Big picture, little picture

On the heels of my rather googly-eyed, light years ahead of myself post, I’m going to make a plug for keeping the little picture in mind.

Robert Sapolsky (neurobiologist and primatologist, author of the very entertaining and enlightening books, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, The Trouble With Testosterone, and MonkeyLuv) gave an energetic talk titled “Faith, Science, and the Mind” for the Stanford Atheists Humanists and Agnostics (AHA) seminar series. Sapolsky started out with an in-depth description of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), laying out in exacting detail the very debilitating nature of the disease and the major ways in which it manifests itself. Overwhelmingly, persons with this disease exhibit very stereotyped behaviors, focused especially on personal hygiene, food preparation, entering/leaving buildings, and numbers. Most salient through all of these is the insistence on many seemingly arbitrary and minute rules, the insistence on what begins to resemble ritual.

He then drew parallels between these features of OCD and characteristics of the orthodox variants of major religions. Rules for comporting oneself, for dress, for food preparation, for entering and leaving buildings, for all aspects of behavior, exactly how to pray, depending on the religion. Numbers dominate, such as the holy Trinity in Catholicism, the number of rules (248 things you must do, 365 things you must not do) in orthodox Judaism, the number of prayers you must say before your death in Hinduism, etc. In some cases, the exact rules matter less than the number of them. The take home point here, though, is that seen objectively, followers of orthodox religions very much exhibit all of the major features of OCD. Whereas in one case the person might be marginalized by society, in the other he or she can become respected and even exalted.

There were many paths Sapolsky’s talk could have followed, but he avoided going too far down the more controversial ones. He specifically said that he was NOT suggesting that orthodox religious observers were suffering from a mental disorder, which is a conclusion that could have all too easily been intimated. And I expressly focused on one aspect of his talk where he emphasized the importance of context in our understanding of human behavior. He stated that biology is essential for elucidating human behavior, including behavior that was historically seen as the purview of religion. Religion cannot be the be all and end all of our knowledge of human behavior, but biology cannot necessarily answer all of the big questions.

In sum, it is dangerous to hold too extreme a world view. Absolute reductionism (the little picture) is rejected by most people, but so should basing all of your knowledge only on the metaphysical (the big picture). We can’t understand behavior without understanding biology (the details), but in order to leverage the knowledge and tools we gain from that study, we must put them in the context of the philosophy of human behavior.

In open science as well we need to make sure we retain that balance between the big picture and the little picture. The big picture is about thinking decades ahead, with open ended questions like – what could science, research, academia, publishing, etc be like in 10 years or even 100 years? It’s also thinking about the overall climate for change, the culture and sociology of science and research behavior. The little picture is focused on the immediate future or even the past and present – what can we accomplish NOW? What should we accomplish in a year or a few years? What do we need to do to progress towards bigger and bigger achievements? What details can we implement?

There’s been a lot of big picture thinking and many are now beginning to focus attention on the little picture, as we should. As we move forward, it will be important to keep both the big and the little in mind, for change cannot happen without definite action and action is wasted if context is disregarded.

One Response to Big picture, little picture

  1. What makes this interesting is that our tools for getting to the small picture are evolving quickly – thus the importance of maintaining active discussion at all levels openly. We can’t really predict exactly what the little picture will look like a few years out.

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