Saturday, June 1, 2013

Lumpers and Splitters (and the Spreading-out Principle)

It has been said that there are two types of people (scientists?):  lumpers and splitters. Those might not be real words but they are good descriptors.

Lumping is the act of bringing things together. You take two lumps and you work them into the same lump. Splitting, of course, is dividing things up.

Lumpers and splitters that know the same information, tend to describe it differently. Splitters (at the extreme) spend their effort on describing every case and they want a different name for each case. Lumpers want to subsume several of these categories under a single heading. Both lumping and splitting are an important part of interpreting information and you should learn to do both. At the end of the day, however, the lumpers and splitters may disagree about the best way to categorize the information. But both bring something important to the table.

I was thinking about this in the context of language this morning, but I remember an excellent example of lumping from my grade 10-12 science/chemistry teacher that has stuck with me.

Some things have a tendency to spread out from where there is lots of it to where there is not so much of it.  For example,
  1. Heat moves from hot to cold.  (Heat energy spreads out.)
  2. Moisture moves from wet to dry.  (Moisture spreads out.)
  3. A substance dissolved into a liquid diffuses.  (Dissolved substances spread out.)
  4. Gases expand to fill their container.  (Gases spread out to fill a container.)
  5. If you move into a larger dwelling, you will buy and retain more stuff to fill it.  (Families and their stuff spread out to fill a container.  Unfortunately, they are not as easily compressed as gases.)
  6. If people are finding a seat in a place that is very large compared to the number of people in it, they will tend to sit further apart from each other.  (People spread out in a room.  This does not explain the "everybody-at-the-back-when-there's-a-presentation" tendency, which seems to be an overriding principle, at least in western Canadian culture.)
Instead of carefully memorizing several laws, remember that certain things tend to spread out.  These are all examples of things that spread out in a non-directional way.  (By direction, I'm meaning the limited sense of direction which applies to movements and orientation in physical space, like 30° East of North or 20° Zenith.)  They also don't indiscriminately spread out equally in all directions, like a non-directional sound or light source.  They don't just start moving in a certain direction and keep going that way.  What determines their direction at any point in time or space is relative abundance versus relative absence.  The abundance goes to where it is not.  

Note that there can be other principles that overrule or interact with this one and it does not apply to everything.  Also, each of the situations described above are affected or limited by barriers of some kind.

We have a tremendous abundance of food in Canada.  There are lots of places that do not have this abundance.  If food followed this spreading out principle there should be an equal amount of food everywhere by now.    There have indeed been movements of people to try to spread out the food, but there are other factors.  For one, which we can't do much about, disasters and droughts happen.  If at any point we were to approach equality, a disaster comes and changes things.  Secondly, and where there is a choice involved, human selfishness and indolence tend to frustrate efforts to move the abundance to where it is needed.  (Please note, I'm not giving a justification but a reason why.  I'm describing a human tendency which is actually evil: selfishness and indolence.)

But back to my main thought.  Both lumping and splitting are important activities in learning and researching.  You lump to make memorization and understanding easier and you split in order to recognize significant distinctions to make your understanding more thorough.  But I am describing these as learning activities.  I may find that I need to do some splitting in order to understand something more thoroughly, but at the end of the day decide that a relatively lumped description is a more apt and helpful expression of what I have learned.  The objectivity of such lumping and splitting decisions made by anyone may be questionable or debatable, but both activities are part of gaining better understanding.

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