Monthly Archives: January 2014

Why Scientists Need to Embrace Culture

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“Even the most profound scientific knowledge won’t solve world problems such as hunger, poverty and environmental damage if we fail to respect, understand and engage cultural differences,” writes David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University, for Scientific American. He’s right, and it’s a doctrine I’ve long stood by: There is no fundamental barrier between science, art, the social sciences, and the humanities so long as we acknowledge that culture itself dictates and discerns what is important to us. Scientists must also pay attention to the rest of the liberal arts in order to understand patterns and how ideas cement themselves to a people, or how myths form amongst members of a particular subset of society. Skorton writes:

The resistance to vaccine use is a prime example. The supposed link between autism and common childhood vaccines was based on fraudulent research published in the British journal The Lancet in 1998. After the fraud was uncovered the lead author was stripped of his medical license and the article was retracted. Subsequent investigations by the Department of Health in the U.K. and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies in the U.S. as well as a definitive study published in the August 2013 issue of The Journal of Pediatrics have all debunked the vaccine–autism link. Yet the percentage of parents who delay or forgo immunization of their children has increased alarmingly in recent years and, partly as a result, measles, mumps and whooping cough are making a comeback.

Scientists should also study what knowledge has historically been important to people, and what hasn’t—not in an attempt to “please the public,” but in order to gauge attitudes ahead of time, and figure out the best way to reach the innumerable types of non-scientists out there who have varying degrees of understanding when it comes to the significance or ethical implications of current research. As Skorton writes:

Scientists need not only to explain much more clearly and compellingly what we are doing but also to establish on social, cultural and emotional levels why our work is important. We need to respect cultural differences that lead to misunderstanding and even fear of science.

This is why big data in the humanities seems to me a fruitful field of research, when done properly (Google’s unceremonious decision to leave out all of classical music in its Music Timeline felt like a cop-out). With more information about the way people think (and what about), we can begin to do something about this false divide between science and other lenses through which to see the world.

Photo Credit: F. d. W. / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Art and Architecture of the Gaze

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I love science writing that’s told through the lens of something as ordinary as a walk around the block. Here, psychologist Alexandra Horowitz demystifies a phenomenon that’s puzzled me for a long time: eye contact. As is the theme throughout “On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes,” she starts with an average stroll and, with the help of a companion (her son, a typographer, a geologist, etc.), settles into an extraordinary observation about what constitutes that stroll.

On this particular walk, Horowitz enters what she calls the “third dimension”: attention to the living, breathing people on the street. In this strangely private yet intimate ritual of public life, eye contact is a scientific phenomenon as much as it is a social one:

It could be a happy accident of pigmentation, this interest in each other’s eyes. The sclera of our eyes lost its dark coloration somewhere on the route between chimpanzee and human. With the whites of my eyes as a backdrop to my bright blue irises , the direction of my gaze suddenly becomes plainly distinct. I cannot avoid being spotted looking at you by turning to the side and sneaking a peek out of the corners of my eyes. (Not only can you see me looking, I would look sneaky.)

Even worse, as our ancestors came out of the trees and onto the plains, the entire shape of both our faces and our eyes changed. Our faces flattened: while the human face allows us to smush it fully against a windowpane or to receive a coating of pie from a pie tosser, the monkey’s face has a prominent snout, more like other mammals. The architecture of the human face is centered in the eyes, not the mouth of nose. Our cheekbones are conspicuously high—right below the eyes. The forehead and eyebrows complete the framing on the other side. Even the nose gets in the action, serving as an indicator of where our faces are pointing. Unlike most mammals, we have highly developed facial musculature, including around the eyes and even in the eye itself . What we lost in expressive potential when we lost tails is made up for by our ability to squint an ironic half smile—distinct from a full-bore joyous grin or grimace. Along the way, too, the shape of our eye opening got squashed, revealing more of the whites.

What pure disappointment these evolutionary developments might have been to their first bearers. Just when they thought that their attention was private, now everyone else could read it on their faces. It could be no worse if a Magic Marker raced a circle around your genitals when you felt attracted to someone, or you forehead scrolled the text rambling through your head in private thoughts.

Descriptions like this are so gratifying because they de-jargonize and humanize. Horowitz’s writing is evolution itself, pulling us into the story behind the art and architecture of the gaze. For a more thorough review of “On Looking,” head over to BrainPickings.

Photo Credit: Andrew Morrell Photography/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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