This was a guest post by Gwendolyn Nix.
In a recent article, FierceRoller tackled the notorious Golden Fleece Awards and the Wastebook, two award projects created and given by United States Senators decrying research proposals they deem silly and wasteful.
Naturally, as scientists, we nurse a certain outrage towards those without scientific training (or the determination to fully read a scientific paper) who assert that certain studies are worthless. I don’t go around the House of Representatives telling the Speaker of the House how to do his job. I wouldn’t even go to MacDonald’s and tell the fry cook that I could make better fries without the gumption prove it. Because I am excited to put my money where my mouth is, I’m going to analyze the Golden Fleece Award given to Robert E. Kraut and Robert E. Johnston on their study of why bowlers smile.
Maybe you’re smiling right now. It does sound a little ridiculous. A study on bowlers smiling? It’s obvious, scientists. Bowlers smile because they’re happy to be bowling. But the true nature of the 1979 paper, “Social and emotional messages of smiling: an ethological approach” tells a different story. Studying bowlers, hockey players, and pedestrians, Kraut & Johnston used their findings to further understand the causation of smiling in social situations and the overall evolution of facial expressions. The results are not what you would expect.
Now, this study began in the late ‘70’s. A lot of what we know now was just being discovered then, proving why scientific studies of what may be considered a ridiculous topic are actually the diving boards to understand a much deeper well of human interactions. For someone who has a hundred briefs to go over and upcoming press releases, it does seem likely that a certain Senator may have come across this funded project, had a good chuckle, and included the study in his Golden Fleece Award. Yet, his action to deem a scientific study as ridiculous represents a troubling potential to stifle scientific discoveries of all kinds. So what exactly did Kraut & Johnston discover by watching a bunch of bowlers hang out?
Kraut & Johnston found that many people do not only smile because they are happy, they smile mainly because they are in a social environment and want to convey a feeling of happiness to others. This drove the understanding that as social creatures, humans have evolved to smile for others and not just for themselves. This also conveys that the act of smiling in general has a tendency to pull people together, alleviate stressful situations, and create bonds within social groups. Kraut & Johnston uncovered that many times their subjects tended to smile while talking with others or in response to another smiling face rather than if they scored a goal or bowled a strike. From looking at a group of bowlers, that’s a lot to unearth. Luckily for them, the Golden Fleece Award (awarded in 1980) didn’t have the power to remove the lab’s National Science Foundation grant, allowing Kraut & Johnston to make a huge splash in the evolutionary psychology field. While Evolutionary Psychology has a tumultuous reputation, nevertheless, Kraut & Johnson’s research provided a foundation upon which later research of human behavior stands. Since then, the study has been citied 424 times and led to a large body of research on the evolutionary significance of human behavior.
But the lesson here is a sobering one. In today’s world, scientists studying the length of a walrus’ teeth or the composition of a mollusk shell may come under scrutiny by the public or media requesting the validity of their work. One would hope the questioners would do the necessary homework to understand the implications of their science—an easy task as many scientific papers include the importance of their work in the research proposal’s abstract—instead of reverting to immediate criticism or the revival of another Golden Fleece Award. While the quick elevator pitch synopsis may sound silly (I’m studying why bowlers smile), many times research unfolds a variety of discoveries that could be monumental to understanding our world and humans as a whole, if not immediately then further down the road.
What do I know, though. I just study little green fellas called algae that unfold the miracle of evolution.