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 After the fraud was uncovered the lead author was stripped of his medical license and the article was retracted.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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