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Part Three: Science - It's Only Human

While scholars like Karen-Sue Taussig and Rachel Schurman are examining how culture affects the way we relate to science, Steven Manson and C. Kenneth Waters are studying another part of the equation—how our relationship to science affects actual scientific results.

Steven Manson

Steven Manson
Photo by Kelly Macwilliams

For years, McKnight Land Grant Professor of Geography Steven Manson says, many of the models that scientists have used to predict how humans will act have discounted the role that cultural values play in human behavior.

Rational choice theory, on which such models are based, assumes a certain universality to human decision making. Whether Kenyan or Canadian, we are all, according to rational choice theory, rational actors: Given a complete picture of a situation, we will act logically within it. And we make choices that bring us closer to what we value: money, power, health, and happiness.

But as many scholars in the field of science studies have shown, when push comes to shove, we are, well, only human. When we are the mice in the maze, we don't necessarily make cold calculations based on narrow self interest. Cultural values, traditions, and habits all get in the way of our acting “rationally." Indeed, these influences can help us make better decisions—or sometimes not.

Over the last 40 years, explains Manson, many have come to doubt the validity of rational choice theory because it doesn't account for social and cultural factors. “A lot of our decision-making isn't centered on ‘us,' says Manson. “It's centered on ‘us' within a larger context."

Sometimes, that larger cultural context influences us when we least expect it. “We can have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of everything from safety ratings to fuel efficiency when we're buying a car," Manson says. “But when people are asked about the cars they buy, they tend to say that they buy Hondas because their parents buy Hondas." As social creatures who exist in the context of culture and family, “we can always question, reconfigure, or reject this social context," he adds, but we cannot fully escape it.

Rational choice theory is an elegant and powerful way of answering many questions, Manson grants, but we also need alternative approaches. That's why he's developing “computational intelligence modeling," a model of analyzing human decision making that, he says, attempts to “capture some of the social dynamics and personal biases that influence human behavior instead of just ignoring them."

Recently, Manson used computational intelligence to help officials in the Southern Yucatan build accurate land use simulations. Using anthropological accounts of local Mexican culture that were formerly dismissed by scientists as too qualitative, Manson's programs produced land use scenarios more attuned to the vagaries of the local culture—and therefore more likely to become reality.

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