Why basic research matters II: John Sivell

Currently, we hear a lot about the value of research that focuses on a manifestly practical application. This argument seems to reflect the tradition of high-level technical education that began in the period of the Industrial Revolution, and plainly there is much to recommend it. But there is also a risk in presenting this perspective: we need to avoid underestimating the complex evolutionary development of core insights that can and do have a world-changing practical impact on daily life.

I work in Linguistics, a very interdisciplinary domain that is usually homed in the Humanities. This matters to me, because I sense a general undervaluation of Humanities research and education. I trust that that misperception will eventually fall back out of fashion.

I am concerned, however with a more lasting bias against encouraging the kind of non-linear, intellectually rich environment that can foster new ideas and discoveries and even lead to practical applications. New understandings emerge quite unexpectedly, and virtually never in a predictable way.

To get a sense of the value of pure intellectual exploration, consider the very old philosophical tradition to view the world in terms of contrasts. In the early part of the 20th Century, that underlying theme surfaced in the form of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s brilliantly simply concept that human language could be effectively explained as a system of contrasts, so that by focusing on langue (language as an abstract system) rather than parole (individual language codes) it would be possible to understand psycholinguistic and philosophical characteristics of communication that would not be remotely so apparent to scholars concentrating just on English, French, German, and so on. That leap forward has driven the development of thinking in Linguistics and in Communication Studies.

At about the middle of the century, American mathematician Claude Shannon advanced another type of system relying on opposites: this time, a mathematical theory of electronic communication in which patterns of contrast had the capacity to provide the redundancy necessary for overcoming interference from noise on the line. His work is one of the key foundations for the communications revolution that led to the digital world on which so many of us rely today.

Unquestionably, Shannon’s discovery is a veritable poster child for practically applicable research, and it might even be taken as a foil for Saussure’s fascinating but essentially impractical line of thinking.

Shannon himself does not mention Saussure, but he does refer admiringly to the work of Norbert Weiner on cybernetics. And semiotician N. Katherine Hayles links not only Weiner with Saussure, but also Saussure with Shannon. Of course, such a circuitous provenance definitely does not constitute a tightly-linked chain of direct influences, but perhaps this is exactly the point. While curiosity-based research, scholarly thinking, and education may or may not trigger any immediate practical outcome, the constant value of such efforts is that they flow into the exciting intellectual environment in which all sorts of thinkers and researchers operate.

It is evident that Saussure himself was simply curious about language; he clearly had no intention of presenting a theory that might be commercially profitable. But by the time Shannon – who did have commercial applications in mind – came onto the scene, Saussure’s theory was ‘in the air’: available to Shannon as a very useful concept. Shannon may not even have been aware of Saussure, but he surely was aware of Saussure’s ideas.

In fine, Shannon did not work in a bubble entirely isolated from other intellectuals. And that, surely, is the major take-away from this example. The distinction between what is or is not ‘useful’ or ‘practical’ research or education depends very much on how narrowly and superficially one decides to view the matter. Using a term from another perhaps ‘impractical’-looking linguist, Michael Halliday, it is a question of delicacy, the degree of finesse with which definitions are framed: too little delicacy, and everything flows into everything else and informative categorizations become impossible; but too much, and the sledgehammer of oversimplified precision fractures the very pattern one initially set out to clarify.


Tagged: Culture, Economy, Technology, Stories

Share: Print

Leave Comments

Blog Posts

Watershed finding

Sharon Oosthoek | July 2, 2015

Ancient carbon buried deep in the soil is leaching into rivers around the world as a result of human development — a finding with significant implications for climate change. Trent University professor and aquatic ecologist Maggie Xenopoulos was part of a team of Canadian and American researchers who recently uncovered the extent of the problem. They showed how disturbing soil for agriculture and urban development is releasing carbon buried for thousands of years. Carbon in soil comes from decayed plants and, in the case of ancient carbon, is sequestered deep in the earth where it is locked away from the atmosphere. But now this old carbon is leaching into rivers where aquatic bacteria can consume it. Just like people, bacteria don't use everything they eat. Whatever doesn’t fuel their growth or reproduction, the bacteria expel as waste. One of those waste products is carbon dioxide (CO2), which can then be emitted into the atmosphere where it may contribute to climate change. Xenopoulos's research brings to light an important but largely unconsidered contribution to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions: development in watersheds. "The effect (on CO2 emissions) is like driving a car, but nobody sees it that way," says Xenopoulos. "The global carbon budget isn't balanced. This could be one reason why, but more studies are needed." Confirming suspicions While many scientists suspected development in watersheds released ancient carbon into rivers, and from there into the atmosphere, no one had compiled a database to prove it. That is until Xenopoulos and her colleagues tallied up the age of dissolved organic carbon leaching into 135 rivers around the world, including about a dozen in Ontario. They used a technique called radiocarbon dating, which estimates the age of organic material based on how much carbon 14 it contains. Carbon 14 is a radioactive form of the element which decays at a known rate. Measuring how much is left in a river's dissolved organic carbon gives a fairly accurate estimate of its age. The researchers found the age of dissolved organic carbon in rivers increased with population density and development. Extrapolating their findings to rivers around the world, Xenopoulos and her team estimate that in watersheds with human disturbance old carbon could account for 3 to 9 per cent of the total dissolved organic carbon in rivers. "We are returning this old carbon into the modern carbon cycle, which should instead stay buried deep into the soils," says Xenopoulos. She proposes a simple solution: "Apply better management practices and keep wetlands and riparian areas healthy."

Eyeliner clouds vision

Natalee Blagden | June 24, 2015

While fashion comes and goes, your eyes are forever. That's why one Waterloo researcher is cautioning people who wear contact lenses, but love the drama of heavy eye makeup, to consider wearing daily disposable lenses. Alison Ng, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Contact Lens Research (CCLR), studied what happens when eyeliner is applied to the “waterline” — the inner part of the eyelash line. She found the eyeliner moves on from the waterline to the tear film — the thin, wet layer that protects the eye. In her research, Ng captured more than 200 frames of video at timed intervals of her subject’s eyes. She and her research team then used specialized software to count every tiny particle of glitter that appeared on the surface of the eye and the results were clear: when we apply makeup along the waterline, eyeliner moves into the tear film. Contact lenses compound the problem While that’s not good news for anyone, Ng’s research showed that the eyeliner gets flushed away by your tears within a couple of hours. But people who wear contact lenses run bigger risks because the makeup can get trapped and affect vision. Lenses worn for multiple days are especially problematic because they continually re-introduce and collect unwanted debris, cautions Ng. “This can create cloudiness in contact lenses and disrupt vision,” she says. “For anyone who wears heavy makeup or enjoys regularly applying beauty products around the eye, I would recommend daily disposable lenses.” Anyone with dry eyes — thanks to genetics, environment, or staring at a screen all day — may also be susceptible to more noticeable irritation, Ng says. Her study used healthy females without contact lenses as a baseline, but the connection to dry eyes and contacts is obvious. Watch for redness and itchiness Ng conducted the research while completing her PhD at Cardiff University in Wales, U.K. The findings appear in the journal Eye and Contact Lens, the official peer-reviewed journal of the Contact Lens Association of Ophthalmologists. Redness, itchiness, or irritation are all signs that it may be time to change your makeup routine to keep your eyes clear and healthy, she says. “You have to think about cosmetic use at all stages. Consider which products you choose, how you apply the products and how you remove them at bedtime,” says Ng. Prevent bacterial transfer by sharpening eye pencils thoroughly before each use. Twist-up products are tricky, but manageable, says Ng. She recommends that people who favour this style of eyeliner trim a small piece of eyeliner from the end of the product before every application.

End of skinny models?

Brock University staff | June 22, 2015

Women are ready to see fashion models that look like them. New Brock University research shows size six models do a better job of marketing products, especially to women with low self-esteem. The research by Kai-Yu Wang, a marketing professor at Brock’s Goodman School of Business, shows that fashion brands can substitute their size zero models with average sized models without impacting either the model attractiveness rating or the product evaluation. “With the debate around the use of super-skinny models, we wanted to find out if women preferred size zero models over average sized models” says Wang. In April, France passed legislation to ban excessively thin fashion models amid concerns over the impact they have on body image, self-esteem and eating disorders. The ban came after a similar moves by Israel, Italy and Spain. Wang and his co-author completed three studies to test their theories about whether women aged 18-25 preferred average size models or size zero models and the role that brand and self-esteem play in their preferences. They looked at both established companies with a history of using size zero models as well as fictional new brands. Defying expectations “We expected that when they looked at print ads for an established brand, like Gucci, we would find that our participants would prefer the skinny models over the average sized model,” says Wang. “In fact, we found that average sized models could be used interchangeably with the size zero models with minimal impact on the evaluation of the model and the product.” For new fashion brands that are just starting their advertising campaigns, they should hire average sized models, the research shows. This is because new brands are not associated with any particular cues,” says Wang. “Consumers tend to use accessible information (people around us) to make a judgment. Thus, they like average size models more than super-skinny models.” In addition, the research also found that when new fashion brands are advertising, low self-esteem participants prefer average sized models over the skinny models. Such an effect was not observed among high self-esteem participants. The study was co-authored with Xuemei Bian, a senior lecturer in marketing at the KentBusinessSchool, University of Kent, U.K. The research paper, “Are size zero female models always more effective than average-sized ones? Depends on brand and self-esteem!” will be published in an upcoming issue of the European Journal of Marketing.

Opening closet doors

Araina Bond | June 15, 2015

Whether your closet is lined with designer suits, thrift-store finds, or well-worn sports jerseys, Ben Barry would like to peek inside. Barry is an assistant professor of equity, diversity and inclusion at Ryerson University's School of Fashion and a visiting scholar at New York's New School University. His research offers fresh insight into intersections among gender, fashion and consumption. Barry has published several studies about how social norms hold back men from experimenting with the way they dress. He has also tackled a topic that has been studied intensively when it comes to women, but mostly overlooked in men: how idealized models in the media affect self-esteem. He sees this topic as a wake-up call for advertisers as well as the media in general: “Men identify with models that reflect their shapes, ages and races, and favourably perceive advertisements with these models because they can picture themselves in the clothing.” His current two-year project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, looks at how men use fashion to deconstruct and re-imagine their gendered identities. Part of this research involves ‘closet interviews’ with 50 men, aged 18 to 92, asking them to open their closet doors and share how the clothes inside came to be there. How men’s choices reflect feelings about identities around sexuality, race, class, body type, disability and age are providing fascinating insights into the nature and diversity of men’s contemporary gendered identities. The 92-year old man, for example, says he buys women’s jeans since his hip replacement because they provide more comfort after his surgery. Another man, a grade six teacher, combines traditional male and female elements in his outfits, such as a sequin top paired with basketball shorts, to challenge his students’ conceptions of gender identity. Conventional masculinity flawed “Fashion is powerful and has always been gendered a feminine thing,” Barry explains. “But men’s fashion consumption has been growing at twice the rate. I’m interested in how fashion can unravel and challenge traditional gender norms. ”Understanding these issues is more important than ever, he says, because the conventional ideal of masculinity – muscular, thin and Caucasian – is unattainable for the majority of men.“These rigid gender codes are harmful to men’s wellbeing because they constrain their behaviours, limit their potential as well as exclude men whose differences posit them outside of the conventional masculine norms,” he says. Social media, however, is making it easier for men to explore their own sense of fashion, he says. Blogs, Instagram and Facebook give them access to a non-threatening way to see what other men are doing and experimenting with. In year two of his project, Barry plans to turn the traditional runway fashion show on its head: men in his study will put on a fashion show featuring their own clothes. “Ultimately,” he says, “It’s about how we can create and recreate ourselves through fashion.” Research Matters highlights Professor Ben Barry's research as one of 50 game-changing discoveries to come out of Ontario universities over the past 100 years. Learn more and vote for your favourite breakthrough here

Manufacturing materialism

Sharon Oosthoek | June 8, 2015

People who watch a lot of TV are generally less concerned about the environment than those who watch very little. When Jennifer Good came across this research as a graduate student in the 1990s, her first question was "why?" Some research suggested this was because of “time displacement.” In other words, more TV viewing meant less time spent outdoors and feeling connected to it. Other research said this was because prime-time programming doesn't generally show the environment — that it is "symbolically annihilated.” Good, now a professor in the department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film at Brock University, suspected there was another explanation. She wondered if the lack of environmental concern had something to do with how TV viewing encourages materialism. Perhaps television helps us see ourselves primarily as consumers of clothes, cars, gadgets and kitchenware. "When we understand our lives as related to consumption, we assess who we are based on what we own, what we wear, what we drive," she says. "The Earth then becomes the means by which we acquire these things." She thought maybe when this happens, other understandings of the Earth — as a collection of ecosystems, or a provider of clean water and air — fade from our consciousness. Good wanted to research relationships between TV viewing, materialism and attitudes towards the environment. So in a series of studies, and later in her 2013 book, Television and the Earth: Not a Love Story, she conducted surveys that showed materialism does in fact mediate the relationship between TV viewing and attitudes about the natural environment. In her work, she examined not just traditional TV viewing but also screen time on our phones, computers and tablets.  In one study, she surveyed two groups of 1,000 people. One group was a random sample of Americans, while the other was a random sample of Americans belonging to a national environmental organization. Good asked questions about TV viewing habits, levels of materialism and attitudes toward the environment while controlling for variables such as sex, age, income and education. In both groups, she found that those who watched more TV were less concerned about the environment and more materialistic. And as one’s materialism increased, one’s concern for the environment decreased. "What we've learned we can unlearn" "The effects I saw were small, but consistent," says Good. "TV affects our understanding of what makes us who we are and our understanding of the environment. But I would be hesitant to say TV forces us go out and do things." Good also highlights that it's possible to want the latest fashions, the most prestigious cars and coolest electronics all while thinking of yourself as an environmentalist: you can choose to buy only environmentally-friendly products. "But it's still about endless economic growth and it's not sustainable," says Good, pointing out that many products marketed as "green" are not truly green. And even those that tread lightly on the Earth have an impact. Still, Good insists on an optimistic long-term view: "Our relationship with our ‘stuff’ is new in the context of human history. We learned materialism and what we've learned we can unlearn," she says.
More Blogs »