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Group Project Commentary Group 9

AIMS

The aim of this project was to explore the public perception of science and its social

construction as a set of myths, rituals and stereotypes. This theme encompasses several

different ideas such as the public image of scientists, gender roles in science and the authority

of science. It was felt that creating a society would be the most effective way of

simultaneously dealing with these ideas. Placing the project within the context of a society

also enabled the social and cultural aspects of science to be studied without having to look at

the science itself.

The idea to make the society tribal and subject it to anthropological/ethnographic

observations came from Latour and Woolgar (1979), who conducted an anthropological study

of a group of scientists in a laboratory at the Salk Institute. They termed their study

“anthropology of science” due to the way in which their information was derived – by

“living” with the scientists and observing the day to day behind-the-scenes activity that takes

place within a laboratory.

“We envisaged a research procedure analogous with an intrepid explorer of the Ivory Coast

who, having studied the belief system or material production…by living with the tribesmen,

sharing their hardships and almost becoming one of them, eventually returns with a body of

observations which he can present as a preliminary research report.” (Latour and Woolgar

1979, p. 28).

The above quote formed the starting point for our project. However, studying scientists as a

tribe would not give us any insight into the way the public perceives science. We therefore

decided to adapt the approach and create a tribe of non-scientists who worship scientist gods,

to emulate the god-like, mythic status that scientists are sometimes seen as having,

particularly within the media. It was decided that our tribe would be isolated, as we did not

want there to be any confusion from other outside influences. In this sense, they would be in a

‘pure’ state.

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We wanted our findings to speak for themselves, without our presenting things explicitly, and

so we created three fictional characters whose ‘naïve’ observations would reveal the

characteristics of the tribe and their interactions with the gods. These characters were created

to complement each other. We had an experienced ethnography, a medical doctor who had

recently begun research in ethnography, and a non-ethnographer. We felt that these characters

would enable us to observe the tribe from different perspectives (for example the non-

ethnographer would view the tribe with particularly naïve eyes as he would not know what to

expect).

ANTHROPOLOGY

In order to make our anthropological expedition as authentic as possible, we read the work of

real anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz (1993), Claude Levi-Strauss (1955), Edward

Evans-Pritchard (1937) and Margaret Mead (1943). From their writings (particularly those of

Evans-Pritchard) we started to get a feel for how real anthropological accounts are

documented. Actual accounts of expeditions to the Amazon, for example Alfred R. Wallace’s

late nineteenth century journey (Wallace 1905) through the Rio Negro, also provided

inspiration for our fictional journal entries.

Throughout our project, we adapted the method of “thick description” (Geertz 1993, p. 6),

recording lots of detailed information that can then be thought about and reflected on. The

idea behind Geertz’ thick description was to avoid approaching anthropological observation

with preconceived notions; in other words to avoid theory-laden observation, arguably akin to

Robert Boyle's 'virtual witnessing' as described in Russell (2006). As a result, our account of

the expedition is highly detailed. For example, we have real personalities for our explorers;

we have a location (Rio Negro, Brazil) and we have accounts of the journey there and the first

contact between our explorers and the tribe. Our tribe also has some very specific traits, for

example they do not possess a written language and therefore record important information

through oral traditions and artwork. This information, rather than being superfluous, helped to

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present both the tribe and expedition as real.

Another important factor in our project was the decision to pretend that we found the journal

entries and the mural in a Cambridge college attic. This meant that we did not have to worry

about creating hundreds of journal entries – we could have things missing and leave things

quite open-ended. For example, regarding our ethical dilemma (see further below) we never

find out what actually happened.

THE MURAL

Although we had fairly early on settled on using a tribal setting for our project, we decided on

an Amazonian location for the tribe relatively late. Before making that decision, we

considered artistic traditions including African (Willett, 2002) and North American (Feest,

1992). (The inspiration for the cloth mural first came from Native American paintings done

on buffalo skin, which we saw at the British Museum. Buffalo being few and far between in

the Amazon we used woven cotton cloth instead.

The art of the Brazilian tribespeople is based more around pattern than representation, so we

looked elsewhere for an artistic style. National Geographic magazine described a recently

discovered mural of the creation myth of the Ancient Mayans, and this was our starting point.

We researched Mayan art in more depth in order to create a believable mural.

Eddie's sketches again added to the realism of the trip, and these were inspired by

photographs of real South American tribespeople, from various sources but notably Levi-

Strauss (1955) and Hemming (1987).

THE FOUR GODS

The four gods were based on the stereotypes we heard about during the second half of the

Introduction to Science Communication module: the Wizard, Expert, Hero and

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Creator/Destroyer. After looking through the relevant chapter in LaFollette (1990) we decided

that these stereotypes were still relevant to the present day, and were worth exploring to see

why they had such power. We tried to put their individual social functions across in four gods.

LaFollette linked the “scientist as a wizard” stereotype to Thomas Edison. Edison and other

wizard scientists could do seemingly impossible things which were portrayed as magical.

Now we are so used to the growing powers of technology that new advances don’t seem

magic, aside from some medical ‘miracle cures’, but we decided that scientists were still

portrayed as magical, and the most magical of all was Einstein. Einstein is a symbol of

science itself, but he is inaccessible and separate from ordinary mortals. He has powers that

we cannot aspire to (for example the urban legend that only 3 people in the world could

actually understand the theory of special relativity). He is also visually a magician, with his

wild white hair and his kindly eyes. Thus we made him the basis for our most powerful god,

the creator of the universe who understands everything on the deepest level.

To include the miracle cure in our wizard god we made his priest the tribe’s shaman and

healer. Considering real tribal shamans led us to the idea of a vision quest using a

hallucinogen, as a way of portraying the public’s understanding magical theories. Using the

drug Yajé (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1970) they experience the visions, which show them the

theories without truly letting them understand, the way we use stories (a man arriving home

after a short space flight near light speed to find his twin has died of old age) to get the ‘wow

factor’ of Einstein’s theories without understanding them at all [or perhaps, rather, to

understand them qualitatively, as per the didactic use of narrative Nick referred to in his

History of Communication in Science and Society module].

The second stereotype was the scientist as an expert. LaFollette included Einstein under this

heading, as his expertise in relativity made everyone assume that he was an expert on politics,

philosophy and ethics as well. We wanted to include this idea, so we had our tribespeople

consult the expert god on every aspect of their lives, through the use of an oracle. The oracle

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was inspired by Evans-Pritchard’s description of the Azande oracles (Evans-Pritchard 1937).

We also wanted to get across the difficulties scientists have communicating with the public,

so we made our god speak a language that was incomprehensible to the tribespeople, and

could only be poorly translated by the oracle. The tribespeople accept these judgements

without being able to understand the reasoning behind them.

The next stereotype, the creator destroyer, was very relevant to the modern perception of

science. This is the idea that some scientific discoveries seem wonderful and turn out to be

disastrous, and that some are just plain dangerous in the first place. LaFollette quoted DDT

and chemical weapons, but today the emphasis is on the biological sciences, in GM crops and

the human cloning debate. We made this god a toddler, to symbolise its tendency to act

without understanding and to destroy both on purpose and out of clumsiness.

Stereotype four, the scientist as a hero, was harder to identify in the modern perception of

science. But we decided that scientists still play the hero role when they act as an inspiration

to others, especially young people. We also thought scientists were portrayed as heroes when

they refused to give up, and fight against the mainstream misconceptions of other scientists or

the government. Thus we made our hero priest responsible for training the young men in

hunting and for slaying the ‘jaguar of ignorance’.

THE MYTHS

A function of our myths for the Wahati tribe is to provide them with an identity and a

common culture and belief system. Arguably, we define ourselves as 'Western' not only by

virtue of our geographic location and our genetic heritage but also because of our political

systems (democracy) and our belief systems (principally of Christian heritage and science as a

way of understanding the world). In the same way, the Wahati tribe defines itself partly

through its belief system.

Burland, Nicholson and Osborne (1970) identified some common categories of South

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American myths - the origin of the world, the deluge, his creation of man, aetiological myths

that explain the origins of tribes, etc, and other folklore and legend. We chose to focus on

five principal myths: creation and the origin of mankind; the founding father; a woman and

child myth; a quest for divinity myth; and a trickster myth. We also worked in customs or

details from a variety of cultures, such as the taboo on the pronouncing of the gods' full names

(Frazer, 1963) and the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus (Brewer, 1996). It was

surprising how naturally our cultural beliefs about science fit into one or other of the mythic

frameworks we identified.

The myth of the creation of the universe is a way of introducing some of the characteristics

of our four stereotype scientist gods. The wizard makes the universe from nothing, the hero

uses strength, and the expert uses laws. The three adult gods struggle for status, representing

the way one stereotype is often more powerful than another depending on the situation. The

birth of the creator destroyer then represented the death of Newtonian physics and the

emergence of the atom bomb, a new and dangerous idea of science replacing the optimistic

and progressive one (LaFollette 1990)

The founding father myth links to Sir Francis Bacon, whom we have taken to be the

'founding father' of the Western scientific tradition. It attempts to show why the tribe

worships these gods and not others. They are persuaded that these gods are stronger than the

old gods – that there is some practical advantage for them in transferring their loyalty from

their 'superstitions' to (greater) rationality. This is the least 'mythic' of the myths and is

intended to derive from a historical event in the life of our fictional tribe. In order to

underline this, our explorers do eventually find out the rational explanation for how Eneti

managed to kill all of the animals in the test in one night, an achievement which might at first

appear supernatural.

The woman/quest for divinity myth arose out of our question as to why all of the

gods/stereotypes are male. LaFollette found that where women scientists were profiled in the

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American media, their homemaking/cooking skills were always mentioned. We also read

some feminist critiques of science (Harding, 1991) examining western science from a feminist

perspective. Women were and are under-represented in (physical) science and there is some

evidence (Schiebinger 1987, Russell 2006a) that this is related to the scientific career

structure with its short term contracts and constant need to publish – occurring simultaneously

with women's fertile years, maternity leave and the demands of young children.

The trickster myth shows the public's distrust of scientist's pronouncements due to

experience of their mistakes (Russell, 2006b). The four ways in which the Jaguar deceives the

oracle represent the four Baconian idols (Webster, 2006). The Idols of the Tribe include

fallible, limited senses, shown when the god is fooled by dust blown in his eyes. The Idols of

the Cave include habit; the jaguar gets the god used to receiving and orange, and then

deceives him by handing him an unexpected armadillo. The Idols of the Marketplace involve

problems with language; the jaguar tricks the tribespeople into using the wrong word, thus

deceiving the god. The Idols of the Theatre include dogma. The god is deceived by the

dogmatic authority of the Wizard.

The woman/creator/destroyer myth shows the public reaction to that particular stereotype of

science/scientists. When the public perceives research as dangerous or misguided, they seek

to control science. When threatened by the actions of the god the Wahati appoint a woman to

rein in his destructive tendencies. The woman represents the intuitive moral nature of the

public, and the fact that this may be wiser than the knowledge-seeking scientists. The public

seeks to control science, just as the Wahati appoint a woman to restrain the creator destroyer's

toddler priest, Neme Yohari (Russell, 2006c).

COMMUNICATION, UNDERSTANDING AND CULTURE

The difficulty faced in communication was a major theme throughout our project. This came

up in a number of different situations. Firstly, there is the problem faced in communication

between scientists and non-scientists (the “public.”) The gods of our fictional tribe converse

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with the high priests (who act as intermediaries, in much the same way as science

communicators) in an unintelligible language that the tribespeople cannot understand

(Russell, 2006d). As a result, the tribespeople have to rely on the high priests’ interpretation

of this language – and it cannot be proven whether or not the high priests are translating

accurately or telling the truth. This is not to say that science communicators intentionally

mislead but, rather, that distortion is highly likely to take place in the dialogue between

scientists and non-scientists even when mediators are present (Russell, 2006).

Masiri, although a tribesperson, is also an intermediary of sorts. He acts as the interpreter for

both the explorers and the tribe, conversing in both Portuguese and Tarisi/Wahati. For the

most part, he is reliable and trustworthy. However, he sometimes teases the anthropologists by

deliberately misinterpreting things and pretending to be able to understand the language of the

gods. This explores the issues of whether or not anthropologists are always told the truth by

the tribespeople they are observing. A good example of this is Margaret Mead (1943) and her

study of adolescent girls in Samoa, whose findings about a ‘free love’ culture were refuted

(Freeman, 1996). This also reveals how anthropologists can often misunderstand what is

actually going on. Bernard (1994) assumed that the Otomi people felt obliged to offer him

'pulque' (a type of fermented nectar) when, in actuality, they were testing him to find out if he

was involved with a particular missionary group. Additionally, people may behave differently

when the anthropologists are present. Levi-Strauss (1955) wrote of the Caduveo people, who

exploited the practice of offering tribespeople money in exchange for a photograph by forcing

Levi-Strauss to photograph them.

Towards the end of our narrative, an ethical dilemma is faced when it emerges that the tribe

plan on sacrificing the child priest Neme Yohari when he grows too big. Our explorers have

to decide whether to intervene or to respect the value systems of the tribe – after all, in

accordance with their belief system, the Wahati are not doing anything wrong. This draws

parallels between the ways in which our value systems can sometimes come into conflict with

scientific data, and questions whether science should be given the authority to make decisions

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about what is right and wrong. It also explores an idea more relevant to anthropology – can

you observe without changing what you observe?

CONCLUSION

Our project explored the relationship between scientists and the public. Using the setting of a

tribe that worships scientist gods, we have reflected on how our own society puts scientists on

a pedestal while fearing them and seeking to control them. Having anthropologists studying

the tribe who couldn't speak their language, and tribespeople who couldn't speak the language

of the gods also enabled us to examine the difficulties of communication between scientists

and the public, even given expert mediators.

Bibliography

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Feest, C.F. (1992). Native Arts of North America. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.

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