Scientists Red-Faced

January 29, 2009 at 5:41 pm (Bad Science) (, , , , , , , , , , )

I bet the Fail’s headline writer loved the opportunity this story gave him. Although perhaps he should have gone for “Blushing Boffins” – that too would have been in keeping with the Fail’s approach to science. According to the Fail, “Scientists red-faced as they admit they are baffled why people blush”.

It’s the tell-tale sign that exposes our inner feelings.

But scientists are still baffled about why people go red in the face when they are embarrassed, ashamed or shy

This story has come about because the New Scientist asked Evolutionary Biologists to name the biggest gaps in their field in order to mark the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth this year. The thing is, though, it’s not as if scientists actually are red-faced. Or should be. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in admitting that you don’t know something (unless you have just been loudly proclaiming your know-all brilliance in that area) and, as far as I am concerned, science isn’t really about knowing everything – it’s more about the joy of finding things out (which is the title of the next RP Feynman book I am going to read). Another reason why scientists are failing to blush with shame is that they actually have some very good ideas as to why we blush.

In the Fail’s article, the following points are included:

Professor de Waal argued that blushing makes it harder for people to lie. Given that our biology is determined by the forces of natural selection, it suggests the ability to express genuine honesty gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage over their more devious contemporaries.

Professor Ray Crozier, a psychologist at the University of East Anglia, agreed. ‘In a way it signals an apology to the group – and a sense that someone knows they have done wrong,’ he said.

‘It defuses aggression and makes people forgive you more quickly. It’s beneficial for a group to minimise aggression – and it’s also beneficial for an individual.’

Outwith the Fail article, there are plenty of other scientists working on hypotheses relating to blushing, embarrassment, and shame. I recently wrote a brief post in which I quoted Dacher Keltner. It fits with Crozier’s claim that blushing “signals an apology to the group – and a sense that someone knows they have done wrong”: Keltner reckons that embarrassment reveals “how much the individual cares about the rules that bind us together”. Oliver Burkeman thinks that:

Dacher Keltner makes a powerful case that embarrassment is evolution’s answer to the “commitment problem”: it’s in everyone’s interests to collaborate for long-term gain, but how do you weed out the conmen who want to take advantage? Perhaps because they’re unembarrassable.

So, scientists aren’t actually “baffled” and they have no need to be red-faced – they have perfectly plausible ideas for why we blush when embarrassed or ashamed and are publishing research papers on these ideas. I think this was just a good vehicle for (a) the New Scientist to get cheap publicity and (b) the Fail to have a cheeky dig at those baffled boffins and sell some more papers on the back of their simplistic view of science and scientists. Which should surprise none of us.


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