Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Puzzles, Riddles, Jokes, and other Disappointments

I've been arguing for some time that a good results section should "artfully disappoint the expectations of the reader". I like the way that sounds so much that I'm not likely to abandon the idea anytime soon. I'm more likely to subtly change its meaning as time goes on in order to defend its truth.

Last week at a seminar, one of the participants asked me why I was using the word "disappoint" instead of, say, "puzzle". The quick answer was that a results section should not leave the reader puzzled. A paper should start with what is sometimes called a "puzzle" in Kuhn's sense (the sciences are puzzle-solving traditions), but the paper should of course complete it, not leave it unsolved. But if that's so obvious, how can I argue that the reader should be left "disappointed". That's a good question.

The first part of my answer was to distinguish the feeling of being puzzled from the feeling of being disappointed by appeal to the specific expectations that must be in place in order to feel the latter. A new situation can be puzzling even in the absence of any expectations about the situation. Consider the less intellectual reaction of being surprised. Arriving at your own surprise party, it's not that you expect something other than a party to happen, it's that you don't expect anything very specific to happen. Then—suprise!—it's a party. In a similar way, a puzzle can be constructed without appeal to any prior expectations of the situation.

Next, consider jokes and riddles. It's rarely very much fun when someone tells a joke at a dinner party because it invariably leads everyone else to tell their own favorite joke. The original joke may have been motivated by something in the conversation, but as soon as the others recognize that the whole presentation is "potted", they all bring out their own pre-packaged contributions to the conversation. They are complete little universes of their own. To "get" the joke, you have to make a place in your mind for its premises, which are then immediately reset after the joke is told.

When a paper "artfully disappoints the expectations of the reader" it is effecting a transformation of those expectations for next time. (Perhaps a really good joke will do the same thing? I'll have to think about that.) The paper will not just have set up an artificial situation within which a "solution" (to the riddle) or "punchline" is possible. It will have evoked the deeply and broadly held dispositions of the reader towards particular outcomes involving particular objects. (Scientific "objects" are simply things approached in terms of their possibilities of arrangement into facts. More on that later.) The idea is not simply to arrange some pieces that leave a space to be filled in and then fill that space in. The idea is to get the reader to expect something and then to remain interesting even when something else is shown to have happened.


Jonathan said...

I've never quite gotten that concept of artful disappointment until now. Even now I'm not sure I know for sure what you're driving at. Think of the joke about the Rabbi getting caught eating a roasted suckling pig by a member of his congregation. He says "you order a roast apple and look how they serve it.' The joke works by an artful reversal of perspective. What you thought was important became secondary. The apple in the pig's mouth rather than pig itself.

Thomas said...

I'll try to write something tomorrow to clarify things.