Sunday, August 12, 2007

Scientific Value

I recently finished reading Peter Kramer's Against Depression. Kramer is the psychiatrist who wrote Listening to Prozac some years ago. In talks on the Prozac book, he frequently got questions about the tension between treating depression and the suppression of artistic temperament ("what if we gave van Gogh Prozac", for example). Against Depression is his discussion of society's view of depression juxtaposed against the reality of what doctors understand of the disease, or in his terms, "what it is" versus "what it is to us".

That phrasing of the contrast grabbed me. The descriptions of modern understanding of depression were fascinating and unnerving (covering issues such as the way depression alters the brain, how we become more susceptible to it after each episode, and how the disease is really about the loss of resiliency). It is his bigger question, however, about the tension between the scientific reality and our perception of the problem, that I keep thinking about. We see this all the time with scientifically-valid evidence: people don't believe or even absorb something just because it is true. Kramer attempts to explain why this is dangerous in the case of depression.

It reminded me of a science education video I saw several years back: middle school children did science lessons on light and the inability to see in completely dark places. One by one, children who had done well on these lessons were put into a completely dark room and asked whether they could see anything. They persisted in believing that their eyes would adjust soon, thus enabling them to see. Experience (of being in fairly dark places) overrode the facts (of being in a completely dark place). The video was demonstrating how educators have to elicit the experiences or prior beliefs that contradict new knowledge in order to help students absorb new knowledge.

Kramer's case seems both easier and harder to make. Easier because he can explain the realities of depression in terms of vivid human stories to which readers can relate; the human stories give a hook on which the reader can hang the new knowledge. Harder, though, because our society has a lot invested (emotionally) in romanticizing depression. Kramer works hard to distinguish medical depression (which has corresponding brain pathology) from variations in temperament. Lay people often miss the distinction, which in turn reinforces existing misconceptions about the disease.

Heading into the academic year, the book gives a good reminder of the role of existing beliefs in learning and the importance of casting ideas in ways that grab people's attention. Even if you aren't an educator, there's a lot to learn from this engaging and well-written book. It's a good reminder that we should ask ourselves what beliefs we hang on to, what value we ascribe to them, and how that value might contradict more compelling evidence.

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