03/14/2014 10:09 am ET Updated May 13, 2014

The (Provisional) Truth About Emotions

I am not a fan of the New York Times. I rarely use my quota of free-to-the-internet articles. My view is that, institutionally, they are not nearly so clever as they appear to believe. They are slow to acknowledge or correct errors. Although I also recognize that, over the years, their reporters have produced some important and, occasionally, pivotal investigative pieces, the Times is a relatively minor source in my efforts to keep up with what is called news.

I continuously have to remind myself that the world the media describes is only tangentially connected to the one most of us inhabit. They will tell you that it is the important part. Perhaps. Or maybe it's an echo chamber.

On March 2, the Times published a guest editorial attacking Paul Ekman and his (and many others') decades of work on the facial expression of emotions.

First, you should know that Paul Ekman is a friend. One characteristic of a true friend is a person with whom one can disagree and from whom one thereby learns and grows.

That's also the way that science is presumed to work. The history of science provides ample evidence that scientific knowledge is provisional. It is evolving in ways which have consistently foiled our attempts to predict.

As we collect more data and make sense of that data, we learn more. As we develop new techniques and technologies for collecting data, we learn more. As we develop new models and theories for organizing the data, we learn more.

Years ago, Melanie Mitchell suggested to us that pattern recognition may well be the key to understanding intelligence, human and otherwise. In a conference my husband attended about the same time, Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann presented a simplified taxonomy of recognized patterns:

  • Patterns which we see which exist
  • Patterns which we don't see which exist
  • Patterns which we see but don't exist
  • Patterns which we don't see which don't exist

We presume that the proper focus of science (and media and politics) is on the first category, with the second category pushing us to do better thinking and more research.

Different people with distinctive experiences and divergent objectives will map the same data to different patterns. When the subject of our pattern-making is the human animal (or, more generally, life), certainty about the correct, immutable pattern is perilous, at best, foolish in the middle ground or, at its worst, destructive.

The March 2 editorial states that:

Hundreds of scientific studies support the idea that the face is a kind of emotional beacon, clearly and universally signaling the full array of human sentiments, from fear and anger to joy and surprise.

The opinion piece goes on to say that companies and government agencies are using these studies to evaluate individuals. The piece then issues a blanket assertion: "(T)his assumption is wrong."

Without being clear precisely what the assumption is, the author cites as evidence the work of the lab she directs. Such evidence hardly exhausts the subject or warrants the blanket assertion of error on Dr. Ekman's part.

As is the case with, say, Jesus, attacking the prophet for failures of the disciples is misguided. I doubt that Dr. Ekman would defend every application of his work, particularly those motivated by economics rather than a commitment to truthfulness.

In a version of his response (which the Times refused to publish deeming it too long), Dr. Ekman says:

Such a disagreement really belongs in exchanges of findings and theory in a scientific journal, evaluated by colleagues as evidence accumulates, not the public press.


These kinds of discussions are sufficiently difficult that playing to the crowd or stoking one's career almost certainly will derail the search for the (currently) correct pattern. Additionally, readers of the Times do not, in this context, constitute a credible jury. Much as in might appeal to fundamentalists-of-any-tribe, a vote on the efficacy of, say, gravity is wasted.

In addition to the pattern problem, there is also the inevitable language problem: are we talking about the same thing? is my use of a word identical to your use of that word? is your jargon compatible with my jargon? do we even speak the same language?

Jim Carse has suggested (The Religious Case Against Belief, 2009) that only true-believers know the truth. Scientist and the genuinely religious seek the truth. The more we know, the more we don't know; as the frontiers of knowledge expand, we confront ever more that we don't know (Plato was wrong). Walter Truett Anderson took on the challenge in The Truth About the Truth (1995). He argues that we are much more complex and diverse (individually and collectively) than can be subsumed in simple definitions or categorizations of who and what we are.

So, has the Times done well by its readers? Was this "news" "fit to print"? You can read the entire, published exchange here. On this question, we're all qualified to judge.

In my view, Dr. Ekman's science is good as of today. I am unfamiliar with the editorialist's science. I hope that she is appropriately diligent. If there are disagreements, there are scientific protocols available to resolve those differences. The New York Times is not among those protocols, nor are my opinions.

We would be well served by more humility from the media as well as from scientists. Politicians, too.

Someday science may provide a vaccine for hubris or a palliative which will reduce its more noxious attributes. Meanwhile, a healthy, broadly informed skepticism augmented by multiple, competing information sources works as an antidote. Right now my emotional state is fair to partly cloudy, with change on the horizon.