Category Archives: science

Academics and Their Publics

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Misunderstood by Raffi Asdourian

Academics are misunderstood.

Almost by definition.

Pretty much any academic eventually feels that s/he is misunderstood. Misunderstandings about some core notions in about any academic field are involved in some of the most common pet peeves among academics.

In other words, there’s nothing as transdisciplinary as misunderstanding.

It can happen in the close proximity of a given department (“colleagues in my department misunderstand my work”). It can happen through disciplinary boundaries (“people in that field have always misunderstood our field”). And, it can happen generally: “Nobody gets us.”

It’s not paranoia and it’s probably not self-victimization. But there almost seems to be a form of “onedownmanship” at stake with academics from different disciplines claiming that they’re more misunderstood than others. In fact, I personally get the feeling that ethnographers are more among the most misunderstood people around, but even short discussions with friends in other fields (including mathematics) have helped me get the idea that, basically, we’re all misunderstood at the same “level” but there are variations in the ways we’re misunderstood. For instance, anthropologists in general are mistaken for what they aren’t based on partial understanding by the general population.

An example from my own experience, related to my decision to call myself an “informal ethnographer.” When you tell people you’re an anthropologist, they form an image in their minds which is very likely to be inaccurate. But they do typically have an image in their minds. On the other hand, very few people have any idea about what “ethnography” means, so they’re less likely to form an opinion of what you do from prior knowledge. They may puzzle over the term and try to take a guess as to what “ethnographer” might mean but, in my experience, calling myself an “ethnographer” has been a more efficient way to be understood than calling myself an “anthropologist.”

This may all sound like nitpicking but, from the inside, it’s quite impactful. Linguists are frequently asked about the number of languages they speak. Mathematicians are taken to be number freaks. Psychologists are perceived through the filters of “pop psych.” There are many stereotypes associated with engineers. Etc.

These misunderstandings have an impact on anyone’s work. Not only can it be demoralizing and can it impact one’s sense of self-worth, but it can influence funding decisions as well as the use of research results. These misunderstandings can underminine learning across disciplines. In survey courses, basic misunderstandings can make things very difficult for everyone. At a rather basic level, academics fight misunderstandings more than they fight ignorance.

The  main reason I’m discussing this is that I’ve been given several occasions to think about the interface between the Ivory Tower and the rest of the world. It’s been a major theme in my blogposts about intellectuals, especially the ones in French. Two years ago, for instance, I wrote a post in French about popularizers. A bit more recently, I’ve been blogging about specific instances of misunderstandings associated with popularizers, including Malcolm Gladwell’s approach to expertise. Last year, I did a podcast episode about ethnography and the Ivory Tower. And, just within the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a few things which all seem to me to connect with this same issue: common misunderstandings about academic work. The connections are my own, and may not be so obvious to anyone else. But they’re part of my motivations to blog about this important issue.

In no particular order:

But, of course, I think about many other things. Including (again, in no particular order):

One discussion I remember, which seems to fit, included comments about Germaine Dieterlen by a friend who also did research in West Africa. Can’t remember the specifics but the gist of my friend’s comment was that “you get to respect work by the likes of Germaine Dieterlen once you start doing field research in the region.” In my academic background, appreciation of Germaine Dieterlen’s may not be unconditional, but it doesn’t necessarily rely on extensive work in the field. In other words, while some parts of Dieterlen’s work may be controversial and it’s extremely likely that she “got a lot of things wrong,” her work seems to be taken seriously by several French-speaking africanists I’ve met. And not only do I respect everyone but I would likely praise someone who was able to work in the field for so long. She’s not my heroine (I don’t really have heroes) or my role-model, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me that respect for her wasn’t widespread. If it had seemed that Dieterlen’s work had been misunderstood, my reflex would possibly have been to rehabilitate her.

In fact, there’s  a strong academic tradition of rehabilitating deceased scholars. The first example which comes to mind is a series of articles (PDF, in French) and book chapters by UWO linguistic anthropologist Regna Darnell.about “Benjamin Lee Whorf as a key figure in linguistic anthropology.” Of course, saying that these texts by Darnell constitute a rehabilitation of Whorf reveals a type of evaluation of her work. But that evaluation comes from a third person, not from me. The likely reason for this case coming up to my mind is that the so-called “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” is among the most misunderstood notions from linguistic anthropology. Moreover, both Whorf and Sapir are frequently misunderstood, which can make matters difficulty for many linguistic anthropologists talking with people outside the discipline.

The opposite process is also common: the “slaughtering” of “sacred cows.” (First heard about sacred cows through an article by ethnomusicologist Marcia Herndon.) In some significant ways, any scholar (alive or not) can be the object of not only critiques and criticisms but a kind of off-handed dismissal. Though this often happens within an academic context, the effects are especially lasting outside of academia. In other words, any scholar’s name is likely to be “sullied,” at one point or another. Typically, there seems to be a correlation between the popularity of a scholar and the likelihood of her/his reputation being significantly tarnished at some point in time. While there may still be people who treat Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Socrates, Einstein, or Rousseau as near divinities, there are people who will avoid any discussion about anything they’ve done or said. One way to put it is that they’re all misunderstood. Another way to put it is that their main insights have seeped through “common knowledge” but that their individual reputations have decreased.

Perhaps the most difficult case to discuss is that of Marx (Karl, not Harpo). Textbooks in introductory sociology typically have him as a key figure in the discipline and it seems clear that his insight on social issues was fundamental in social sciences. But, outside of some key academic contexts, his name is associated with a large series of social events about which people tend to have rather negative reactions. Even more so than for Paul de Man or  Martin Heidegger, Marx’s work is entangled in public opinion about his ideas. Haven’t checked for examples but I’m quite sure that Marx’s work is banned in a number of academic contexts. However, even some of Marx’s most ardent opponents are likely to agree with several aspects of Marx’s work and it’s sometimes funny how Marxian some anti-Marxists may be.

But I digress…

Typically, the “slaughtering of sacred cows” relates to disciplinary boundaries instead of social ones. At least, there’s a significant difference between your discipline’s own “sacred cows” and what you perceive another discipline’s “sacred cows” to be. Within a discipline, the process of dismissing a prior scholar’s work is almost œdipean (speaking of Freud). But dismissal of another discipline’s key figures is tantamount to a rejection of that other discipline. It’s one thing for a physicist to show that Newton was an alchemist. It’d be another thing entirely for a social scientist to deconstruct James Watson’s comments about race or for a theologian to argue with Darwin. Though discussions may have to do with individuals, the effects of the latter can widen gaps between scholarly disciplines.

And speaking of disciplinarity, there’s a whole set of issues having to do with discussions “outside of someone’s area of expertise.” On one side, comments made by academics about issues outside of their individual areas of expertise can be very tricky and can occasionally contribute to core misunderstandings. The fear of “talking through one’s hat” is quite significant, in no small part because a scholar’s prestige and esteem may greatly decrease as a result of some blatantly inaccurate statements (although some award-winning scholars seem not to be overly impacted by such issues).

On the other side, scholars who have to impart expert knowledge to people outside of their discipline  often have to “water down” or “boil down” their ideas and, in effect, oversimplifying these issues and concepts. Partly because of status (prestige and esteem), lowering standards is also very tricky. In some ways, this second situation may be more interesting. And it seems unavoidable.

How can you prevent misunderstandings when people may not have the necessary background to understand what you’re saying?

This question may reveal a rather specific attitude: “it’s their fault if they don’t understand.” Such an attitude may even be widespread. Seems to me, it’s not rare to hear someone gloating about other people “getting it wrong,” with the suggestion that “we got it right.”  As part of negotiations surrounding expert status, such an attitude could even be a pretty rational approach. If you’re trying to position yourself as an expert and don’t suffer from an “impostor syndrome,” you can easily get the impression that non-specialists have it all wrong and that only experts like you can get to the truth. Yes, I’m being somewhat sarcastic and caricatural, here. Academics aren’t frequently that dismissive of other people’s difficulties understanding what seem like simple concepts. But, in the gap between academics and the general population a special type of intellectual snobbery can sometimes be found.

Obviously, I have a lot more to say about misunderstood academics. For instance, I wanted to address specific issues related to each of the links above. I also had pet peeves about widespread use of concepts and issues like “communities” and “Eskimo words for snow” about which I sometimes need to vent. And I originally wanted this post to be about “cultural awareness,” which ends up being a core aspect of my work. I even had what I might consider a “neat” bit about public opinion. Not to mention my whole discussion of academic obfuscation (remind me about “we-ness and distinction”).

But this is probably long enough and the timing is right for me to do something else.

I’ll end with an unverified anecdote that I like. This anecdote speaks to snobbery toward academics.

[It's one of those anecdotes which was mentioned in a course I took a long time ago. Even if it's completely fallacious, it's still inspiring, like a tale, cautionary or otherwise.]

As the story goes (at least, what I remember of it), some ethnographers had been doing fieldwork  in an Australian cultural context and were focusing their research on a complex kinship system known in this context. Through collaboration with “key informants,” the ethnographers eventually succeeded in understanding some key aspects of this kinship system.

As should be expected, these kinship-focused ethnographers wrote accounts of this kinship system at the end of their field research and became known as specialists of this system.

After a while, the fieldworkers went back to the field and met with the same people who had described this kinship system during the initial field trip. Through these discussions with their “key informants,” the ethnographers end up hearing about a radically different kinship system from the one about which they had learnt, written, and taught.

The local informants then told the ethnographers: “We would have told you earlier about this but we didn’t think you were able to understand it.”

War of the Bugs: Playing with Life in the Brewery

Kept brewing and thinking about brewing, after that last post. Been meaning to discuss my approach to “brewing bugs”: the yeast and bacteria strains which are involved in some of my beers. So, it’s a kind of follow-up.

Perhaps more than a reason for me to brew, getting to have fun with these living organisms is something of an achievement. It took a while before it started paying off, but it now does.

Now, I’m no biochemist. In fact, I’m fairly far to “wet sciences” in general. What I do with these organisms is based on a very limited understanding of what goes on during fermentation. But as long as I’m having fun, that should be ok.

This blogpost is about yeast in brewing. My focus is on homebrewing but many things also apply to craft brewing or even to macrobreweries.

There’s supposed to be a saying that “brewers make wort, yeast makes beer.” Whether or not it’s an actual saying, it’s quite accurate.

“Wort” is unfermented beer. It’s a liquid containing fermentable sugars and all sorts of other compounds which will make their way into the final beer after the yeast has had its fun in it. It’s a sweet liquid which tastes pretty much like Malta (e.g. Vitamalt).

Yeast is a single-cell organism which can do a number of neat things including the fine act of converting simple sugars into alcohol and CO2. Yeast cells also do a number of other neat (and not so neat) things with the wort, including the creation of a large array of flavour compounds which can radically change the character of the beer. Among the four main ingredients in beer (water, grain, hops, and yeast), I’d say that yeast often makes the largest contribution to the finished beer’s flavour and aroma profile.

The importance of yeast in brewing has been acknowledged to different degrees in history. The well-known Reinheitsgebot “purity law” of 1516, which specifies permissible ingredients in beer, made no mention of yeast. As the story goes, it took Pasteur (and probably others) to discover the role of yeast in brewing. After this “discovery,” Pasteur and others have been active at isolating diverse yeast strains to be used in brewing. Before that time, it seems that yeast was just occurring naturally in the brewing process.

As may be apparent in my tone, I’m somewhat skeptical of the “discovery” narrative. Yeast may not have been understood very clearly before Pasteur came on the scene, but there’s some evidence showing that yeast’s contribution to brewing had been known in different places at previous points in history. It also seems likely that multiple people had the same basic insight as LP did but may not have had the evidence to support this insight. This narrative is part of the (home)brewing “shared knowledge.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There’s a lot to be said about yeast biochemistry. In fact, the most casual of brewers who spends any significant amount of time with online brewing resources has some understanding, albeit fragmentary, of diverse dimensions of biochemistry through the action of yeast. But this blogpost isn’t about yeast biochemistry.

I’m no expert and biochemistry is a field for experts. What tends to interest me more than the hard science on yeast is the kind of “folk science” brewers create around yeast. Even the most scientific of brewers occasionally talks about yeast in a way which sounds more like folk beliefs than like hard science. In ethnographic disciplines, there’s a field of “ethnoscience” which deals with this kind of “folk knowledge.” My characterization of “folk yeast science” will probably sound overly simplistic and I’m not saying that it accurately represents a common approach to yeast among brewers. It’s more in line with the tone of Horace Miner’s classic text about the Nacirema than with anything else. A caricature, maybe, but one which can provide some insight.

In this case, because it’s a post on my personal blog, it probably provides more insight about yours truly than about anybody else. So be it.

I’m probably more naïve than most. Or, at least, I try to maintain a sense of wonder, as I play with yeast. I’ve done just enough reading about biochemistry to be dangerous. Again, “the brewery is an adult’s chemistry set.”

A broad distinction in the brewer’s approach to yeast is between “pure” and “wild” yeast. Pure yeast usually comes to the brewer from a manufacturer but it originated in a well-known brewery. Wild yeast comes from the environment and should be avoided at all costs. Wild yeast infects and spoils the wort. Pure yeast is a brewer’s best friend as it’s the one which transforms sweet wort into tasty, alcoholic beer. Brewers do everything to “keep the yeast happy.” Though yeast happiness sounds like exaggeration on my part, this kind of anthropomorphic concept is clearly visible in discussions among brewers. (Certainly, “yeast health” is a common concept. It’s not anthropomorphic by itself, but it takes part in the brewer’s approach to yeast as life.) Wild yeast is the reason brewers use sanitizing agents. Pure yeast is carefully handled, preserved, “cultured.” In this context, “wild yeast” is unwanted yeast. “Pure yeast” is the desirable portion of microflora.

It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that many brewers are obsessed with the careful handling of pure yeast and the complete avoidance of wild yeast. The homebrewer’s motto, following Charlie Papazian, may be “Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Homebrew,” when brewers do worry, they often worry about keeping their yeast as pure as possible or keeping their wort as devoid of wild yeast as possible.

In the context of brewers’ folk taxonomy, wild yeast is functionally a “pest,” its impact is largely seen as negative. Pure yeast is beneficial. Terms like “bugs” or “beasties” are applied to both but, with wild yeast, their connotations and associations are negative (“nasty bugs”) while the terms are applied to pure yeast in a more playful, almost endeared tone. “Yeasties” is almost a pet name for pure yeast.

I’ve mentioned “folk taxonomy.” Here, I’m mostly thinking about cognitive anthropology. Taxonomies have been the hallmark of cognitive anthropology, as they reveal a lot about the ways people conceive of diverse parts of reality and are relatively easy to study. Eliciting categories in a folk taxonomy is a relatively simple exercise which can even lead to other interesting things in terms of ethnographic research (including, for instance, establishing rapport with local experts or providing a useful basis to understanding subtleties in the local language). I use terms like “folk” and “local” in a rather vague way. The distinction is often with “Western” or even “scientific.” Given the fact that brewing in North America has some strong underpinnings in science, it’s quite fun to think about North American homebrewers through a model which involves an opposition to “Western/scientific.” Brewers, including a large proportion of homebrewers, tend to be almost stereotypically Western and to work through (and sometimes labour under) an almost-reductionist scientific mindframe. In other words, my talking about “folk taxonomy” is almost a way to tease brewers. But it also relates to my academic interest in cultural diversity, language, worldviews, and humanism.

“Folk taxonomies” can be somewhat fluid but the concept applies mostly to classification systems which are tree-like, with “branches” coming of broader categories. The term “folksonomy” has some currency, these days, to refer to a classification structure which has some relation to folk taxonomy but which doesn’t tend to work through a very clear arborescence. In many contexts, “folksonomy” simply means “tagging,” with the notion that it’s a free-form classification, not amenable to treatment in the usual “hierarchical database” format. Examples of folksonomies often have to do with the way people classify books or other sources of information. A folksonomy is then the opposite of the classification system used in libraries or in Web directories such as the original Yahoo! site. Tags assigned to this blogpost (“Tagged: Belgian artist…”) are part of my own folksonomy for blogposts. Categories on WordPress blogs such as this ones are supposed to create more of a (folk) taxonomy. For several reasons (including the fact that tags weren’t originally available to me for this blog), I tend to use categories as more of a folksonomy, but with a bit more structure. Categories are more stable than tags. For a while, now, I’ve refrained from adding new categories (to my already overly-long list). But I do add lots of new tags.

Anyhoo…

Going back to brewers’ folk taxonomy of yeast strains…

Technically, if I’m not mistaken, the term “pure” should probably refer to the yeast culture, not to the yeast itself. But the overall concept does seem to apply to types of yeast, even if other terms are used. The terms “wild” and “pure” aren’t inappropriate. “Wild” yeast is undomesticated. “Pure” yeast strains were those strains which were selected from wild yeast strains and were isolated in laboratories.

Typically, pure yeast strains come from one of two species of the genus Saccharomyces. One species includes the “top-fermenting” yeast strains used in ales while the other species includes the “bottom-fermenting” yeast strains used in lagers. The distinction between ale and lager is relatively recent, in terms of brewing history, but it’s one which is well-known among brewers. The “ale” species is called cerevisiae (with all sorts of common misspellings) and the “lager” species has been called different names through history, to the extent that the most appropriate name (pastorianus) seems to be the object of specialized, not of common knowledge.

“Wild yeast” can be any yeast strain. In fact, the two species of pure yeast used in brewing exist as wild yeast and brewers’ “folk classification” of microorganisms often lumps bacteria in the “wild yeast” category. The distinction between bacteria and yeast appears relatively unimportant in relation to brewing.

As can be expected from my emphasis on “typically,” above, not all pure yeast strains belong to the “ale” and “lager” species. And as is often the case in research, the exceptions are where things get interesting.

One category of yeast which is indeed pure but which doesn’t belong to one of the two species is wine yeast. While brewers do occasionally use strains of wild yeast when making other beverages besides beer, wine yeast strains mostly don’t appear on the beer brewer’s radar as being important or interesting. Unlike wild yeast, it shouldn’t be avoided at all costs. Unlike pure yeast, it shouldn’t be cherished. In this sense, it could almost serve as «degré zéro» or “null” in the brewer’s yeast taxonomy.

Then, there are yeast strains which are usually considered in a negative way but which are treated as pure strains. I’m mostly thinking about two of the main species in the Brettanomyces genus, commonly referred to as “Brett.” These are winemakers’ pests, especially in the case of oak aging. Oak casks are expensive and they can be ruined by Brett infections. In beer, while Brett strains are usually classified as wild yeast, some breweries have been using Brett in fermentation to effects which are considered by some people to be rather positive while others find these flavours and aromas quite displeasing. It’s part of the brewing discourse to use “barnyard” and “horse blanket” as descriptors for some of the aroma and flavour characteristics given by Brett.

Brewers who consciously involve Brett in the fermentation process are rather uncommon. There are a few breweries in Belgium which make use of Brett, mostly in lambic beers which are fermented “spontaneously” (without the use of controlled innoculation). And there’s a (slightly) growing trend among North American home- and craft brewers toward using Brett and other bugs in brewing.

Because of these North American brewers, Brett strains are now available commercially, as “pure” strains.

Which makes for something quite interesting. Brett is now part of the “pure yeast” category, at least for some brewers. They then use Brett as they would other pure strains, taking precautions to make sure it’s not contaminated. At the same time, Brett is often used in conjunction with other yeast strains and, contrary to the large majority of beer fermentation methods, what brewers use is a complex yeast culture which includes both Saccharomyces and Brett. It may not seem that significant but it brings fermentation out of the strict “mono-yeast” model. Talking about “miscegenation” in social terms would be abusive. But it’s interesting to notice which brewers use Brett in this way. In some sense, it’s an attitude which has dimensions from both the “Belgian Artist” and “German Engineer” poles in my brewing attitude continuum.

Other brewers use Brett in a more carefree way. Since Brett-brewing is based on a complex culture, one can go all the way and mix other bugs. Because Brett has been mostly associated with lambic brewing, since the onset of “pure yeast” brewing, the complex cultures used in lambic breweries serve as the main model. In those breweries, little control can be applied to the balance between yeast strains and the concept of “pure yeast” seems quite foreign. I’ve never visited a lambic brewery (worse yet, I’ve yet to set foot in Belgium), but I get to hear and read a lot about lambic brewing. My perception might be inaccurate, but it also reflects “common knowledge” among North American brewers.

As you might guess, by now, I take part in the trend to brew carefreely. Even carelessly. Which makes me more of a MadMan than the majority of brewers.

Among both winemakers and beer brewers, Brett has the reputation to be “resilient.” Once Brett takes hold of your winery or brewery, it’s hard to get rid of it. Common knowledge about Brett includes different things about its behaviour in the fermentation process (it eats some sugars that Saccharomyces doesn’t, it takes a while to do its work…). But Brett also has a kind of “character,” in an almost-psychological sense.

Which reminds me of a comment by a pro brewer about a well-known strain of lager yeast being “wimpy,” especially in comparison with some well-known British ale yeast strains such as Ringwood. To do their work properly, lager strains tend to require more care than ale strains, for several reasons. Ringwood and some other strains are fast fermenters and tend to “take over,” leaving little room for other bugs.

Come to think of it, I should try brewing with a blend of Ringwood and Brett. It’d be interesting to see “who wins.”

Which brings me to “war.”

Now, I’m as much of a pacifist as one can be. Not only do I not tend to be bellicose and do I cherish peace, I frequently try to avoid conflict and I even believe that there’s a peaceful resolution to most situations.

Yet, one thing I enjoy about brewing is to play with conflicting yeast strains. Pitting one strain against another is my way to “wage wars.” And it’s not very violent.

I also tend to enjoy some games which involve a bit of conflict, including Diplomacy and Civilization. But I tend to play these games as peacefully as possible. Even Spymaster, which rapidly became focused on aggressions, I’ve been playing as a peace-loving, happy-go-lucky character.

But, in the brewery, I kinda like the fact that yeast cells from different strains are “fighting” one another. I don’t picture yeast cells like warriors (with tiny helmets), but I do have fun imagining the “Battle of the Yeast.”

Of course, this has more to do with competition than with conflict. But both are related, in my mind. I’m also not that much into competition and I don’t like to pit people against one another, even in friendly competition. But this is darwinian competition. True “survival of the fittest,” with everything which is implied in terms of being contextually appropriate.

So I’m playing with life, in my brewery. I’m not acting as a Creator over the yeast population, but there’s something about letting yeast cells “having at it” while exercising some level of control that could be compared to some spiritual figures.

Thinking about this also makes me think about the Life game. There are some similarities between what goes on in my wort and what Conway’s game implies. But there are also several differences, including the type of control which can be applied in either case and the fact that the interaction between yeast cells is difficult to visualize. Not to mention that yeast cells are actual, living organisms while the cellular automaton is pure simulation.

The fun I have playing with yeast cells is part of the reason I like to use Brett in my beers. The main reason, though, is that I like the taste of Brett in beer. In fact, I even like it in wine, by transfer from my taste for Brett in beer.

And then, there’s carefree brewing.

As I described above, brewers are very careful to avoid wild yeast and other unwanted bugs in their beers. Sanitizing agents are an important part of the brewer’s arsenal. Which goes well with the “German engineer” dimension of brewing. There’s an extreme position in brewing, even in homebrewing. The “full-sanitization brewery.” Apart from pure yeast, nothing should live in the wort. Actually, nothing else should live in the brewery. If it weren’t for the need to use yeast in the fermentation process, brewing could be done in a completely sterile environment. The reference for this type of brewery is the “wet science” lab. As much as possible, wort shouldn’t come in contact with air (oxidization is another reason behind this; the obsession with bugs and the distaste for oxidization often go together). It’s all about control.

There’s an obvious reason behind this. Wort is exactly the kind of thing wild yeast and other bugs really like. Apparently, slants used to culture microorganisms in labs may contain a malt-based gelatin which is fairly similar to wort. I don’t think it contains hops, but hops are an agent of preservation and could have a positive effect in such a slant.

I keep talking about “wild yeast and other bugs” and I mentioned that, in the brewer’s folk taxonomy, bacteria are equivalent to wild yeast. The distinction between yeast and bacteria matters much less in the brewery than in relation to life sciences. In the conceptual system behind brewing, bacteria is functionally equivalent to wild yeast.

Fear of bacteria and microbes is widespread, in North America. Obviously, there are many excellent medical reasons to fear a number of microorganisms. Bacteria can in fact be deadly, in the right context. Not that the mere presence of bacteria is directly linked with human death. But there’s a clear association, in a number of North American minds, between bacteria and disease.

As a North American, despite my European background, I tended to perceive bacteria in a very negative way. Even today, I react “viscerally” at the mention of bacteria. Though I know that bacteria may in fact be beneficial to human health and that the human body contains a large number of bacterial cells, I have this kind of ingrained fear of bacteria. I love cheese and yogurt, including those which are made with very complex bacterial culture. But even the mere mention of bacteria in this context requires that I think about the distinction between beneficial and dangerous bacteria. In other words, I can admit that I have an irrational fear of bacteria. I can go beyond it, but my conception of microflora is skewed.

For two years in Indiana, I was living with a doctoral student in biochemistry. Though we haven’t spent that much time talking about microorganisms, I was probably influenced by his attitude toward sanitization. What’s funny, though, is that our house wasn’t among the cleanest in which I’ve lived. In terms of “sanitary conditions,” I’ve had much better and a bit worse. (I’ve lived in a house where we received an eviction notice from the county based on safety hazards in that place. Lots of problems with flooding, mould, etc.)

Like most other North American brewers, I used to obsess about sanitization, at every step in the process. I was doing an average job at sanitization and didn’t seem to get any obvious infection. I did get “gushers” (beers which gush out of the bottle when I open it) and a few “bottle bombs” (beer bottles which actually explode). But there were other explanations behind those occurrences than contamination.

The practise of sanitizing everything in the brewery had some significance in other parts of my life. For instance, I tend to think about dishes and dishwashing in a way which has more to do with caution over potential contamination than with dishes appearing clean and/or shiny. I also think about what should be put in the refrigerator and what can be left out, based on my limited understanding of biochemistry. And I think about food safety in a specific way.

In the brewery, however, I moved more and more toward another approach to microflora. Again, a more carefree approach to brewing. And I’m getting results that I enjoy while having a lot of fun. This approach is also based on my pseudo-biochemistry.

One thing is that, in brewing, we usually boil the wort for an hour or more before inoculation with pure yeast. As boiling kills most bugs, there’s something to be said about sanitization being mostly need for equipment which touches the wort after the boil. Part of the equipment is sanitized during the boiling process and what bugs other pieces of equipment may transfer to the wort before boiling are unlikely to have negative effects on the finished beer. With this idea in mind, I became increasingly careless with some pieces of my brewing equipment. Starting with the immersion chiller and kettle, going all the way to the mashtun.

Then, there’s the fact that I use wild yeast in some fermentations. In both brewing and baking, actually. Though my results with completely “wild” fermentations have been mixed to unsatisfactory, some of my results with “partially-wild” fermentations have been quite good.

Common knowledge among brewers is that “no known pathogen can survive in beer.” From a food safety standpoint, beer is “safe” for four main reasons: boiling, alcohol, low pH, and hops. At least, that’s what is shared among brewers, with narratives about diverse historical figures who saved whole populations through beer, making water sanitary. Depending on people’s attitudes toward alcohol, these stories about beer may have different connotations. But it does seem historically accurate to say that beer played an important part in making water drinkable.

So, even wild fermentation is considered safe. People may still get anxious but, apart from off-flavours, the notion is that contaminated beer can do no more harm than other beers.

The most harmful products of fermentation about which brewers may talk are fusel alcohols. These, brewers say, may cause headaches if you get too much of them. Fusels can cause some unwanted consequences, but they’re not living organisms and won’t spread as a disease. In brewer common knowledge, “fusels” mostly have to do with beers with high degrees of alcohol which have been fermented at a high temperature. My personal sense is that fusels aren’t more likely to occur in wild fermentation than with pure fermentation, especially given the fact that most wild fermentation happens with beer with a low degree of alcohol.

Most of the “risks” associated with wild fermentation have to do with flavours and aromas which may be displeasing. Many of these have to do with souring, as some bugs transform different compounds (alcohol especially, if I’m not mistaken) into different types of acids. While Brett and other strains of wild yeast can cause some souring, the acids in questions mostly have to do with bacteria. For instance, lactobacillus creates lactic acid, acetobacter creates acetic acid, etc.

Not only do I like that flavour and aroma characteristics associated with some wild yeast strains (Brett, especially), I also like sour beers. It may sound strange given the fact that I suffer from GERD. But I don’t overindulge in sour beers. I rarely drink large quantities of beer and sour beers would be the last thing I’d drink large quantities of. Besides, there’s a lot to be said about balance in pH. I may be off but I get the impression that there are times in which sour things are either beneficial to me or at least harmless. Part of brewer common knowledge in fact has a whole thing about alkalinity and pH. I’m not exactly clear on how it affects my body based on ingestion of diverse substances, but I’m probably affected by my background as a homebrewer.

Despite my taste for sour beers, I don’t necessarily have the same reaction to all souring agents. For instance, I have a fairly clear threshold in terms of acetic acid in beer. I enjoy it when a sour beer has some acetic character. But I prefer to limit the “aceticness” of my beers. Two batches I’ve fermented with wild bugs were way too acetic for me and I’m now concerned that other beers may develop the same character. In fact, if there’s a way to prevent acetobacter from getting in my wort while still getting the other bugs working, I could be even more carefree as a brewer than I currently am.

Which is a fair deal. These days, I really am brewing carefreely. Partly because of my “discovery” of lactobacillus.

As brewer common knowledge has it, lactobacillus is just about everywhere. It’s certainly found on grain and it’s present in human saliva. It’s involved in some dairy fermentation and it’s probably the main source of bacterial fear among dairy farmers.

Apart from lambic beers (which all come from a specific region in Belgium), the main sour beer that is part of brewer knowledge is Berliner Weisse. Though I have little data on how Berliner Weisse is fermented, I’ve known for a while that some people create a beer akin to Berliner Weisse through what brewers call a “sour mash” (and which may or may not be related to sour mash in American whiskey production). After thinking about it for years, I’ve done my first sour mash last year. I wasn’t very careful in doing it but I got satisfying results. One advantage of the sour mash is that it happens before boiling, which means that the production of acid can be controlled, to a certain degree. While I did boil my wort coming from sour mash, it’s clear that I still had some lactobacillus in my fermenters. It’s possible that my boil (which was much shorter than the usual) wasn’t enough to kill all the bugs. But, come to think of it, I may have been a bit careless with sanitization of some pieces of equipment which had touched the sour wort before boiling. Whatever the cause, I ended up with some souring bugs in my fermentation. And these worked really well for what I wanted. So much so that I’ve consciously reused that culture in some of my most recent brewing experiments.

So, in my case, lactobacillus is in the “desirable” category of yeast taxonomy. With Brett and diverse Saccharomyces strains, lactobacillus is part of my fermentation apparatus.

As a mad brewer, I can use what I want to use. I may not create life, but I create beer out of this increasingly complex microflora which has been taking over my brewery.

And I’m a happy brewer.

Grisaille: littérature et éminence grises

La première fois que j’ai entendu le terme «littérature grise» (présentation de Daniel Gill au CÉFES de l’Université de Montréal), j’ai tout de suite été tenté d’étendre le terme au-delà de son usage original. Rien de très anormal, surtout en français.

En fait, je peux l’avouer, j’avais apparemment mal compris l’usage en question. Pas réellement honteux, surtout en français. Mais ça demande quand même un mea culpa. Je croyais qu’on parlait de ces textes qui, sans être académiques, pouvait quand même faire l’objet d’une lecture académique. Je pensais qu’il s’agissait d’un terme lié au sens critique, à la critique des sources.

Or, il appert que le concept de littérature grise ait une acception beaucoup plus étroite. Si je comprends mieux ce terme, grâce à Wikipedia, il semble surtout concentré autour du mode de publication. Un texte qui n’est pas publié formellement, par une maison d’édition, fait partie de la littérature grise. Tout texte à usage restreint, y compris les rapports internes, etc. Ce serait même la communauté de collecte de renseignements qui aurait inventé ce terme (en anglais). Il y a probablement une notion de confiance à la base de ce concept. Mais ce que je croyais y percevoir, côté sens critique ne semble pas être à la base de l’appellation littérature grise.

Où vais-je, avec ces élucubrations sur l’usage d’un terme apparemment aussi simple? Vers le rapport entre la tour d’ivoire et le monde réel.

Si si!

C’est que je pense à la «vulgarisation». À la «littérature populaire» en lien avec le milieu universitaire. Aux livres écrits pour un public large, mais avec une certaine dimension académique.

Souvent, la vulgarisation est décrite comme une version «populaire» d’une discipline existante («psychologie populaire» ou “pop psychology”). En anglais, “popularizer” correspond au rôle du vulgarisateur, bien que les connotations soient légèrement différentes.

C’est un peu comme ça que je définissais la «littérature grise». Un espace d’écriture qui n’est ni la publication académique arbitrée, ni la source primaire. Y compris une grande partie du journalisme (sans égard au prestige de la publication) et la plupart des livres à gros tirage. Ces textes qui doivent d’autant plus être «pris avec un grain de sel» que leurs buts ne sont pas toujours si directement liés à la simple dissémination d’idées ou à l’augmentation des connaissances.

Il y a de nombreux vulgarisateurs, de par ce vaste monde. Surtout parmi les Anglophones, d’ailleurs. Ils écrivent des tas de livres (et pas mal d’articles, dans certains cas). Certains de leurs livres sont des succès de librairie. Les vulgarisateurs deviennent alors des personnalités connues, on les invite à des émissions de télé, on demande leur avis à l’occasion, on leur donne certaines responsabilités. «On» désigne ici l’establishment médiatique et une des sources de la «culture populaire». Dans plusieurs milieux généralement anti-intellectuels, ce «on» est relativement restreint. Mais l’effet commercial demeure grand.

Même dans une région où le travail intellectuel est peu respecté, le genre d’activité médiatique que les vulgarisateurs peuvent entreprendre donne lieu à toute une entreprise, semble-t-il assez profitable.

Un truc à noter, avec le rôle de vulgarisateur, c’est qu’il s’agit davantage de servir de canal plutôt que de contribuer de façon significative à la connaissance académique. Bien sûr, les contributions de plusieurs vulgarisateurs sont loin d’être négligeables. Mais le rôle d’un vulgarisateur va alors au-delà du travail de vulgarisation.

Ce qui est assez facile à observer, c’est que les contributions des vulgarisateurs sont souvent surévaluées par leurs publics. Rien de très surprenant. On croit aisément que c’est le communicateur qui est la source ultime du message communiqué, surtout si ce message est vraiment nouveau pour nous. Et la zone médiatique qu’occupent si facilement les vulgarisateurs est obnubilée par la notion de la découverte individuelle, par le «génie» du chercheur, par le prestige de la recherche. Le vulgarisateur individuel représente la communauté académique dans son ensemble qui, elle, est souvent conçue comme ne devant pas donner trop d’importance à la personalité du chercheur.

Dans le milieu académique, les attitudes face aux vulgarisateurs sont assez variées. Il y a parfois un certain respect, parfois une certaine jalousie. Mais il y a aussi beaucoup de crainte que le travail académique soit galvaudé par la vulgarisation.

Il y a un ensemble de réactions qui viennent du fait que la vulgarisation du travail académique est souvent au cœur de ce que les enseignants universitaires doivent contrecarrer chez plusieurs étudiants. La tâche de remettre en cause ce que des vulgarisateurs ont dit peut donner lieu à des situations difficiles. Plusieurs sujets sont «sensibles» (“touhcy subjects”).

D’ailleurs, la sensibilité d’un sujet dépend souvent de la spécialisation disciplinaire. Une ingénieure peut avoir des réactions très fortes à propos d’un sujet qui lui tient à cœur, par exemple au sujet d’un langage de programmation. Au cours d’une discussion autour de ce type de sujet, cette ingénieure peut se plaindre de la vulgarisation, exiger de la rigueur, condescendre au sujet des connaissances des gens. Mais cette même ingénieure peut ne voir aucun problème à discuter de questions sociales d’une façon par trop simpliste et se surprendre des réactions des gens. La même situation se produit à l’inverse, bien sûr. Mais je me concerne plus d’être humain que de «génie»! ;-)

Il y a un peu de mépris, dans tout ça. La discipline des autres semble toujours plus simple que la sienne et on s’y croit toujours meilleur qu’on ne l’est vraiment.

C’est un peu comme si un professeur d’histoire de l’art publiait un livre sur la biologie moléculaire (sans avoir de formation dans un domaine biologique quelconque) ou si le détenteur d’un prix Nobel de physique publiait des propos sur l’histoire de la littérature (sans avoir pris connaissance du domaine).

Puisque je suis surtout anthropologue, je peux utiliser l’exemple de l’anthropologie.

Comme beaucoup d’autres disciplines, l’anthropologie est très mal représentée dans le public en général ou même dans le milieu académique. D’ailleurs, nous avons parfois l’impression que notre discipline est moins bien représentée que celle des autres. Il y a probablement un biais normal là-dessous. Mais je crois qu’il y a quelque-chose que les gens qui n’ont jamais travaillé en tant qu’anthropologue ne saisissent pas très bien.

Nombreux sont les collègues qui se méprennent au sujet de notre discipline. Les commentaires au sujet de l’anthropologie prononcés par des chercheurs provenant d’autres disciplines sont aussi exacts que si on définissait la biologie comme la critique des relations de pouvoir et la sociologie comme l’étude des courants marins. Qui plus est, plusieurs de nos collègues nous traitent de façon condescendante même lorsque leurs propres disciplines ont largement bénéficié de recherches anthropologiques.

Le problème est moins aigu en anthropologie physique et en archéologie que parmi les «disciplines ethnographiques» (comme l’ethnolinguistique, l’ethnohistoire et l’ethnologie). L’anthropologie judiciaire, l’archéologie préhistorique, la paléontologie humaine et la primatologie sont généralement considérée comme assez “sexy” et, même si le travail effectué par les chercheurs dans ces domaines est très différent de l’idéal présenté au public, il y a un certain lien entre le personnage imaginé par le public et la personne affublée de ce personnage. Oh, bien sûr, on a toujours des étudiants qui intègrent l’anthropologie pour devenir Jane Goodall, Kathy Reichs ou Indiana Jones. Mais c’est plus facile de ramener les gens sur terre en leur montrant le vrai travail du chercheur (surtout si ces gens sont déjà passionés par le sujet) que de franchir le fossé qu’il y a entre l’idée (souvent exotique et/ou ésotérique) que les gens se font de l’ethnographe.

En anthropologie, un des vulgarisateurs qui nous donne du fil à retordre, c’est Jared Diamond. Probablement pas un mauvais bougre. Mais c’est un de ceux qui nous forcent à travailler à rebours. Certains le croient anthropologue (alors que c’est un physiologiste et biologiste travaillant en géographie). Certaines personnes découvrent, grâce à Diamond, certains aspects liés à l’anthropologie. Mais le travail de Diamond sur des questions anthropologiques semble peu approprié parmi la communauté des anthropologues.

En anthropologie linguistique, comme dans d’autres domaines d’étude du langage, nous sommes aux prises avec des gens comme Noam Chomsky et Steven Pinker. L’un comme l’autre peut, à juste titre, être considéré comme innovateur dans son domaine. D’ailleurs, Chomsky a été (individuellement) un personnage si important dans la l’histoire de la linguistique de la fin du siècle dernier qu’on peut parler de «dominance», voire d’hégémonie chomskyenne. Pinker est depuis longtemps une «étoile montante» de la science cognitive et plusieurs cognitivistes tiennent compte de ses recherches. Toutefois, ils occupent tous les deux unou deplace assez large dans «l’esprit du public» au sujet du langage. Pinker tient plus directement le rôle du vulgarisateur dans ses activités, mais Chomsky est tout aussi efficace en tant que «figure» de la linguistique. J’aurais aussi pu parler de Deborah Tannen ou de Robin Lakoff, qui abordent toutes deux des aspects du langage qui sont importants en anthropologie linguistique. Mais elles semblent bien moins connues que Pinker et Chomsky. Détail intéressant: sur Wikipédia en français, elles sont énumérées parmi les linguistes mais elles n’ont pas leurs propres articles. Pourtant, l’ex-époux de Robin Tolmach Lakoff, George Lakoff, fait l’objet d’un article relativement détaillé. Sur Wikipedia en anglais, Robin Lakoff a son propre article mais les liens sur “Lakoff” et même “Professor Lakoff” redirigent le lecteur vers le même George avec mention de «la sociolinguiste» pour disambiguer. C’est peut-être logique, normal ou prévisible. Mais ça reste amusant.

D’ailleurs, je me demande maintenant s’il n’y a pas un certain biais, un certain obstacle à la reconnaissance des femmes dans le domaine de la vulgarisation. Parmi les chercheures qui tiennent le rôle de vulgarisatrices, j’ai de la difficulté à penser à des femme très connues du public en général. Il y a bien eu Margaret Mead, mais son rôle était légèrement différent (entre autres à cause du développement de la discipline, à l’époque). Il y a aussi Jane Goodall et Kathy Reichs, mentionnées plus haut. Mais on semble les connaître plus par leurs vies ou leurs travaux de fiction que par leurs activités de vulgarisation académique comme tel. On se méprend moins à cause d’elles sur les buts de la recherche que l’on ne se méprend à cause de gens comme Diamond ou Pinker. Y a-t-il d’autres femmes dont les activités médiatiques et bibliographiques ont, présentement, le même type d’impact que celles de Pinker, Chomsky ou Diamond? J’espère bien mais, honnêtement, j’ai de la difficulté à en trouver. Reichs est une bonne candidate mais, à ce que je sache, elle a toujours publié des ouvrages de fiction et non le type de texte semi-académique auquel je donne (de façon inexacte) le nom de «littérature grise».

Peut-être ne suis-je que biaisé. Je vois les femmes comme mieux à même de «faire la part des choses» entre travail académique et activités médiatiques que les hommes dont je parle ici. Ou bien j’ai tout simplement de la difficulté à critiquer les femmes.

Toujours est-il que…

J’ai, personnellement, un rapport assez particulier à la vulgarisation. Je la considère importante et je respecte ceux qui la font. Mais j’ai des opinions assez mitigées par rapport aux travaux effectués par divers vulgarisateurs.

J’ai assisté à divers événements centrés sur certains d’entre eux. Entre autres, une présentation de Pinker liée au lancement d’un de ses livres. Bien que cette présentation ait été effectuée dans sa ville natale et au sein de l’université où il a débuté ses études, Pinker n’avait alors pas su adapter sa présentation à son public. Selon moi, un des critères servant à évaluer la performance d’un vulgarisateur, c’est sa capacité à travailler avec «son» public.

Douglas Hofstadter m’avait semblé intellectuellement imprudent, lors de sa participation à un colloque sur la cognition à l’Université d’Indiana (pendant ma scolarité de doctorat au sein de cette institution assoifée de prestige). Ses propos ressemblaient plus à ceux d’un auteur de science fiction qu’à ceux d’un cognitiviste. Faut dire que j’ai jamais été impressionné par ses textes.

Vendredi soir dernier, j’ai assisté à une présentation du philosophe Daniel Dennett. Cette présentation, organisée par l’Institut de sciences cognitives de l’UQÀM, faisait partie d’une conférence plus large. Mais je n’ai remarqué que la présentation de Dennett, dans le programme distribué par courriel.

C’est d’ailleurs cette présentation qui m’a motivé à écrire ce billet. Le titre de ce billet se veut être une espèce de jeu de mots un peu facile. Il y a un aspect zeugmatique, ce que j’aime bien. J’avais d’abord décidé de l’écrire en anglais et de le nommer “grey literature and grey beards”, en référence partielle à un commentaire, laissé par Valérie Bourdeau sur mon «mur» Facebook, au sujet des barbus au type académique présents lors de l’événement. Encore là, un petit coup de jeu de mots.

Faut dire que Dennett a beaucoup utilisé l’humour, lors de sa présentation. Entre autres, plusieurs commentaires ressemblaient à des «blagues d’initiés» pour ceux qui connaissent bien son œuvre. Ces blagues étaient un peu «faciles», mais elles n’étaient pas dénuée d’à propos.

Mes notes prises au cours de la présentation de Dennett à l’aide de mon iPod touch, portent plutôt sur la forme de cette présentation que sur son contenu. J’ai quand même relevé certains commentaires au sujet de Dan Sperber, dont j’ai lu certains travaux et qui me semble justement cerner certaines questions importantes à l’égard de la cognition en contexte social d’une façon plus profonde que celle de Dennett ou de son ami Dawkins. Ces commentaires de Dennett au sujet de Sperber m’ont semblé un peu «rapides», ne tenant pas vraiment en compte la teneur réelle des travaux de Sperber. Pas que je suis nécessairement un fan inconditionnel de Sperber, mais les contre-arguments semblaient un peu spécieux.

La présentation dans son ensemble était assez intéressante et, en mettant en parallèle plusieurs idées assez distinctes, peut avoir été stimulante pour plusieurs personnes. Et probablement assez efficace pour ce qui est de la vente de livres.

Pour dire la franche vérité, j’ai trouvé cette présentation plus utile que ce à quoi je m’attendais. Force m’est d’admettre que, malgré mon respect pour le travail de vulgarisation, je m’attendais à quelque-chose de très superficiel. Et même si Dennett n’a pas atteint de grandes profondeurs lors de cette présentation, il s’est montré capable de permettre aux membres de l’auditoire de conserver leurs sens critiques, ce qui est rare dans la sphère médiatique qu’occupe parfois Dennett (surtout au sujet du dogmatisme, religieux ou athée). En d’autres termes, Dennett ressemblait davantage à un bon prof qu’à un vulgarisateur typique. Puisqu’il enseigne à Tufts, établissement difficile pour l’enseignement, je trouve cette qualité encore plus remarquable.

Ce qui est aussi intéressant, c’est que Dennett a parlé lui-même de vulgarisation. Il semblait soit prendre parti pour la vulgarisation ou se défendre de simplifier à outrance les questions complexes dont il traitait. De plus, Dennet a su critiquer directement le réductionnisme, un sujet qui me tient particulièrement à cœur. Dans un certain monde «scientiste», la science est exhaustivement explicative et toute question est concevable comme une réduction à des facteurs simples. C’est, selon moi, une approche simpliste, source de méprise et de situations embarrassantes. Dennett semble avoir une perspective similaire et s’est prononcé à la fois contre le réductionnisme scientifique en général et contre le déterminisme génétique en particulier (une forme particulièrement populaire de réductionnisme, à l’heure actuelle).

Ce n’est qu’après avoir commencé la rédaction de ce billet que j’ai écouté l’entrevue (audio) accordée par Hubert Reeves à l’émission Les années lumière de Radio-Canada. Non seulement Hubert Reeves y parle-t-il de vulgarisation mais, comme Dennett, il se prononce directement contre le réductionnisme. Très agréable et utile.

Une des choses que les vulgarisateurs arrivent à faire c’est le pont entre diverses disciplines. Soit à l’intérieur d’un des grands champs du monde académique (arts, sciences humaines, sciences naturelles…) ou même entre ces grands champs d’investigation (typiquement, entre Art et Science). Il y a rarement une balance réelle. Il s’agit souvent d’un scientifique qui parle d’art ou de sciences sociales, parfois avec des résultats plutôt mitigés. Mais la tendance est déjà vers le «généralisme créatif», vers une épistémologie large qui intègre diverses approches et conserve son sens critique dans diverses situations. Il y a quelque-chose de «raffraîchissant», dans tout ça.

Ce que j’apprécie peut-être le plus des vulgarisateurs, et ce que j’entreprends à ma façon, c’est l’implication sociale. Un peu comme des Bourdieu ou Attali en France, les vulgarisateurs du monde anglophone réussissent à sortir de la tour d’ivoire et à s’intégrer à la communauté sociale.

Un truc qui m’embête un peu, dans tout ça, c’est que certaines de mes activités (entre autres, les blogues) sont assez proches de la «littérature grise» et de la vulgarisation. Ce n’est peut-être qu’un problème dans le système actuel qui domine le milieu académique. Mais je ressens parfois un certain malaise. D’autant plus que, contrairement aux grands vulgarisateurs, je ne suis pas très doué dans la vente de textes.

Mais, ça, c’est mon problème. Je n’ai peut-être que la barbe de grise, mais peut-être qu’un jour je me transformerai en éminence grise… :-D

Fair-Minded Anthropocentrism

As part of an anthropologist’s mission is the task, infrequently discussed, of determining what is “unique to humanity as a species.” Defining the human condition, we want to find that which is exclusively human. Not that we’re restrictive in our approaches. We are, in fact, very inclusive on the whole. We simply care about “what it means to be human.” Human beings are our main focus so we should be allowed to concentrate on them, using all those angles we like to use (through time and space, looking at diversity and universalism in culture, language, biology, etc.).

Yet, in this bio-obsessed neo-Darwinian world in which we live, someone’s focus on a single species is sometimes viewed as overly restrictive. In some milieus, “anthropocentrism” (like most other “-centrisms”) is perceived as a fault. In some contexts, especially in mainstream science media, “anthropomorphism” (like some other “-morphisms”) is conceived as a fallacy, a logical error.

As should be obvious, my perspective is somewhat different.

The broad reason I think about these things is a bit personal. I listen to a number of science podcasts and I encounter a number of news items about science. As an anthropologist, I’m particularly interested when science journalists or others are talking about humanity in a broad perspective. To be honest, I get slightly disappointed by the type of approach used in these contexts. In a way, those we hear on these issues tend to oversimplify the type of concept which warrants, IMHO, the most careful attention. Sure, there might be a disciplinary bias in my desire to get some concepts more carefully handled by “science media.” But there’s also a rational dimension to this desire. For instance, “culture” and “intelligence” are terms which are very significant when used with caution but become hindrances when oversimplified. A term like “species,” on the other hand, remains rather useful even in a simplified version. As a kind of hybrid case, “society” can be a fairly simple concept to grasp yet care is needed to understand what particular “social scientists” mean by it.

Clearly, there’s a type of “hard vs. soft” science issue, here. And though the disciplinary gap in science hardness is bridged by scholars themselves, science media outlets are often broadening this gap.

Became motivated to write this post after listening to the broadcast version of the latest episode of Radio-Canada’s science show. This specific episode included a panel on animal behavior, intelligence, and “culture.” This panel came at the end of a conference series on “animal societies” and related issues.

During the radio panel, one scholar dismissed the idea of using so restrictive a set of criteria to define intelligence that it would only apply to humans. The same scholar also dismissed criteria which would be so broad as to include a large number of species. In the end, this scholar’s goal is apparently to define intelligence in a quantitative way so as to encompass just enough species to be meaningful in the type of framework he has in mind.

“Fair enough,” I say. If people like him want to build a quantitative model of intelligence which includes some animal species and not others, there’s no harm in that. Science is model-building and model-testing, not “blind obedience to absolutes.” There wasn’t any discussion of why we would need such a model but, unfortunately, we can expect this kind of oversight in mainstream science media.

What I hope is also “fair enough” is that some anthropologists are attempting to build a meaningful (not exclusively quantitative) model of human intelligence which would, in effect, exclude non-human species. Not trying to say that human beings are “better” or more interesting. Just trying to show where humans and other species differ. Because many of us use do not restrict research to quantitative methods, it matters relatively little if the distance between humans and other species seems rather short. So much hinges on this distance that we can call it “significant.” It’s as much our right as the right to study phenomena which are in some ways similar to human intelligence. In fact, those who study non-human intelligence can help us in defining the outer limits of our field. Division of labor in academia is effective when people are open-minded.

During that same radio panel, another scholar dismissed the distinction between “culture” (“human culture”) and “proto-culture” (“culture among non-human species including proto-human hominids”). This scholar was using an (IMHO) awkward analogy having to do with the transition from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles. (Something to the effect that we didn’t need a new name of automobiles so we don’t need a new name for human culture.) The fact that the analogy isn’t very effective is slightly amusing. More importantly, the dismissive statement displays a “pushy” attitude which I don’t find conducive to interdisciplinary work. Oh, sure, scholars in any discipline might display this attitude on occasion. In fact, I probably said similar things in classroom contexts, in order to make a point about something I was teaching. What I find problematic has more to do with overrepresentation from simplistic approaches to culture in mainstream science media. I don’t necessarily want “equal representation” (that’s not the way science works) but I would be pleased if mainstream science media could occasionally have culture scholars talking about culture.

Ah, well…

Maybe it’s just a knee-jerk reaction on my part. That’s why it appears on my blog.

Archives | Les Années lumière | zone Radio | Radio-Canada.ca

Beer and Science

The weekly SciAm Podcast Science Talk had an interview with UCDavis beer science professor Charles Bamforth. The interview was mostly concerned with Bamforth’s 2003 book on beer and science. Many of the things discussed on the program are common knowledge for most beer geeks but it’s still fun to have science media cover some part of the beer world.

As explained in this interview, beer is a much more complex beverage than wine. In North America, many people seem to associate wine with sophistication and beer with college drinking. The interview does fairly little to debunk these associations but does give some idea of how interesting beer can be from a scientific perspective.

Rethinking Peer-Review and Journalism

Can’t find more information just now but on the latest episode of ScienceTalk (SciAm‘s weekly podcast)

Scientific American editor-in-chief John Rennie discusse[d] peer review of scientific literature, the subject of a panel he recently served on at the World Conference of Science Journalists

I hope there will be more openly available information about this panel and other discussions of the peer-review process.

Though I do consider the peer-review process extremely important for academia in general, I personally think that it could serve us more if it were rethought.  Learning that such a panel was held and hearing about some of the comments made there is providing me with some satisfaction. In fact, I’m quite glad that the discussion is, apparently, thoughtful and respectful instead of causing the kind of knee-jerk reaction which makes many a discussion inefficient (including in academic contexts).