Not enough science in “The Science of ‘Inside Out'”, and other musings on “Gray Matter”

An op-ed column called “Gray Matter” appeared a few years ago in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times with little fanfare or explanation, with the subtitle “Science and Society.”  It quickly became clear that it was intended to be a platform for scientists to communicate to the general public (well, Times’ readership) about their own research.  Done well, a “Gray Matter” column highlights something interesting or provocative in the current work of active scientists, helping the lay reader to understand nuances about the process of scientific discovery and thinking, and providing a link to internet-accessible sources of information that enables the interested reader to explore further.  It answers the repeated calls for scientists to get involved in talking about their own work, in ways that can be lost sometimes when translated by non-scientist journalists.  Done poorly, however, “Gray Matter” comes off more like a press release to advertise a lab’s activity, like an upcoming publication in a scientific journal, providing little insight into the scientific process and serving as a failed opportunity for a scientist to communicate about his or her science.

Several recent installments of “Gray Matter” provide ample examples of this range between opportunities snatched and lost.  A recent posting on the psychological science represented in the new animated film “Inside Out” demonstrates how the column can disappoint.   Here are two behavioral scientists — Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman — who are essentially promoting their contributions to the film concerning the science of emotions, and thereby are also promoting the film. This level of self- and commercial-promotion alone might be enough to raise some scholarly eyebrows, unless it were balanced by addressing the underlying science in a serious way.  But they make little effort to do so,  barely touching the surface of the science, coming off no more insightful or helpful than a movie review and certainly not accomplishing what an experienced non-expert science writer could.   Indeed, NPR coverage of the movie, in a report by Jon Hamilton and Neda Ulaby that included an interview with Keltner, did a better job of conveying the basic science than Keltner does in his Gray Matter piece.   We need more from active scientists in conveying their work to the public. True, the authors offer some “quibbles” about how their advice was not fully incorporated by the filmmakers (Pixar), which I suppose gives them credibility. I don’t know Keltner, but I am quite familiar with Ekman’s classic notions about the universality of facial expressions and emotions.  They are certainly established thinkers. But their continuing reference to “studies” finding this or that, without giving details or even a hyperlink to an example of such studies, is just not enough, especially for the NYT in this digital age.  I am not questioning that the film itself may be firmly based on our current scientific understanding of emotions and the emotional life of a child.  But a column written for educated readers, written by scholars with an ostensibly more serious mandate, should be expected to communicate more.

On the other hand, two recent postings demonstrate the real power of “Gray Matter.”  One, on physics, highlights an ongoing debate among physicists about whether physicists are abandoning their science when they consciously refrain from pursuing empirical observation to confirm their theories.  By all appearances, the authors (Adam Frank And Marcelo Gleiser) are not even talking about their own work, but are instead providing a party line to a really interesting and provocative conversation taking place among their colleagues.  How refreshing!  The other, on cognitive neuroscience, by Gregory Hickock, argues for a fresh look at the classic idea from William James that cognitive activity is often manifested as a “stream” of consciousness.  He suggests instead that the “stream” is an illusion of subjective experience, masking the fact that brain activity underlying cognition instead occurs in discrete chunks, not continuously.  He offers links to his own work on this idea, which is the norm for “Gray Matter” columns, but the idea itself is provocative enough to stand on its own as worthy of our attention.  Both examples, and others in the series, certainly illustrate how some scientists are fully capable of making their work both interesting and understandable to lay readers.  Let’s hope this continues to be the rule rather than the exception.

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About Tom Schoenfeld

I am an olfactory neurobiologist who practices his science at Fitchburg State University, Fitchburg, MA, in the Department of Biology and Chemistry. I have created "dissectingpublicscience.com" to help educate both my science students and the interested non-scientist about the process of science, by focusing discussions on how science is presented and misrepresented in the public media.
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