I have just finished the book entitled Conjuring Science: Scientific Symbols and Cultural Meanings in American Life by Christopher P. Toumey. This is a nice break after my religion binge of late. If you are wondering I’m debating whether I move on to the Jared Diamond books on my list (see Brain Food) or I do have Carl Hiaasen’s book Basket Case (which is probably completely unrelated to either science or skepticism). I may read Basket Case before some more weighty material, actually I just decided that’s what I am going to do.
Anyway, I haven’t quite finished yet but I figured I would start blogging some of the points that I found very interesting now. Just as a brief synapsis, I’ll quote from the back of the book,
What are the implications for Americans when actors who play doctors on television endorse medical products, or when an entire town in the Midwest prepares for an earthquake based on the specious advice of a zoologist?
Toumey argues that instead of comprehending scientific knowledge, methods, or standards, most Americans know science only in terms of symbols that stand for science and that stand between people and scientific understanding. He breaks this paradox down into three questions. First, what are the historical conditions that have caused the culture of science to be so estranged from other parts of American culture? Second, how does science fit into American democratic culture today? And third, if the symbols of science are being used to endorse or legitimize certain values and meanings, but not the value and meanings of science, then to what do they refer?
Throughout the book the author takes the media to task for the sensationalist and shallow science journalism whose effects “…break up the public’s understanding of science into a fragmented miscellaney of trivia, mystery and trinkets…”.
Early in the book during a discussion of what makes good and bad television and how the shallow nature of television’s visual media contributes to the phenomenon that viewers treat all images on the television as equally real. In one paragraph he makes the following statement,
Close-ups of peoples’ faces are good television, whether in soap operas, sitcoms, sports events, talk shows, news reports, or science programs. So, too, “hate, fear, jealousy, winning, wanting, and violence” are the essense of “good television” because these kinds of content required fewer details, starker backgrounds, and more obvious forms than do other kinds of content. Furthermore, competition between stations or between networks requires a large amount of visual razzle-dazzle to hold the viewer’s attention and thus dissuade him or her from switching channels or, God forbid, turning off the television. Technical events such as cuts, pans, zooms, dissolves, and split screens occcur about every six seconds during ordinary network television and much more during commercials. Again, this characteristic is not the intentional preference of those who own the medium but rather an artifact of television technology; this is the only successful way to organize visual images in a competitive market, for it holds the viewer’s attention, almost to the point of hypnosis, but says Mander, this visual razzle-dazzle is “technique as replacement of content” because the frantic pace of switching visual images makes it impossible for the viewer to follow any one thought for very long.
Six seconds. Try it, watch any show this evening on any network and start counting as soon as a new scene switches. Six seconds. Don’t even bother with a commercial, you’ll barely make it to one. I thought to myself that this applies to shows like Desperate Housewives (it does) but won’t for something from the National Geographic channel or some other science-based show (wrong!). Six seconds. I don’t really know what this means in the grand scheme of things and what the impact of that kind thing has on someone but it blows me away. I even popped in one of my favorite kung fu movies Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There is one scene in which the two main characters, who clearly have the hots for each other but deny themselves to each other, are having tea. The director pans the shot out and you see both of them sitting there sipping tea, very still, total silence, in that one shot Ang Lee was able to convey the essence of the two characters relationship. Six seconds.
This book covers a number of topics related to the use of the Symbols of Science as substitutes for explaining or conveying the actual heart of the scientific method but I will save those for another time.
Filed under: Reviews, Science, christopher toumey, jared diamond, national geographic, Science, six seconds