November 8, 2006 -- The Roles of Gestures and Facial Expressions in Communications; and A Panel Discussion of Government Secrecy at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Environmental Journalists
Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting November 8th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, revealing the truth with body language and putting a lid on the truth by controlling the flow of scientific information. Last week, I was at the annual meeting of the society for environmental journalists in Vermont and went to a panel discussion on government secrecy. Climate researcher James Hansen was on the panel and will share some of his comments later. We will test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. But first up, Mariette DiChristina will make some gestures in your direction. Mariette is the executive editor of Scientific American and of Scientific American Mind magazine. We talked about the importance of body language in communication.
Steve: Hi Mariette, how are you?
Mariette: Hi Steve. I am great. How are you?
Steve: Pretty good. So tell me about Scientific American Mind first of all, it's another publication discrete from Scientific American.
Mariette: Scientific American Mind is a bimonthly magazine by Scientific American. It covers topics of psychology and neuroscience. As I like to put it, while other magazines try to be relevant to their readers' lives, Scientific American Mind is one of the only ones that gets right inside their heads. This helps us learn more about what makes us, us.
Steve: What makes us, us. Do we really want to know?
Mariette: Maybe not about you, but about me, Steve. (laughs)
Steve: Okay, so in the current issue of Scientific American Mind, there is a really interesting report--a series of articles, three articles--[about] how your body reveals what you think. One is on gestures, hand gestures, body gestures; one is on facial expressions; and one is about lying. So, this is really interesting stuff. How that kind of goes along with verbal communication and what the observer/listener gets from it.
Mariette: Right, it's interesting to me see that even as you are talking to me, now, Steve is sitting right across of me in this room--I know, you listeners can't see this--but he is spinning his hands and showing me, as he is talking, more about what he is trying to tell me. For a long time scientists thought that our gestures were simply outgrowths of such speech, but in actuality they help complete what we are trying to say. Gestures, the tell-tell signs that our bodies give off as we, you know, sweat anxiously under a question or smile at ease. All of these are tip-offs to what we are really trying to communicate to our listeners.
Steve: So, are you putting things like perspiration on the same level as gesticulation? Because they would seem on the surface to be really kind of different
Mariette: Well, we did carve them up into three different articles, right. One of them focuses on gestures, you know, which
would first might seem to just speed things that follow what you are saying, but in actuality the information that starts in the brain and leads to gestures can precede what you say. So, you are tipping off to your listener what you are about to tell them or helping to frame what you are about to say.
Steve: One of the really interesting things in that article was about how the gesture will either slightly precede the word or will be coincident with the word, but will never be right after the word-- and maybe that's the difference between somebody who is lying or an actor that you don't care for, maybe there is something that just doesn't ring true about what you are seeing and it's really in terms of the gesture and the vocals not going together, and you don't appreciate it consciously, but some part of you is registering it as being false.
Mariette: You are right! In some senses we all have these built-in lie detectors, so that if we are watching an actor--to use your example--and this actor is wiping his brow after a close call, but first he says, "Well, that was a close call" and then he wipes his brow, to you as the audience that makes no sense at all and you are right, you have this built-in lie detector.
Steve: And the same goes with the whole article on expressions. There are really thousands of these tiny, little facial expressions that you are always reading without really realizing it.
Mariette: Right. I find these micro expressions so fascinating because, well, this is the work of Paul Ekman who pioneered this in the '60s and later, and micro expressions that you mention, these are very tiny facial movements. They can last as little as a fifth of a second and yet in combinations can convey to the person across from you exactly what you need or show that emotionally you have some kind of anxiety or problem underlying what you are saying, and some people, security people, legal personnel have studied this with Paul Ekman to try to get tips on whether somebody is, for instance, really making a confession or not really making a confession. The work is a little bit tricky, because there is nothing unambiguous about facial expressions. One of the keys Ekman says is to ask people what they are feeling, what are your emotional feelings, not just what happened on the night of the 12th.
Steve: Because the feelings and the gestures will either have to be more closely connected to be true, or it will be easier to recognize if those don't go together for some reason.
Mariette: Well, micro expressions specifically react
to along with your emotions, and they help convey your emotions to anybody who is looking at you. You know, they can show, for instance, that you have a fleeting feeling of desperation if you are talking to the doctor and meanwhile saying everything is fine. If you are educated about how to read these things, that's an emotional tip-off that maybe you need to ask another question.
Steve: Interesting. Now what about lying and body language--how much of that is really scientific and how much of it is kind of junk science?
Mariette: Right. Well, here are two things that are sort of duck tailing; I am going to separate them out for a minute. When you speak of lying perhaps you are talking about lie detectors.
Mariette: This [is] sort of famously rather discredited in many circles--machines
, which [that] can tell such things as racing heart rate, if you are nervous or that you are perspiring because you are nervous. The problem with things like those polygraphs, which were first pioneered in the late 30s and later is that just being hooked up to one can make you nervous. So, that's a false signal.
Steve: Of course.
Mariette: And another problem is if you were now, Steve, to ask me instead of--we are having a very friendly interview, but if you were to start asking me probing questions, I might get nervous. That doesn't mean I am lying. So, those detectors were a little tricky. Nowadays, we have some really intriguing new research that indicates other biophysical reactions that the body is having to questions--do they really add up to being able to tell what somebody is thinking or trying to think? It's kind of hard to say.
Steve: So, if it's kind of hard to say what do you get out of it.
Mariette: You get some subtle signals, which I guess is all we are ever going to get out of communication with another person anyway. For instance, there is a researcher who is working with MRIs. To try to detect what's called a guilt knowledge moment with the MRI you can see if somebody in their decision-making areas of their brain is suffering from some kind of a conflict or if the brain is trying to resolve a conflict; however, that doesn't really tell you that that person is lying necessarily, just that they have some kind of conflict; and the other thing is, if you can imagine a suspect that you are trying to question, I don't know how many people who are listening have had an MRI, but you have to sit awfully still and be very cooperative. So, they can give you tips--these kinds of devices--about what kind of activity is going on in the brain or the body, but they are not foolproof.
Steve: And we are really still in the very earliest stages of that kind of research.
Mariette: Very earlie[es]
r stages; I mean, we have made great progress in 50 years, right? But we have great progress to continue to strive toward in the future.
Steve: One of the really interesting things I remember in the article about gestures was that in some ways, they are not cross-cultural--that in some languages, the place in the sentence, the word in the sentence at which you will make a particular gesture is different from where you would make the gesture in another language’ and so it's interesting in bilingual people by observing very closely where the gesture is taking place in sentence, you can tell what language they are thinking in rather than what language they are necessarily speaking in at that time.
Mariette: There is a researcher named David McNeal at the University of Chicago who has studied these gestures as windows into thought processes and what you are mentioning, Steve, is exactly one of those windows. For example, as the story mentions, a person speaking in Spanish who is talking about somebody climbing up a ladder would emphasis the verb with their body gestures and would be showing you--and right now it's funny, it's almost impossible to stop myself
on[from] making a climbing gesture.
Steve: Jesus, I won't ask you that.
Mariette: In contrast, somebody who is speaking English like we are right now, or German, which is a very similar language, would tend to say somebody is climbing up the ladder and put the emphasis on the up and thrust the hand upward to indicate direction, which is something you knew so well with a gesture, indicate direction or shape of something like that.
Steve: It's really interesting. It's the special report [on] how your body reveals what you think in the current issue--the October-November--issue of Scientific American Mind. Thanks Mariette.
Mariette: You can also look for Scientific American Mind at www.sciammind.com.
Steve: Sciammind.com--go there now.
Mariette: Thanks a lot Steve.
Steve: Thanks Mariette.
Now it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: A British perfume company is coming out with a new fragrance called Gravitas to honor Isaac Newton. The key scent will be apple spice.
Story number 2: Researchers have come up with a more equitable system for cutting cakes.
Story number 3: Mice with slightly cooler body temperatures live longer ... and
Story number 4: People who use anabolic steroids are more likely to be involved in behaviors like fraud and weapons possession.
We'll be back with the answer. But first, climate researcher James Hansen is the Director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He was on a panel about government secrecy at the meeting of the Society for Environmental Journalists that I attended last week in Vermont. Here are some of his comments.
Hansen: One of the points that I want to make relating to stealth concerns is something that has a big impact on me and on the research, not just by our group, but by throughout the nation, and that is a retroactive 20 percent cut in the Earth science research and analysis budget, which the executive branch made in the middle of 2006--made it retroactive to the beginning of the year. There was, I think, [a] four and a half percent
age cut in [the] Earth science budget, but they specifically not on NASA's initiative, but on the initiative of OMB, directed that there should be a 20 percent cut in research and analysis, which funds laboratories like Goddard Space Flight Center and universities around the country; and that's going-out-of-business cut[s] because there are infrastructure costs which will take up most of the 80 percent. But this, you know, this is a little strange because my understanding is that the Constitution says Congress is controlling the purse strings and cuts to be made [are] in a report of the administration to Congress, which is not noticed by anybody. In addition, the fray in the same budget item that retroactively cut the budget, there was a change in the NASA's mission statement that we have spent a good deal of time iterating among NASA employees about our mission statement; and one concerning Earth was the first line of the NASA mission was "to understand and protect the home planet". That line disappeared by executive action, and I ask[ed] dozen[s] of people--NASA employees--if they know about this, including my boss--nobody had heard about it. It was simply done between OMB and the administrat[ion] or. That's an example of a[the] sort of thing that's going on; but it seems to me they are taking over responsibilities, which--in the case of the budget--really are supposed to belong to Congress.
Steve: Later when Hansen was asked how much the change in wording and the funding cuts would hamper climate research.
Hansen: Oh, it will have a huge impact because, you know, we are getting missions that began to tell us very interesting things, like the gravity satellite, which shows the mass of Greenland is decreasing; and there is very little money for any new missions. I mean the NASA Earth science budget has been declining now for several years. Yeah, now it's no[t]
n negligible, it's a very serious cut and is going to have impact on our ability to know what's going on with the planet.
Steve: Tom Yulsman of the Center for Environmental Journalism asked whether the current administration's attempts to control the flow of scientific information for political reasons were different than past administrations and if so, how?
Hansen: The problems with the information flow did not originate with this administration and I have had difficulties with prior administrations, including Democratic administrations. For example, if you submit a paper which, you know, each agency has a public affairs office, and if you want your scientific results to become available to the public you have to go through the public affairs office. If you submit a paper now, which says that "Oh, I have discovered that the ocean doesn't take up carbon dioxide as effectively as we had thought it did", then in the present administration, you know, that report will end up in a waste basket, but that sort of thing happened with prior administrations. There's apparently a feeling that they have the right to influence what gets out to the public rather than simply let it be based on scientific results; but it has become qualitatively different and hence more, it's [a] worse situation now than with prior administrations. For example, I got to the extent of having a dry run of [a] press conference, and I would not submit to such a thing, but one of my colleagues went on to what is to be a
t press conference on Arctic sea ice and the fact that it's decreasing quite rapidly; and a trial question was, "Well, is there anything we can do about this?" And my colleague said, "Well we could reduce the rate of emission of green house gases." A guy jumped up and said that's unacceptable . So, because this relates to policy, and you are a scientist who is not allowed to say anything about policy. Well (laughs), anyway, when I gave a talk last year at the AGU meeting and it got a lot of attention, which surprised the public affairs officers at NASA headquarters, then I was told that from then on, anytime the media contacted me, I had to first inform the public affairs office. I could not speak to the media [until] and tell I had informed them and gave NASA headquarters the right of first refusal. If they thought that it's a sensitive question and they would prefer that I not answer it, then they are allowed to answer for me. And also they demanded that I give them my schedule every, you know--so at that point, that's when I decided I was going to make this public, and now I don't have that problem. The NASA administrator came forward and made a very strong, clear statement that scientists should be allowed to communicate with the public. But the paper on which the actual statement--if you look at the new rules, they are really very ambiguous. And in NASA, I think we feel comfortable that we are just going to take the NASA administrator and his word at face value. But in fact the government accountability project in looking at these new rules sees there is a lot of problems with these; and they can still use these new rules to just squelch what you want to say, and it depends upon the quality of the person in charge. And at present we have a good administrator in NASA, but that's not necessarily true in other agencies.
Bazilchuk: I am Nancy Bazilchuk. I am a freelance writer [and]
in Conference Chair. Have you any sense of other agencies where this is particularly a problem where folks are being censored?
Hansen: Well, yeah, I already had made a comment in a talk at the New School University that I felt the situation was even worse in EPA and NOVA. And you know, of course, you have to be aware that probably ninety-nine-point-something percent of the scientists are doing technical things, which are not going to be of concern and are not going to be limited or censored because they don't cause any impact on policy directly. So,
I was a little right that when after I made that statement, but as it turned out, there were some scientists they[that] came forward and mentioned that they had experiences comparable to mine in those agencies. And since that time I was also told by some people in National Institutes of Health that there were very constraint[s] on what they were allowed to say in areas that you can imagine. And I think EPA has--for a long time--has had problems and that they have lost many good scientists, just because of those constraints--they don't want to work for an agency in which the information flow [is] so strongly controlled by the administration.
Steve: Hansen has an article on these subjects and more in the current issue of World Watch magazine. If you just Google James Hansen, his personal page comes up, which includes links to that and other publications.
Now it's time to see which story was TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Let’s review the four stories.
Story number 1: Perfume to honor Isaac Newton.
Story number 2: Improved cake-cutting methodology.
Story number 3: Cold mice have long lives ... and
Story number 4: Steroid use associated with antisocial behavior.
Story number 4 is true. A study in Archives of General Psychiatry found that steroid users were twice as likely to be convicted on weapons charges and had a 50 [percent] higher likelihood of a fraud conviction. For more, check out the news story on our Web site, www.sciam.com, titled "Swedish Study Links Steroid Use to Crimes".
Story number 3 is true. Colder mice had longer lives according to a study published in the journal Science. You can hear more about chilly mice in the November 3rd 60-Second Science, the daily SciAm podcast that's at sciam.com/podcast.
Story number 2 is true. A mathematician, a political scientist and an economist walked into a bar--no, those are three guys who teamed up to publish an article on cake cutting in Notices of the American Mathematical Society. See, you can't just cut some cakes in half and have both parties feel like they are getting equal value. For example, let's say the cake is half chocolate and half vanilla. I love chocolate, you hate chocolate. Obviously, there is more to making us both feel satisfied than cutting the cake exactly in half. Anyway, I recorded an interview with Michael Jones, the mathematician on the team, and we will play that on an upcoming episode.
All of which means that story number 1 about the Newtonian perfume called Gravitas is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Also bogus is a perfume called Enigma to honor Alan Turing. For a more comprehensive list of phony perfumes named for scientists, check out the Antigravity column in the current issue of Scientific American. It's free for nothing at the Web site, http:// www.sciam.com.
Well that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org; check out science video news and actual written news articles at our Web site, www.sciam.com, and sample the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science, at the Web site and at iTunes. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.