Author Archives: The Spaghetti Tree

Adventure of a Lifetime and Animal Carnivals

 

The first thing I thought when I saw Coldplay’s video for their new release Adventure of a Lifetime was: “Uh-oh”

Despite what’s thrown around on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, I think Coldplay are generally fine. And I have basically nothing against the song.

But the video….damn.

For any of you who haven’t got round to seeing it yet, the animated video uses motion capture technology to transform Coldplay’s four band members into all-singing, all-dancing, instrument-wielding, brand-endorsing (yes, we all saw that Beats pill) CGI chimpanzees. Yep….

Undeniably the video is, on a technical level, brilliant. The band apparently worked for six months on the video, collaborating with VFX and post-production team Mathematics and Imaginarium Studios’ Andy Serkis. Now I adore Andy Serkis and he is, without a doubt, the king of motion capture. And it needs to be said that his portrayal of Ceasar in the Planet of the Apes movies was freakin’ outstanding.

But, and I’m sorry, I just can’t see this music video as anything other than grotesque!

My conception is obvious born from my research into my thesis from last year which focused on precisely this issue: the anthropomorphisation of apes in visual culture.

Anthropomorphism, in short, is the attribution of ‘uniquely’ human characteristics on nonhuman animals. Basically, Adventure of a Lifetime is the archetype of anthropomorphism.

Now there are, crudely speaking, two kind of anthropomorphism: serious anthropomorphism and naïve anthropomorphism.

Serious anthropomorphism suggests that nonhuman animals are really like human beings in important, ethically-relevant ways. It is this kind of anthropomorphism that is argued to be a useful tool for deconstructing the animal-human binary; that is, the idea that humans are separate from, and superior to, all other animals ¹

Naïve anthropomorphism, however, is the kind often found in animated movies and adverts and is overall unrealistic, with animals given human speech, clothes and props. This is the kind of anthropomorphism we are confronted with in Coldplay’s video, as Chris-Martin-Chimp throws some shapes whilst the other apes pluck guitar strings and play percussion.

It is generally thought that this naïve anthropomorphism reinforces the idea that humans are separate, unique and important.

In the context of Coldplay’s video, as well as in other familiar contexts such as the Cadbury gorilla and PG Tips chimps, animals become performers. We find these animals amusing, and that’s entirely the point: these videos are comical because the apes incongruously emulate ‘cultured’ behaviour, and humans, reaffirmed in their superiority, enjoy the absurdity.

As academic John Sorenson has stated, “laughing at inferiors reaffirms our own abilities”. In the end, the singing, dancing, drumming, tea-drinking ape allows human spectators to enjoy a parody of behaviour while reaffirming humans as ‘cultured’ and, therefore, ‘special’.

Now I’m not saying that Coldplay, in making the video, did so with malintent.

All I feel is that when confronted with these representations it’s hard to discern harmless entertainment, a display of technical prowess, from that which could serve to further entrench the idea that humans are special.

But hey, maybe there’s a deep and meaningful message buried in there?

Nope. Director Mat Whitecross is quoted as having said, “So the head of the studio, Ben Lumsden, put together some ideas – we had zombies, rock stars, aliens… and the one avatar everyone went for was the chimp! So we tried one take with the whole band as chimpanzees – and they enjoyed it so much we decided that was the way to go.”

Oh okay…

Maybe (for what it’s worth…and just in case Chris Martin reads science blogs), if you’re a world famous band about to make a music video, think about what it means and don’t just do it for shits-and-giggles.

🙂

References

 

¹ Examples of this kind of anthropomorphism can be found in the works of photographers such a Brita Jaschinski, James Mollison and Tim Flach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Images of Nature

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On Monday I popped into the Natural History Museum to check out their new Bauer Brothers exhibition. The temporary exhibition is housed in the Images of Nature gallery and showcases botanical and zoological illustrations by the famous brothers Franz and Ferdinand Bauer.  Although only occupying a small section of the gallery, the selection of illustrations showcased are exquisite.

As a new visitor to the Images of Nature gallery (how had I missed this section of the museum before?) I have also included some snaps of the gallery art below

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Can You Believe Your Eyes?

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Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. We largely accept this to be true. What we consider to be beautiful, after all, varies from person to person with our varying predispositions and subjectivities.

But would we ever consider truth to be in the eye of the beholder?

This is a question which sprung to mind after reading a chapter from N.R.Hanson’s famous 1969 work ‘Perception and Discovery’. As Hanson colourfully illustrates in the chapter (Chapter 6 – ‘Seeing and Seeing As’), we are able to see the same visual stimuli (i.e., the same constellation of lines on a page, or the same data) as very different things. For instance, look at these images below:

With regards to the latter image, what you might initially see as a duck I initially see as a rabbit. Now that I say it, you can switch up your point-of-view and come to see both. However, that cannot dispute the fact that, upon presentation, you immediately either saw one or the other.

The reason we either instantly see a duck, or instantly see a rabbit, is because of our predispositions (our preexistent knowledge or theoretical frameworks).

This isn’t interpretation. As Wittgenstein states, interpretation is an act :”To interpret is to think”. The illustration on the page isn’t merely interpreted as a duck or a rabbit; without thinking we see it as either one or the other. It simply is a duck or a rabbit. This is the point that Hanson makes.

Hanson utilises an interesting thought-experiment within the chapter. If an individual had grown up having either never seen a duck, or having  never seen a rabbit, would this mean that the individual could only see a rabbit or only see a duck in the illustration. This, Hanson claims, is almost certainly going to be the case. How can we see that which is not conceptually present in our minds?

Indeed perhaps the most important line in Hanson’s chapter is, “Goethe said that we only see what we now”.

13th century astronomers, having never known what sort of thing the sun is, saw but a great yellow-white disc when they looked up at the sky. Later, 20th century astronomers, seeing the same glowing ball in the sky, saw the sun. These observations are both true, of course, but coloured by contextual knowledge.

But how about those observations which seem antagonistic; cases in which, surely, both observations cannot simultaneously hold true? For a long time quantum mechanics has shown that light exhibits qualities of both particles and waves (wave-particle duality). Light can be seen to behave more like particles or more like a wave depending on how it is measured and mapped. The reality is that light is simply both. Indeed scientists have very recently been able to visually capture, for the first time, this dual behaviour.

The first ever photograph of light as both a particle and wave

The first ever photograph of light as both a particle and wave http://phys.org/news/2015-03-particle.html

So, if the same constellation of lines is simultaneously a duck and a rabbit, if light is simultaneously wave and particle, then  should we be learning to accept that there are multiple realities in nature?

Science strives for absolutes, the one truth to nature, how things really are. In science, observations are made, and theory either supported or refuted, in the aim to accurately describe nature. But perhaps we should accept that there are multiple truths to nature. And the visibility of these truths depends on, as Hanson asserts, our predispositions as derived from our intuition, experiences and reasoning.

As Tim Minchin wryly states: “If you open your mind too much, your brain will fall out”. But perhaps a greater degree of open-mindedness in the conduct of science can bring new about discoveries, and make visible truths which we previously failed to see through our pre-coloured lenses.

My non-scientist readership might be wondering how this could apply at all to their own lives. Well, surely, would a greater degree of open-mindedness towards other individuals’ perspectives not vastly improve the general state of affairs (and even knowledge production)?

I’ll leave you all with this diagram which, while it has been liberated from Facebook (and therefore of questionable credibility), is certainly food for thought.

ALSO CHECK OUT

How context literally ‘colours’ truth: http://www.iflscience.com/brain/explaining-perceptions-dress

N. Russell Hanson, Perceptions and Discovery, Chapter 6, 1969, pp. 91-110. San Francisco: Freeman. Figures included: From Philosophical Investigations by Wittgenstein, c. 1953.

The Promise of Progress

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What’s so special about science?

This was the topic of our first (super interesting) ‘Science and its Social Contexts’ session. As it turns out, science is often set apart from other domains of human culture by its seemingly progressive nature. Science, unlike the humanities, is cumulative and makes improvements which can be measured by certain criteria; in short, science advances society.

Or so they say…

This progressive, cumulative view of science is rooted in the underpinnings of the 18th century Enlightenment. The notion was later incorporated in the early 19th century program of positivism, a theory which states that only that which is observable or measurable can be regarded as truth. As a result, the dominant view is that science accumulates empirically certified truths in a linear fashion, and consequently promotes progress in society. This has essentially informed the view today which regards increases in human knowledge as equivalent to human progress.

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Parody of the March of Progress. The original canonical image has been the subject much of controversy, said to suggest a linear, sequential progression in evolution. According to Stephen J Gould, ‘evolution’ has now become synonym for ‘progress’.

However, thinking critically here, to what extent is science really progressive? And what is actually meant by progress in science?

To investigate these questions, an important first step is to disentangle what is meant by this enigmatic concept of human progress. Progress is a complex term used to refer to many aspects of improvement. As such, a step from A to B can be seen as progress if B is better than A (…so that seems less complex as I made out to be)

However,  when thinking about the progressiveness of science in particular, I find it useful to consider three main strands: cognitive progress (increase or advancement of knowledge); technological progress (increased effectiveness of tools and techniques) and social progress (economic prosperity, quality of life and justice in society) 1 .

I’m going to steer clear of cognitive progress for simplicity’s sake, and to resist opening up another can of worms (i.e., entering into the issue of how successful science is in knowledge-seeking or truth-seeking…Uh-oh).

I do, however, wish to focus on the potential disharmony between technological progress and social progress

Now it is almost undeniable that science has increased the effectiveness of technology, as evidenced by the present-day scientific revolution that we see all around us. Today, the range of scientific disciplines aimed at solving engineering problems is expanding, with even the social sciences in some way contributing to technological development and accelerating innovation.

Now according to positivism, technological progress is the foundation for social progress. This makes perfect sense in some ways. New technologies have benefited many aspects of vital activity in society, including agriculture, transportation, communications, medicine and education 2 .

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 08: A 3D printed prosthetic arm is displayed in the exhibition '3D: printing the future' in the Science Museum on October 8, 2013 in London, England. The exhibition, which opens to the public tomorrow, features over 600 3D printed objects ranging from: replacement organs, artworks, aircraft parts and a handgun. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

LONDON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 08: A 3D printed prosthetic arm is displayed in the exhibition ‘3D: printing the future’ in the Science Museum on October 8, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

However, it is important to bear in mind that technological progress achieved through large corporations and elite industries can sometimes also mean the militaristic and misanthropic use of technology.

Take Stark Industries and its CEO and ingenious engineer Tony Stark (aka. Iron Man). Yes, admittedly, whilst this is an entirely fictional example fished out of the minds of Marvel (specifically Stan Lee), the Iron Man stories make plainly clear the double-edged sword of technological progress – get ready for some SPOILERS…

So the Iron Man movies suggest that science does, and will continue to, fulfil its promise of progress. Technologies shown in the movies include Digital Life Assistants based on Artificially Intelligent software (Jarvis!); 3D holograms and, of course, the Arc Reactor. Given the speed of technological innovation today, some of these are not unimaginable technologies of the future.

Now, despite heading-up a multi-million dollar weapons company, Stark uses Arc Reactor technology to build a powered suit of armour to defend society. While this is perhaps an example of where technological progress can bring about positive social action (albeit in a Superhero-land), the Iron Man films demonstrate that we must be wary: ‘baddies’ such as the Iron Monger and Whiplash exemplify that technological progress can equally be used to fuel social menace.

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‘Whiplash’ constructed electrified whips powered by miniature Arc Reactor http://basementrejects.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/iron-man-2-whiplash.jpg

These consequences do not fall squarely on the shoulders of fictional private sector industries, however. Science commissioned for the ‘greater good’ in warfare is all too often utilised to the effect of unimaginable destruction.

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Atomic bomb mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right) both 1945 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atomic_bombings_of_Hiroshima_and_Nagasaki#/media/File:Atomic_bombing_of_Japan.jpg

Having recently marked its 70th anniversary, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a fitting example. The atomic bombs, dropped on the two Japanese cities by the US during the final stages of World War II, killed around 130,000 citizens, and remains to this day the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare. While evidently a tremendous feat of science, one would be hard-pressed to argue that the deployment of technological engineering here produced anything other than physical, psychological and social destruction.

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The U.S. developed two types of atomic bombs during World War II. The first, Little Boy had a uranium core and was dropped on Hiroshima. The second weapon, dropped on Nagasaki, was called Fat Man and had a plutonium core http://baneen123.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/hiroshima-and-nagasaki.html

Technological progress can also be accompanied by regression of spiritual values and destruction of human individuality. Although now seemingly well-integrated in society, with compliance stretching across the globe, people remain wary of the impact of social media technologies (Facebook, Twitter etc.)  on the well-being of the individual and society at large. Indeed a large body of research exists on the repercussions of such social technologies on the human psyche and the pressures of societal conformity.

One notable community to mention, when considering technology’s potential to undermine pivotal values and traditions, is the Amish. Contrary to common belief, the Amish community do not reject technology and technological progress altogether; instead, technologies are adopted selectively and evaluated on the basis of whether it is a good fit for the lives they want to lead 3 4 . If one is to consider the Amish as a healthy and content community, it might be uninformed to assert (as is common from a Western vantage point) that the Amish are ‘backward-facing’ and not progressive. The Amish community’s selectivity regarding technology makes it clear that technological progress is not necessarily tantamount to social progress; it demonstrates, at the very least, that progress is not one but many separable entities.

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Most Amish groups forbid using electricity, although electricity from batteries can be permitted. In some Amish settlements, Amish use batteries to power lights on buggies http://groups.etown.edu/amishstudies/cultural-practices/technology/

So what can be concluded from this small handful of examples? To what extent does science fulfil its promise of progress, and what is progress?

Well it seems clear that progress is a huge, multifaceted concept, and when evaluating the extent to which science is progressive it is important to bear in mind these multiple strands of progress.

While it is generally accepted that science produces technological progress, I would personally be reluctant to say that science is generally progressive. Technological progress can bring with it undesirable repercussions and, as such, cannot be considered synonymous to other areas of human progression, most notably social progress.

Coming full circle, then, if science doesn’t quite fulfil its promise of progress, what’s so special about science? For the moment, at least, I don’t know the answer to that question…and that’s exciting!

For the next few weeks we’ll be thinking critically about what makes science ‘science’, and I’m positive that class discussion will be enlightening. So watch this space!

Read more here
Karl Popper The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959)
Thomas Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)
Sir Howard Newby, “The dream of reason brings forth monsters – science and social progress in an era of risk” Presidential Address September 9, 2002
1 http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-progress/
2 http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Scientific+and+Technological+Progress
3 http://groups.etown.edu/amishstudies/cultural-practices/technology/
4 http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2013/09/02/217287028/amish-community-not-anti-technology-just-more-thoughful

The Right Thing To Say (plus subtle self-promotion)

So a couple of days ago we were treated to a short radio story entitled The Right Thing To Say. We were played this story at the end of a long induction week, so I was planning on using the opportunity to relax and unwind (i.e. potentially nap…I like to nap). But, honestly, after just the first few minutes I was absolutely gripped. (Actually, there was something about the narrative which felt excitingly familiar… https://youtu.be/NqqZqvgMlGc!)

The result of quite a substantial web search on my behalf revealed that this short fiction piece was written by the Canadian novelist Kathy Page and narrated by Tim Beckman, and first broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in September 2006. The story centres upon a fateful moment in the lives of two people, Marla and Don, who come to unlock a genetic secret. What I loved was that the narrative was hugely character-driven and the inclusion of scientific content felt very organic. Anyway, I don’t want to give away the storyline!

I wanted to use this post to encourage anyone with a spare twenty minutes to have a listen to this piece; however I’m yet to find the broadcast published anywhere on the internet, which is a bit of a pain. However, the story was also published in the anthology Body and Soul in 2011, so I have instead left a link to the written version. The anthology in itself focuses on narratives about illness and healing, so I hope to check that out sometime soon too: I feel it might give me some inspiration for my end of year documentary (yes I’m starting to think about it already, uh-oh!)

Check it out!
http://www.kathypage.info/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/The-Right-Thing-to-Say-mixed-POV-v2.pdf

Who Am I? Exhibition @ Science Museum

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Today we were fortunate enough take a visit to the Who Am I? exhibit at the Science Museum and speak with one of the principal people involved in its creation, Emily Scott-Dearing, who has spent fourteen and a half years working for the Science Museum.

Situated in the Wellcome Wing, Who Am I? is a contemporary, forward-facing exhibition which aims to show what science can tell us about ourselves through the lens of identity. Originally opened in 2000, the exhibit was refreshed in 2010: a two-year project with a four million pound budget. The curators collaborated with the Wellcome Trust, and received corporate sponsorship from the likes of companies such as GSK.

The exhibition houses a variety of media, including showcases, gallery books, terminals and interactive ‘bloids’.

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Below are some images of the silvery, amorphous ‘bloids’ which house the interactive exhibits. All interactive exhibits carry messages and learning outcomes which echo those of the showcases, and exist to cater to different learning styles.

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And here are just some more cool snaps of the exhibition!

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Anatomy for all: dissecting the intersection between science and art

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As it turns out, I’m rather obsessed with wall art. This fact only recently came to light as I scrolled through pages of paintings in search of something to add a touch of homeliness to my new flat. Mass-produced designs of flowers and butterflies wouldn’t quite suffice though. You see, I wanted something which reflected my personality – my love for human sciences – to give the place a personal touch. However, I also wanted pieces which were aesthetically pleasing. In short, I wanted anatomical art.

While many of you may be thinking that this a peculiar niche in the world of wall art, I didn’t think it too much to ask. So I optimistically took to the internet to see what I could find. To my elation, I immediately stumbled upon just what I was looking for: a talented artist named Travis Bedel (also known as bedelguese). Bedel’s collages were simultaneously aesthetically-pleasing and scientific. Here are a handful of his pieces, to illustrate:

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‘Crowned’ anatomical collage art by bedelgeuse

I thought him incredibly skilful in layering the aesthetic (incorporation of botanical elements, as well as colour and composition) upon otherwise conventional anatomical imagery. However, as revealed by further internet browsing, Bedel’s marriage of medical imagery and art is a rarity. It got me thinking just how polarised the fields of science and art appear today. All too frequently perceived as binaries, science and art seem as far apart as black and white.

However, if you look back in time to a period such as the Renaissance, to be a scientist of the human form meant to be an artist – and vice versa. Artists such as Michaelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci famously performed dissections of human bodies, and would be considered by many to be anatomists.  Even Andreas Vesalius, thought to be the founding father of modern anatomy, associated himself to artists of the Renaissance. The value placed upon images of the human body in the Renaissance are made manifest through Vesalius’ ‘muscle men’, published in his famous anatomical treatise. Aesthetic appeal bound both science and arts,  with the celebration and understanding of anatomical intricacies became the preoccupation of artists, physicians and science scholars alike.

This cross-fertilisation of science and art seems to be so far from what we observe in contemporary society. There are exceptions, of course. For one, new technology in science is meaning that scientific images can be captured and readily turned into aesthetic artworks. Just walking past the Wellcome Trust windows on Euston Road, one can usually readily spot images of luminescent green zebra fish lurking around, occasionally paired with microscopic images of cells stained pink. Indeed, the Wellcome Trust is one institution which has worked tirelessly in its aim to unite science and art. This duly noted, I still believe that we are distanced from a mindset in which we can perceive science and fine art as compatible, if not inseparable, entities. 

But what’s so bad about binaries? As someone who loves learning science, but also nurtures an overwhelming desire to draw and paint, I always resigned myself to the fact that I would have to choose between the two ‘opposing’ disciplines when it came to education. It seems to me that science and art are so frequently kept apart that it is difficult for people to realise a tangible connection between the two. As a result, a number of career paths which lend themselves to a sound marriage between science and art are rendered effectively invisible. For example, I only very recently discovered that courses in medical illustration were available. It is easy to feel an outsider when one values both science and art, yet can never come to prize one above the other.

So is anything being done to in order to breach this divide between the realms of science and art? Fortunately, further browsing brought me to an innovative project called Street Anatomy. Founded in 2007, this project showcases anatomy as made visible in contemporary art and design, whether this be street art, tattoos or even fashion and homeware. Street Anatomy connects with a variety of artists, including Stephen Gaeta, a physician-scientist who produced a typography prints depicting human organs composed of text. Another interesting contributor to the site is Emily Evans, a medical illustrator who runs an anatomy boutique, producing ceramic goods, home furnishings and wallpaper featuring histological images and anatomical motifs. All contributors seamlessly combine anatomy with art and design, bringing science into the mainstream and increasing visibility.

'Beat Poetry' Stephen Gaeta 2011. Text from the seminal 1809 work of cardiology Cases of the Organic Disease of the Heart, with Dissections and Some Remarks Intended to Point Out the Distinctive Symptoms of These Diseases, by John Collins Warren.

‘Beat Poetry’ Stephen Gaeta 2011. Text from the seminal 1809 work of cardiology Cases of the Organic Disease of the Heart, with Dissections and Some Remarks Intended to Point Out the Distinctive Symptoms of These Diseases, by John Collins Warren.

Projects such a Street Anatomy seem fantastic to me, and certainly merit attention. Through such projects, a more open arena for combining scientific and medical imagery with contemporary art can be created, potentially lending itself to a dissolution, albeit partial, of the science-art binary. Not only do I consider this an effective means of making it more acceptable to straddle the mythic border between science and art; I also believe that medical imagery-made-art is one of the most effective forms of science communication. Designed to aesthetically appeal to the mass-market, these hybrid images are alluring. Even if one is only initially enticed by pure aesthetics, a fleeting glance at an artwork that incorporates science can have seismic repercussions. Through these images one is not solely consuming art, but also science.

A wider dissemination of medical and scientific imagery is certainly what is needed, particularly where science communication and education are concerned. Could it be the case that aesthetic appeal might serve to both bind the ‘disparate’ disciplines of science and art, as well as render visible science which might otherwise pass unnoticed to the wider community? It seems possible. Fortunately, thanks to efforts by renowned institutions such as the Wellcome Trust, as well as smaller scale efforts manifested in projects such as Street Anatomy, science in art is slowly beginning to take hold. It will be interesting to monitor public reaction as such attempts continue to gain momentum. In the meantime, let’s keep our eyes peeled, folks.

CHECK OUT
http://bedelgeuse.tumblr.com/
Street Anatomy http://streetanatomy.com/
MSc Medical Visulization and Human Anatomy, University of Glasgow
Emily Evans – homeware, clothing & accessories http://www.anatomyboutique.com/
Jason Freeny – http://www.moistproduction.com/Menu/index.html
Stephen Gaeta – http://www.stephengaeta.com/classicscience.html

On Objectivity

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“If you were an object, what would you be?”

This was the question posed to my seventeen year old sister at a job interview yesterday. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a classic. While likely trying to encourage the interviewee-come-victim to “think-outside-the-box”, it’s clear that they were digging around for the usual the metaphors and personifications that lend themselves to employabilty.

Regardless, it got me thinking: what would my answer be? A facetious one, probably. Because, it seems to me, that what such a supposed ‘blue-sky-thinking’ question inadvertently serves to do is to reinforce the pre-established concepts, such as that of object versus subject.
“If you were an object, what would you be?”
“Define object”, would be my response (Let’s face it, I probably wouldn’t get the job…)

Now I’ll take a moment to apologise for the ardent anthropologist in me who is writing this blog post. As I’ve learnt from my brief encounter with social anthropology, binaries, in this discipline, are seen to be the cardinal sin; nothing is black and white, but rather a strange shade of beige (or a rainbow if you’re one of the more hippy anthropologists  – I’ve met a few).

I digress!

Nonetheless, on a personal level, I always seem to return to the issue of the object-subject dichotomy and whether or not it is one which is ‘valid’, particularly in science. I touched upon it fleetingly in my undergraduate dissertation, and, in fact, it is a topic which somehow managed to worm its way into a dorm room in Stockholm one mid-summer evening as my roommate and I hotly debated objectivity in science…on our holiday (yes, we are nerds).

Anyway, what I want to do here is not engage in postmodern criticisms regarding the nature of object and subject in general – as my preamble misleadingly alludes to – but rather to discuss the use and misuse of the terms within science. Now this is a still a huge area, so I’ll do everyone a big favour and limit my rambling to the bits that I am hopefully more qualified to talk about.

So, according the common belief, science is objective. This is to say that science is free from bias; it exists without feelings and sentiments which are considered to impede its impartiality. Further to this, it is this objectivity, and its concomitant impartiality, which relates science to reality and to truth. Objectivity is considered an ideal in scientific inquiry: objective science equals ‘good’ science, and this leads us further towards ‘the truth’.

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know/tag/neuroscience/

What am I saying? Is this common formula regarding that nature of science wrong? No. Ever the anthropologist, I believe that this relationship is, simply, infinitely more complicated that it seems.

Let’s take the maxim that objective science equals good science. We are taught in science 101 that scientific inquiry “needs to be a fair test”. It is ingrained in the minds of primary and secondary school science students that there is no room for subjectivity in scientific inquiry and the subjective science is bad science; that it moves us further away from science’s search for what is real and truthful.  Subjectivity is considered to be indicative of sloppy-thinking, and not suitable science.

However, could it be the case that subjectivity is not a scientific sin, but rather a thing of huge potential for the purpose of uncovering ‘the truth’?

I’d like to illustrate this idea with examples from the field of animal behavioural studies. During field observations, individual animals are regularly assigned numbers: ‘Suzy’ the chimpanzee is reduced to ‘subject 202’, for example; a method designed to remove personal interest from an inquiry. Researchers are encouraged to censor their publications of any personal bias in order to retain their scientific credibility. Anecdotal narratives of, for example, a baboon acting protectively towards the researcher in the event of the arrival of a foreign flange, are saved for the personal memoirs of the primatologists.

Jane Goodall, who's experiences with chimpanzee societies revolutionised the understanding of animal behaviour. Photo by Hugo Van Lawik

Jane Goodall, who’s experiences with chimpanzee societies revolutionised the understanding of animal behaviour. Photo by Hugo Van Lawik http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2013/01/03/meet-explorers-on-all-7-continents/ngs-picture-id130937/

However, surely by selectively excluding subjective observations of behaviour from scientific publications, we become further removed from the truth? This is the opinion of a number of animal behaviour scholars, including Donna Haraway and Amanda Rees, who voice the limits and impossibility of science’s objectivity in the field of primate behavioural  research. Indeed, Amanda Rees vociferously laments what she considers to be the loss of knowledge when scientists refuse to acknowledge the complex personalities and vitalities of animals, instead choosing ‘objective’ science.

If subjective experiences and accounts can be so useful to certain areas of scientific inquiry, and can facilitate to such an extent in uncovering the truth, why has objectivity become a postmodern virtue, worshiped by much of the scientific community?

How did objectivity in science come about? Lorraine Daston and Peter Gallison discuss this in their book 'Objectivity'. Photo by Hannah Boettcher http://www.deutschlandradiokultur.de/so-sieht-die-wahrheit-aus.950.de.html?dram:article_id=135860

How did objectivity in science come about? Lorraine Daston and Peter Gallison discuss this in their book ‘Objectivity’. Photo by Hannah Boettcher
http://www.deutschlandradiokultur.de/so-sieht-die-wahrheit-aus.950.de.html?dram:article_id=135860

According to Lorraine Daston and Peter Gallison, this preoccupation with the objective can be traced back to the virtues of the Victorian era. In this historical period individual judgement was seen as suspect, unruly and in need of discipline; that is to say, the greatest obstacle on the path to truth and knowledge was onself. This obsession with discipline in the Enlightenment led to a new kind of policing manifested as scientific-scrutiny. Scientists became tasked with sifting out traces of subjectivity and holding others up for dismissal from the scientific community upon the undertaking of such transgression.

Could it be the case, then, that the modern day obsession with objectivity in science is simply the unquestioned outgrowth a moralised vision rooted in a particular historical period? Personally, I think we should highly consider this. To me, it is not unreasonable to consider objectivity to simply be a set of practices grown out of the subjective, highly-polarized and self-interested visions of 19th century society.

Okay so where do we stand? Yet another fact I gleaned from my stint with social anthropology is that conclusions are hard to come by. And if one were to fortunate enough to come across a conclusion, it is probably either vague or contentious…

Following suit, then, let’s say this. Objectivity is science is an ideal, and we should certainly question both its attainability and its value in certain areas of scientific practice. Those who herald objectivity and so-called objective practice in the sciences should be mindful of worshiping a false god and consider, for a moment, that that which we prize above all else in our ‘quest for truth’ might in fact be the epistemic virtue of another time and another place.

In short, objectivity is beige.

For further information on this topic I recommend:
Daston, L. and Galison, P. (2007). Objectivity. New York: Zone Books.
Haraway, D J. (1989). Primate Visions. Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York: Routledge.
Haraway, D J. (2008). When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Rees, A. (2001). Anthropomorphism, anthropocentrism and anecdote: primatologists on primatology. Science, Technology and Human Values. 26: 227-247
Rees, A. (2007). Reflections on the field: primatology, popular science and the politics of personhood. Social Studies of Science. 37: 881-907

To sleep, perchance to dream

Neanderthal demise caused by outsized eyes