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 nonethnographer 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 LeviStrauss (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 Armstrong, K. (2005). A Short History of Myth. Edinburgh: Canongate. Bernard, H. R. (1994). Research methods in anthropology : qualitative and quantitative approaches. Sage Publications. Brewer, E.C. 1996. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 15th edition, revised by Adrian Room. London: Cassell Burland, C., Nicholson, I., Osborne, H. (1970). Mythology of the Americas. London: Hamlyn. Evans-Pritchard, E.E. (1937). Witchcraft, Oracles and Ma Among the Azande. Oxford: gic Clarendon Press. Feest, C.F. (1992). Native Arts of North America. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. Frazer, J. (1963). The Golden Bough. London: Macmillan.

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Freeman, D. (1996). Margaret Mead and the heretic: the making and unmaking of an anthropological myth. London: Penguin. Geertz, C. (1993). The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. London: Fontana. Harding, S.G. (1991). Whose science? Wh knowledge?: thinking from women's lives. ose New York: Cornell. Hemming, J. 1987. Amazon Frontier: The Defeat of the Brazilian Indians. London: Macmillan. LaFollette, M.C. (1990). Ma king Science Our Own: Public Images of Science, 19 10-1955, p97-109. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Levi-Strauss, C. (1955). Tristes Tropiques. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd. Mead, M. (1943). Coming of Age in Samoa: A Study of Adolescence and Sex in Primitive Societies. London: Penguin Miller, M.E. (1996). The Art of Mesoamerica. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. Miller, M.E. (1999). Maya Art and Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. Ragghiantini, C.L. and Collobi, L.R. (1971). Great Museums of the W orld: National Museum of Anthropology, Me xico City. Feltham: The Hamlyn Publishing Group. Reichel-Dolmatoff (1970). Notes on the Cultural Extent of the Use of Yajé (Bansteriopsis caapi) among the Indians of Vaupes, Colombia. Reprinted in Furst, P.T.(1990) Flesh of the gods - the ritual use of hallucinogens. Illinois: Waveland Press Inc. Roche, J, ‘Oldest Known Maya Mural, Tomb Reveal Story of Ancient King,’ http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/12/1213_051213_maya_mural.html, accessed 17 February 2006.

Russell, N.R. (2006). Core Module 2: Spreading the W ord: Unit 5: From Atomic Liberation to food scare paralysis. Science in the media. London: Imperial College. [Course notes] Russell, N.R. (2006a). Core Mo dule 2: Spreading the W ord: Unit 2: The Barter economy in science. Gift exchange, professional standards and quality control in a quasi-feudal system. London: Imperial College [Course Notes] Russell, N.R. (2006b). Core Mo dule 2: Spreading the W ord: Unit 6: Is anybody telling people the science they need or want to know? London: Imperial College. [Course notes] Russell, N.R. (2006c). Core Mo dule 2: Spreading the W ord: Unit 7: Is democratic control of science policy possible? London: Imperial College. [Course notes] Russell, N.R. (2006d). Core Mo dule 2: Spreading the W ord: Unit 1: From Gutenberg to Nature: Printing and the Communication of Science. London: Imperial College. [Course notes Saturno W. (2006). The Dawn of Maya Gods and Kings. National Geographic, January 2006. Also available online at http://www7.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0601/feature5/index.html

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Schiebinger, L. (1987). The History and Philosophy of Women in Science: A Review Essay. Signs 12, 305-32. Reprinted in Harding, S.G. and O'Barr, J.F. (eds) (1987). Sex and scientific enquiry. Chicago: Chicago University Press. Wallace, A.R. (1905). MyLife: an autobiography. London: Chapman & Hall. Webster, S. (2006). Academic Core Mo dule 1: Session 2: The search for a method. London: Imperial College. [Course notes]. Willett, F. (2002). African Art. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.

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