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A Swede in Germany

Example of misinterpretable scenes / Follow-up: Eriksson’s Razor(s)

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Skimming through a recent text that partially deals with misinterpretation of intent/behavior/whatnot as racist, sexist, or generally “ist”, I recall an excellent example:

When I began the preparations for my second master’s thesis, I was talking for the first* time with the professor who would supervise it. Half-way through, he asked whether I knew what the “Newton” method was. I answered in the negative, and from that point on, like flipping a switch, he seemed to think much less of me—no matter what I said or did later.** Indeed, he seemed to think that someone who did not know the “Newton” method, must have slept his way through college.

*This was at a distance university and direct student–professor interaction was correspondingly rare. I might have taken one of his classes at an earlier junction. If so, there might have been one prior meeting for an oral examination, but I have no recollection of such a meeting (by now).

**Not that we had many interactions after this talk.

Now, what is this “Newton” method? Well, what he patronizingly described to me was something that I immediately recognized—from high school (!), where it had been taught under the name “Newton–Raphson”. Moreover, this name had always been used during my (very math heavy) undergraduate years. (But see excursion.) Indeed, as the topic was theoretical computer science, it is a near given that my background was actually heavier or much heavier in math than most of his other students. Indeed, even the high-school curriculum had involved at least a casual use of e.g. Runge–Kutta.*

*Or “Runge-Karlsson” as my math teacher (jokingly) insisted, “Kutta” being a slang word roughly equivalent to “pussy” in Sweden. This, of course, only made us the more aware of the “Kutta” part.

I immediately tried to explain the misunderstanding, but he would have none of it. Maybe I could have pushed the point further, but I did not want to antagonize him, it seemed like a small issue at the time, just a harmless misunderstanding, and he was quite old and I have had several negative experiences with trying to convince old people of something. So I let it slide—not realizing that this simple misunderstanding would dominate his impression of me and his later interactions with me: I did not know his “Newton” method and, therefore, must be a mathematical novice.

*I do not know how old, but optically he might have been well past seventy. Also note that my sentiment was stronger then than now, while my (already) negative feelings about kids have grow more negative over time. This is another aspect that those who cry “racism” and “sexism” might want to consider both where they, themselves, and their perceived oppressors are concerned.

It is very possible that my being Swedish had something to do with this, e.g. that the typical name simply is different in Sweden and Germany—but it was not a matter of anti-Swedish sentiment or, even, anti-foreigner in general. He arguably behaved poorly through not being open to my explanation, for not considering the possibility of differences in terminology, and for sticking to a first impression, but, again, it is unlikely to have been anything even resembling anti-Swedish or anti-foreigner sentiments or prejudices: “stubborn old man” and “used to students being ignorants” are more likely explanations.* Certainly, there might have been some mistake of my own, e.g. in that he might (or might not!) have turned out to be less stubborn than I thought, had I pushed the issue a little harder, or that my intellectual honesty was misplaced: instead of saying “no” I might have been better off with “of course, but I have not done any math in the last six** years, so refresh my memory, just in case”.

*To which I note that I would, myself, agree with that assessment of a great many students; and that I have, myself, been accused of being stubborn on occasion.

**As a rough approximation of the time between the completion of my first master and this event. I might be off a little. Portions of my pre-thesis studies were also arguably math, but (a) were not formally called math, (b) were a very different type of math (dealing with questions like computability and complexity in the computer-science senses).

Now, take the above situation and replace me with a certain type of woman, e.g. someone who believes what her gender-studies professor and Hillary Clinton have told her: Old White Man who refused to listen to me because I am a woman, just assumed that I know no math because I am a woman, and talked down to me because I am a woman!

Depending on the exact woman, it need not end here and e.g. a “No wonder that there are no women in STEM! We need quotas!” or a “He must be fired for discriminating me!” is possible.

But here is the thing: I am a man and this still happened to me.

Excursion on other cases:
In my early years in Germany, similar misunderstandings were comparatively common and by no means limited to technical terminology.

For instance, a very similar, but more easily resolved, incident involved one of my first interactions as an exchange student. The professor spoke of “CAD”, an abbreviation of “Computer Aided Design” in use both in German and Swedish, as well as the original English. The hitch: Swedes speak it as one word, in the English manner and usually with a roughly English pronunciation; Germans spell out the letters C-A-D in a German pronunciation.* Moreover, he had a fairly guttural pronunciation of “A”, even by German standards, and my not-yet-acclimatized ears heard C-R-D. And, of course, I had no idea what this CRD might be—while CAD was one of the known-even-by-laymen buzzwords of the day.

*Or they did at the time—this was over twenty years ago and I have not paid attention to current use. For that matter, I am uncertain when I last heard it spoken in any language.

For instance, I was once puzzled, while taking a class on environmental topics, by the oddly unambitious discussion of the “three-liter car” (“Drei-Liter-Auto”) as a future vision for fuel consumption. Swedish fuel consumption was (at the time) usually measured per Swedish mile, i.e. 10 kilometers—and three liters per 10 kilometers is not very impressive. However, Germany usually uses fuel consumption per 100 kilometers. Re-think the value in the context of a ten times longer distance, and it makes more sense. (Presumably, “three-liters-per-100-kilometers car” is not catchy enough.)

More generally, such traps can easily cause confusion of various kinds, and might well occur even among native speakers with a sufficiently different cultural background. Sometimes the distinctions can be quite subtle and surprising, e.g. because two scientists working in the same field have slightly different definitions of the same term or use different terms for the same concept. (Also see my last-minute discovery in the following excursion.) Then we have the confusion that can be caused by deliberate misdefinitions, as with e.g. the grossly incompatible-with-established-meaning use of “racism” to indicate something that requires a position of dominance.

Excursion on Newton–Raphson:
I am honestly surprised to see the Wikipedia page on Newton–Raphson method redirect to “Newton’s method”. Ditto that the Swedish page is located under “Newtons metod”. On the upside, the German page on “Newtonverfahren” (and the other two) does mention “Newton-Raphson-Verfahren” in the first sentence, implying that it is not unreasonable to believe that (even) a German professor (of a math-adjacent field) would have known that name too.

A possible explanation is that there is a difference between written material vs. oral conversation or e.g. formal contexts vs. informal ones; another that a certain set of books used by me happened to follow a certain convention; yet another that there has been a drift in use over time. This actually strengthens the example, because we now move from a Swedish–German incompatibility to something that could have happened even to a native Swede in Sweden (man or woman!), or a native X in X-land.

The issue of the correct name for the method has been discussed on (at least) the English talk pages and the page has in the past been found under that name (at least temporarily, going by the discussion). Based on a skimming, the camps seem to be broadly “Newton–Raphson is more accurate” vs. “Just Newton is more common”.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 5, 2020 at 3:14 pm

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