What do you know?

Classicist Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer and microbiome expert Jack Gilbert question scientific knowledge.


“Let’s start with a little experiment that is somewhat trite,” says Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, the Helen A. Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor in Classics. “Just for funsies.”

She clicks on a video of a 1999 experiment on selective attention. “Ooh I love this one,” says her coteacher, Jack Gilbert, professor of surgery.

In the video, six people—half in white shirts, half in black, most in ill-fitting ’90s jeans—are passing two basketballs. How many times do people wearing white pass a ball?

The answer, it turns out, is 15. But that isn’t the point. While busy counting, viewers often don’t notice that someone in a gorilla suit walks into the scene, turns to the camera, and beats his chest a few times, then walks off.

Most of the students in the graduate course, Case Studies on the Formation of Knowledge, did notice; they knew the secret of the famous experiment. “I just focused on the gorilla,” adds Gilbert.

The theme of today’s class is problems with seeing. “Is sight objective,” the syllabus asks, “or does it see what one is primed to see?” The day’s readings include Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud by Thomas Laqueur (Harvard University Press, 1992); Steven Shapin’s essay “The Politics of Observation: Cerebral Anatomy and Social Interests in the Edinburgh Phrenology Disputes” (1979); and an article, “When Good Observers Go Bad: Change Blindness, Inattentional Blindness, and Visual Experience,” by Ronald Rensink (2000).

Students in the course are required to lead a class, along with a fellow student. Today’s leaders are Bogdan, a political science student, and Tom, from chemistry.

Bogdan speaks first, walking the class through Laqueur’s arguments about the “one-sex model” versus the “two-sex model” of human anatomy. The ancient Greeks believed that women had the exact same genitals as men, only “inside out,” says Bogdan—an idea that persisted through the Renaissance.

Interestingly, in the one-sex model, it was thought that a woman must have an orgasm to conceive. And therefore if a woman conceived, a sexual act could not be considered rape. “It was pretty shocking to read,” says Bogdan, “but if I had lived in the 15th century, maybe I would have thought the same way.”

There’s a clamor of voices. “That is not a dead belief, unfortunately,” says Gilbert. He, Bartsch-Zimmer, and several students are all talking at once about the politician who said you can’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape” (Todd Akin, former Republican representative from Missouri, in 2012).

Bogdan leads the discussion back to Laqueur’s curious assertion that the two-sex model arose “sometime in the 18th century,” with no further explanation. “Why the 18th century?” Bogdan asks. “I think it’s helpful to think of both the one-sex and two-sex models as social constructions.”

You could see Laqueur’s work as “very old-fashioned,” says Bartsch-Zimmer, with room for just male and female. “It doesn’t take into account our current cultural willingness to see spectra instead of polar opposites.”

It seems like there’s so much more to discuss, but with a packed agenda, there’s no time. Tom takes over, leading the discussion on Shapin’s article about phrenology in 19th century Edinburgh—which he pronounces as if it rhymed with Pittsburgh. Twice.

“Tom,” Gilbert interrupts after the second infraction. “It’s Edin-bruh.”

Tom looks skeptical. This is, after all, a course on questioning truth claims. “No really,” Gilbert insists flatly. “It’s not Shy-cah-goo.”

The class laughs. Of the 10 students, two are British, like Gilbert; two more are nonnative speakers who use British pronunciation. (“It can’t be a coincidence,” that the group is so international, Bartsch-Zimmer says later. Perhaps, since these students are outside their own culture, they are more aware “that culture plays a huge role in shaping knowledge practices.”)

Shapin’s argument, Tom explains, is that scientific knowledge doesn’t come about because of objective, disinterested research. For example, the dispute over phrenology—the use of skull shape and size to assess intellect and character—brought about a rapid increase in the understanding of brain anatomy. “That’s how science happens,” says Tom. The process of trying to find evidence to prove your own point “is actually the driver of science.”

The final reading of the day, by Rensink, is on change blindness and inattentional blindness—e.g., the invisible gorilla at the beginning of class.

To demonstrate change blindness, Tom shows two busy photographs of passengers and an airplane on the tarmac. Photo one, photo two. The photos are different, but how? Again: photo one, photo two. In the second, the airplane’s massive engine is missing. Only a few people noticed.

“Observation by human beings is not a fail-safe procedure,” says Bartsch-Zimmer. And the problem goes far beyond “these silly experimental settings,” says Tom. “This is a real issue for science.”

After the student-led discussion, Bartsch-Zimmer and Gilbert each take a few minutes to look back at the first module of the course, Science in Context, which ends today. It’s also Gilbert’s last day in the classroom. (The course’s structure—three modules of about three weeks each, cotaught by different professors—is as unusual as its content.)

Bartsch-Zimmer outlines her takeaways briskly. Western modern science (abbreviated WMS in her PowerPoint presentation) is not just the story of progress, nor is it purely objective or universal. Scientists often see only what they expect to find. Her slide includes a Renaissance illustration from Laqueur’s book: although allegedly it’s female anatomy based on observation, it looks “suspiciously” male, Bartsch-Zimmer points out.

Western modern science “intervenes in our lives in the West with real results, from the medical to the military,” Bartsch-Zimmer concludes. “But Western modern science is not as antiseptic as it sometimes claims. It is not a universalist, value-free story of progress.”

Gilbert gives his recap just as swiftly: “Before this class I had no freaking understanding of what epistemology [the theory of knowledge] was,” he says. “Now I do. Which is really good.”

His points, as seen on his slides, include “I didn’t really choose to study the microbiome; the zeitgeist bit me!”, “History doesn’t come in cans!” (meaning arbitrarily defined eras), “Maybe today is just like yesterday!”, and “Objectivity is for the dogs!”

His conclusion: “As a scientific leader, I have to accept bias and just get on with it,” he says. “Which is all kind of depressing. Also quite comforting, because I can accept the fact that objectivity does not exist within our field.”

At the end, Bartsch-Zimmer reminds the students, “Let’s say goodbye to Jack.” Bartsch-Zimmer will remain for the course’s next module, coteaching Democractic Knowledge with William Howell, the Sydney A. Stein Jr. Professor at Chicago Harris. After that, Clifford Ando, the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor in the Department of Classics, and political science associate professor Jennifer Pitts will teach the module Progress and Modernity, Barbarism and Civilization.

“I’ll probably hang around, actually,” Gilbert contradicts cheerily. “Sit in the background. I’m quite enjoying it.”


Case Studies on the Formation of Knowledge (KNOW 402) is the first part of a two-quarter sequence offered by the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge. Required books for its scientific knowledge module include Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact by Ludwik Fleck (University of Chicago Press, 1979), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn (University of Chicago Press, 1996), and Making Science by Stephen Cole (Harvard University Press, 1992).

The Stevanovich Institute, founded in April 2015, “is a new interdivisional effort to support a field of inquiry that has no natural home,” according to its manifesto. The institute will focus on “the construction and transmission of forms of knowledge from antiquity to the present,” and “how the content of contemporary knowledge is shaped by factors such as history, politics, and culture.” Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer is its faculty director.

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