambiguity often leads people to answer a different question that what was intended, because what was asked isn't clear.

    mathematics is particular prone to this kind of thing, since everyday words often have "special use" meanings in various fields of math (oh, another pun!). also, some things which might be true under certain conditions/assumptions, become UNtrue if mention of those conditions are neglected.

    as micromass indicated earlier, it's very bad for mathematicians to lie, even if unwittingly. often, people take an expert's word on something, because they seem so knowledgeable. and taking the wrong thing to heart, having a mistaken idea of "how things are" can be very costly in the long term.

    for example, when i learned calculus the first time, everything was x's, y's and z's. and i almost failed 2nd-year calculus in college, because all of a sudden, everything was e1, e2, and so on, and i didn't know what the heck was going on. i had never been given a clear definition of what kind of structure the plane, and 3-dimensional space actually had. and i nearly dropped out of school over it.

    fortunately, i learned how to do the "translation" in my head, but afterwards, i was quite upset that i hadn't been prepared properly. it wasn't a lack of ability on my part, it was poor communication by those who should have known better.

    so, perhaps some people get carried away (can i raise my hand here?), but i think the general intention is: learn to do it right (that is, be clear and precise in one's expression, so that, hopefully, one's thoughts are just as clear and precise) as soon as possible (like, you know, um, right now), to save grief later on.

    whether that is appropriate for a "temporary" discussion on a forum, about a homework problem one will have forgotten next week...well, sure there's a balance to be struck. too much formalism can obscure clarity, as well (the class i took on turing machines rendered me unable to read english for a short while, because instead of reading the word "suddenly" on the page, i read: S, pushright, U, pushright, D, pushright.....).

    although, the idea of being consumed with hubris is slightly seductive in its appeal to my ego....
  14. Feb 16, 2012 #13


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    I do agree with this but I did want to point out that in the framework of statistics, analysis of data and experimental results is more or less a fuzzy thing.

    We generally emphasize some level of confidence, credibility or other measure for whether a particular hypothesis is 'credible enough'. Due to the very nature of statistical science, we have to accept that we may be wrong about the conclusion, even if we have quite a lot of data at our disposal.

    Although the actual procedures for analysis are very well understood (in statistical science), we will always have to admit that there is not only variance included in our model, but that we may be in a situation where our data unfortunately is not a representative sample.

    Also again using the experimental example, the reasoning attribute needs careful attention: seemingly good reasoning is somewhat subjective. Again in the framework of statistics, the information that we extract is probabilistic in nature and does not give us any deep insight or detail about the process itself.

    Because of this, we have to be very very careful about what we extrapolate from our results and how we interpret them and although we have ways of making statements, structures and other definitions very precise, we do not have ways of taking data of any sort and generating the appropriate context that would describe a system to allow us to understand it even in a trivial matter.

    Our mathematics is very very primitive when it comes to extrapolating any kind of context about a process or system and its important for readers to be aware of this so that if they are in science and need evidence to support a claim, that they be aware of the limitations of what the analytic techniques can actually tell us, which in the grand scheme of things is not that much.
  15. Feb 16, 2012 #14


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    I also agree with this but the mathematical ideas of statistics have brilliant clarity and make possible probabalistic inferences.

    i also think that statistical models can be used to detect deterministic processes that are bathed in noise. In some sense all measurement is like this. But still underlying laws are verified.
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