RE: Familiar images make false impressions

From: Vincent Campbell (
Date: Thu Jun 21 2001 - 12:52:25 BST

  • Next message: Wade T.Smith: "RE: Familiar images make false impressions"

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    Subject: RE: Familiar images make false impressions
    Date: Thu, 21 Jun 2001 12:52:25 +0100
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    On this theme of single images or ideas shaping social perceptions, here's
    another anti-censorship piece from the Alternet-

    There are some clear journalistic flaws in the above piece, but I cite it
    because it raises to my mind a similar notion to the cave-man image
    mentioned below, on my usual hobby horse of media effects. Like the wrong
    image of neanderthals, the effects myth persists in many people's minds
    despite efforts to demonstrate it's inaccuracy. I've probably mentioned it
    before, but John Turney's book 'Frankenstein's Footsteps' explores how
    debates about biology and bio-technology, in the UK at least, have been
    remarkably shaped by the Frankenstein story, again not dis-similar to the
    points made below about the importance of particular images/ideas.

    I think I'm increasingly inclining to see the role of the media in cultural
    transmission in terms of the existing concept in media studies of framing-
    in other words the media's role is (perhaps obviously, but often even the
    obvious needs explication) a representational one, that can have
    consequences for how people themselves frame issues/events/people etc. in
    their own minds. This is nothing like the media effects arguments of the
    anti-pornography or anti-media violence lobbies, who persist with the simple
    behavioural effects ideas (even though some framing authors do seem to go
    further than they should really). One of the reasons framing is different
    from more simple models it that there is no assumption that media framing
    automatically results in audiences framing their attitudes, beliefs and
    behaviour in the same way (unlike in advertising and marketing where those
    kind of assumptions do persist- and people keep paying them so there's
    little hope of changing those professional attitudes).

    This relates also to Chris' notion of some kind of deep structure or
    architecture to memeplexes, such that even if there's lots of bits that go
    wrong in copying, some core bits will remain. Perhaps what we see in myths,
    is stories pretty much reduced to this core set if ideas. Certainly the
    Frankenstein story has been through so many incarnations that the original
    story is probably the least familiar to people. What most people think of
    as the Frankenstein story is vastly different from the original, but
    something of the original idea has persisted. But, whilst we may blame
    Marilyn Manson for the Columbine shootings, can we blame Mary Shelly for
    public hostility (in the UK) towards GM foods, or Niels Bohr for the
    persistence of the incorrect atom image? All three are equally ridiculous
    in my book.


    > ----------
    > From:
    > Reply To:
    > Sent: Tuesday, June 19, 2001 2:54 pm
    > To:
    > Subject: Fwd: Familiar images make false impressions
    > This is a short article concerning the conference that occured on
    > Thursday and Friday last week. I went to the discussion with Sontag and
    > Wilson and Penrose. Sontag's major point was more about the laxity of
    > meaning in an image- her main work, Against Interpretation, is still her
    > philosophical stance.
    > - Wade
    > ***************
    > Familiar images make false impressions
    > By David L. Chandler, Globe Staff, 6/19/2001
    > Certain images are so familiar that they are deeply embedded in the
    > collective consciousness of human beings. They have become cultural
    > icons.
    > Unfortunately, many of these images - and the understanding they
    > convey - are seriously misleading, creating false impressions of the
    > world that are remarkably difficult to correct.
    > For instance, everyone knows what ''cave men'' looked like - stooped,
    > hairy, club-wielding, gorilla-like, fierce. The familiar image is
    > largely based on a single drawing done in the early 1900s, based on the
    > first Neanderthal skeleton to be discovered.
    > And almost everything about that image is false.
    > The stooped posture? Well, it may have been true of that one, original
    > skeleton, which turns out to have been from a 30-year-old man with a
    > severe case of arthritis in his shoulders and back. He probably did
    > indeed walk hunched over, but he's as representative of Neanderthals as
    > one seriously disabled individual is of all modern humanity.
    > Hairy? Nobody knows, since all we have to go on are ancient, fossilized
    > bones. Club-wielding? Pure guesswork. Fierce and gorilla-like? No more
    > so than a lot of people today.
    > ''The popular image of the club-wielding, clumsy cave man - subject of a
    > million cartoons from the Flintstones to Gary Larsen - comes directly
    > from a single act of scientific misinterpretation,'' said Evan
    > Hadingham, a producer for the award-winning PBS science series, Nova.
    > ''It persists today in popular culture, even though the science has long
    > since been exposed as faulty.''
    > It's a typical case of how a single image - widely copied and
    > embellished - can shape impressions that become nearly universal. And
    > when such images convey ''information'' supposedly based on science,
    > they can enhance human understanding perhaps more profoundly than words
    > could ever do - for good or ill.
    > This power of images to shape our views of things was the subject of a
    > conference, called ''Image and Meaning,'' last week at the Massachusetts
    > Institute of Technology. And several speakers there, including
    > Hadingham, focused on the amazing power of visual depictions to either
    > clarify or distort our understanding of scientific concepts.
    > What does an atom look like? To a modern physicist, this is a virtually
    > meaningless question, because the atom itself is smaller than the
    > wavelengths of light that are responsible for our visual sense of
    > things. It can never be ''seen,'' so, in a fundamental sense, it doesn't
    > look like anything.
    > Still, visual diagrams can help our understanding, and diagrams of the
    > appearance of atoms are widely used to teach science - and even by
    > scientists themseselves to help them work out complex chemical problems.
    > But the images they use would not be recognizable as ''atoms'' to the
    > general public.
    > The familiar view of the atom has been scientifically out of date since
    > 1925: The picture of a nucleus with electrons whizzing around in orbit,
    > like planets circling the sun. ''It's so ubiquitous, and so wrong,''
    > said MIT chemist Thomas Greytak. And yet the image was used in the logo
    > of the Atomic Energy Commission, was recently adopted for a Girl sCout
    > merit badge, and is woven into the carpeting at the new University Park
    > Hotel at MIT.
    > ''Is the `planetary' atom real?'' asked physicist Roald Hoffman, one of
    > the speakers at the MIT conference. ''Oh, it was real in the minds of
    > physicists ... for all of 12 years, from 1913 to 1925.'' But then, this
    > image based on Niels Bohr's theories was quickly replaced by Edwin
    > Schroedinger's theory of an atom whose electrons could never be located
    > precisely in space, but existed only as a complex ''wave function''
    > describing their probability of being in a given location. Orbits were
    > replaced by cloud-like probability regions called orbitals.
    > Did that catch on? Never, Hoffman explained: ''Too late. In the popular
    > imagination, it's Bohr's orbits, and don't tell me about wave functions
    > and probabilities. ... It doesn't matter. An orbit it will be, in the
    > public imagination, forever.''
    > But that persistence of the knowledge that can be imparted by images can
    > also work to enhance understanding, if the images themselves are real
    > and not misleading. For example, among the most powerful and emblematic
    > images of the 20th century were those taken of the Earth by the Apollo
    > astronauts during their trips to the moon. Amazingly, although it has
    > become one of the best-known images of the space age, there was only a
    > single picture ever taken - on the very last Apollo mission, in December
    > 1972 - of the whole Earth, hanging against the blackness of space.
    > Harrison Schmitt, one of the Apollo 17 astronauts, took the picture on
    > the way to the moon, and, because of the way the lunar orbits were
    > planned, it was the only time that astronauts were ever far emough away
    > from Earth to capture the whole planet easily in one frame, and in the
    > right position relative to the sun to see a fully-illuminated Earth.
    > The space shuttle can't fly nearly high enough to get such a view again,
    > and even weather satellites in high, geosynchronous orbits can't quite
    > capture the full hemisphere - and their electronic cameras, designed to
    > ''see'' specific wavelengths including the infrared, do not match the
    > view that the human eye would see. No spacecraft planned for at least
    > the next decade will be capable of producing such a view, so for the
    > foreseeable future, that single image, with Africa prominently featured
    > in the foreground, will remain as Earth's only full-face portrait.
    > And it wasn't even planned.
    > Schmitt, who took the picture during the outbound flight from about
    > 34,000 miles away, said in an interview that ''that was the first
    > picture I took'' of a series of views of the Earth as the spacecraft got
    > farther and farther away, but the lighting was changing so that the
    > illuminated portion of the planet got smaller with each picture. Those
    > pictures were his own idea, he said: A lifelong interest in meteorology
    > led him to want to take pictures of the changing cloud patterns.
    > Since then, National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials have
    > told Schmitt that his impromptu photo has become the most-requested
    > picture in all of NASA's vast archive of images from four decades of
    > space exploration. Nobody, including Schmitt, had ever imagined that his
    > snapshot would become such an important icon.
    > That single image, along with shots of Earthrise as seen from the moon
    > by the Apollo 8 crew, have profoundly affected the human psyche and
    > visions of humanity's relationship to the cosmos. The Apollo missions,
    > Schmitt said, represented ''the first time humans were in a position to
    > photograph the whole Earth.'' That simple fact, and the resulting
    > images, ''started to shape humans' understanding'' of their place in
    > space.
    > Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard University biologist and author, said that
    > the famous images of the Earth in space have helped to change humanity's
    > understanding of the planet. ''We see it as distant and fragile'' in
    > these pictures, he said at the MIT conference last Friday. ''Of course,
    > the planet is not fragile, but the biosphere is fragile.'' Although the
    > planet harbors perhaps 10 million species of life, he said, that
    > cumulative mass of living things, as viewed from space along the
    > planet's edge, ''is razor thin; it can't be seen.''
    > And yet that invisible biomass includes human beings with their newfound
    > power to make profound changes to the Earth's atmosphere, oceans, and
    > climate. ''We have become a geological force,'' Wilson said.
    > While humans have the power to wreak dramatic changes on this planet,
    > Wilson - whose own specialty in biology has been the study of ants -
    > noted that we should remain humble about our importance. The Earth
    > harbors, at any given moment, about 6 billion humans and about 1,000
    > trillion ants - but those numbers add up to approximately equal tonnage
    > of ants and people.
    > If all humans were to vanish overnight, he added, the biosphere would
    > quickly come back into balance. But if the ants were to disappear, much
    > of the biosphere would immediately collapse. And it is a sense of that
    > kind of fragility that the image of the Earth in space helps to convey.
    > These images of the Earth have become so familiar, said author Susan
    > Sontag at the MIT conference, that they are ''the visual equivalent of
    > sound bites,'' and in an era dominated by images of celebrities, they
    > fall into a similar category, having become ''celebrity images.''
    > Another speaker suggested they could be thought of as ''sight bites.''
    > ''We remember through images,'' Sontag said, ''but we understand through
    > words.''
    > But because of the amazing power of images to shape the way people
    > remember and think about important concepts, MIT's Greytak said last
    > week, ''We have to be careful in what images we expect are going to
    > become icons, and make sure that we get them right.''
    > David Chandler can be reached by e-mail at
    > This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 6/19/2001.
    > Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.
    > ==============================================================This was
    > distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    > Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
    > For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)
    > see:

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