News - April 22, 2014

Mars versus Venus

Social Scientists come from Mars, Life Scientists from Venus. In Wageningen, my interaction with natural scientists is usually limited. This period, however, I am taking a plant production science course, so I finally got plenty of contact with the other half of Wageningen.

I discovered that, in several ways, the social environment of this course was alien to me, as if I had landed on another planet.

For one thing, my communication efforts rarely give the expected outcome. These students often take my jokes very seriously. Now I do not dare using irony anymore. Another difference is that when I need a favour from other students, I ought to speak very much to the point (when I don’t, they show signs of nervousness). In other classes of mine, people try to articulate their refusal in an implicit way. Here I must be ready to take an explicit ‘no’ as an answer, without embellishments.

By the way they are trained, social scientists look for patterns, exceptions, and maintain a very creative stance on what they are taught. However, they show aversion to general and parsimonious theories. Life scientists are especially good at finding structure and synthesis, but this also has a downside: placing issues into a context is not their cup of tea. An example? I always assume that issues in agricultural development are a tangle of technical, environmental and socio-cultural factors; a sharper focus would help working toward a solution. When seeing a case of crop failure in sub-Saharan Africa, however, most people in my current class would go to the other extreme, pin-pointing stuff like ‘high osmotic potential’ or ‘toxicity’. Some even, blatantly ignoring 200 years of colonial legacy, would conclude that these Africans experience crop failure because they are lazy... but bona fide.

At first all of these differences made me struggle to find my spot in the class. Now I realize that this is a valuable challenge. It’s good to familiarise sooner than later with these differences, which become routinized in the professional world where, hopefully, one day we will all end up. Let’s visit each other’s planets more often: hybridization is cool!