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May 12, 2012 / shannonjane93

Cultural Perspectives

Imagine, if you will, a stranger who looks very different to most people you’ve every seen. He saunters into your remote home and tells you he can fix your problems using methods you’ve never heard of or understand.

You’d be sceptical, right?

You would want to know how he’s going to fix your problem, and why. Similarly to the Fore people of Papua New Guinea in Anderson’s “The Collector of Lost Souls”, you would be hard pressed to not feel deeply suspicious. This is compounded if your ‘helper’ is not terribly forthcoming with the reasons for his charity, or how these strange tools work and left you to assume; in this case some sort of sorcery was the accepted explanation among the people.

Not so science communication friendly.

The problem detailed is clearly that of science and the hunger for knowledge being lost in translation- not between languages, but cultures. Dr. Gajdusek, the western doctor, was there trying to help to cure ‘kuru’, a nervous disease that had become an epidemic among these people. The problem is, in trying to categorise the disease and find out what was causing it he needed data. He needed blood samples, autopsies of people killed by the disease, things that people of a superstitious culture would naturally be wary of just handing over to a stranger.

Nonetheless, you would need a certain code of ethics to ensure not only that everybody feels they’ve achieved the best possible outcome, but we all know the dead are a sensitive issue. While autopsies are normalised for those of us who watch CSI 24/7, to other cultures this could seem unbelievable, a bizarre request that would need much justification. In the case of the Fore people Dr. Gajdusek was studying, they had their own method of disposing of dead bodies; this included limited cannibalism, which was actually how the disease was spread. When the doctors wanted the brains of the diseased, this confused the Fore as to their motivation:

“It was the autopsy that prompted the most discussion, in part because the white men seemed so anxious about it. Fore where familiar with examining the body for signs of sorcery, so maybe the ‘doktas’ were merely doing that, too. But these peculiar white men seemed obsessed with taking away brains. When they practised cannibalism, Fore did not esteem this organ.”

The ‘kuru’ epidemic amongst these people was a disease related to Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, the bovine version of which is commonly know as ‘Mad Cow disease’. It causes neurons in the brain to die, leaving the brain with a sponge-like appearance under a microscope. Gajdusek later earned a Nobel Prize for his research.

Nonetheless, ethical considerations must be made. According to the text, Gajdusek was trading money and goods for samples from living Fore and autopsies of bodies, which is a system in serious need of moderation. How was he to know whether he was offering culturally appropriate payment? How were the Fore to know whether to accept it?

If somebody wanted to cure your family of a disease, would you let them do autopsies and use your blood to try it? Even if you didn’t know how they expected to cure it, or what they were doing with it?

Anderson, W. (2008). The scientist and his magic. In The Collectors of Lost Souls (pp 91-100). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Post by Shannon Wylie



Leave a Comment
  1. noelynn / May 13 2012 6:37 am

    Shannon, this post is an interesting one to read, you did a good job!
    The word ‘kuru’ relates to the head or brain Papua New Guinea native language(Tok Pisin). So it is most likely that in Anderson’s attempt to explain the cause and description of the disease, he associates it with the word kuru to mean its something to do with the brain.

    Having read through the article “The scientist and his magic”, it was intriguing to learn of how he successfully describe his experience through out his research career into this society, the Fore. He kind of pave the pathway into early medical neuro-history of the Fore. The mysteries involved, and the ethics he had to pass to see that what he attempted was a success and a platform of research for the 20th century.

    Yes, it takes courage for a foreigner to tap into something new with the entangled culture, sorceries and science. The medical doctor Gajdusek, was brave and I belief very cautious of what he was going to face with the Fore. Through the success of his report, one can articulate that he broke the ice by plotting Papua New Guinea on the global map of human pathology. But, alas, you can be rest assured as a matured science communicator, that it was science communicated through cultural perspectives of the Fore.

  2. annagardiner / May 14 2012 2:22 am

    I really like how you started this post by placing the reader in the situation faced by the Fore, as I read this I realised woah, I’d definitely be suspicious.
    The work of Dr. Gajdusek sounds amazing and such a bizarre, but great example of how important communication can be in science.
    I thought this was really well written and flowed really nicely with the only exception being the last sentence in the first sort of paragraph.
    I really liked reading this though, good job!

  3. fullclever / May 14 2012 4:00 pm

    You are totally right, Shannon. This was certainly a big challenge to the scientists so as to the natives. The science writer or the scientist shall be open minded and accept others’ values as legitimate. After all, we are all work to society and it does not really matter if we are more erudite.
    I just want to correct a passage: when you told “… the bovine version of which is commonly know as ‘Mad Cow disease’…” you probably meant “…the human version of which is commonly know as ‘Mad Cow disease’…”
    Anyway, your posted a great article. Congratulations!

  4. muza2009 / May 16 2012 2:13 am

    Shannon, you have done a great job on a very complex subject! Thanks also to Noelynn for providing your perspective coming from PNG.Without becoming to philosophical, culture in science communication is probably the least understood and researched topic. The models of science communication, dialogue, deficit, the Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) movement, scientific literacy etc…are very Eurocentric and are not suitable for all contexts. I agree with Edgar’s point of accepting other values as legitimate.

    Coming from Malawi, I have seen to many clinical trials and public health research get burnt because there was no proper community consultation. My favourite example is the World Health Organization symbol with the snake, people in the village refused to interact with the doctors because the car they drove to the village had this snake symbol! There is a lot of science communication gone wrong because of cultural differences but what guidelines can we give to science writers when writing about issues that have strong cultural connections especially when they don’t come from that culture?

  5. selinamj / May 18 2012 6:19 am

    This is such an interesting topic, I have read about similar situations before and I imagine that these difficulties are experienced regularly when bringing scietific discoveries or medical practice to other cultures.
    Not only are these challenges faced in far flung and isolated communities and cultures, we experience the same issues here in Australia. I have spent time in Halls Creek in the far north of Australia talking with health and medical professionals about some of the barriers experienced when trying to treat Indigenous patients.
    It is essential that people communicating science to these groups have an intimate understanding of the cultural background of the people they are speaking to as respecting cultural norms earns a great deal of respect. If at all possible it is also a good idea to have people from within the community itself communicating the message as the message is more likley to be effective it comes from someone the people know, trust and understand. However this is obviously not always possible.
    I think this just highlights that communicators just need to be very culturally aware and take that into consideration when they are devising their message and their method.

  6. mmaideni / May 19 2012 9:12 pm

    I am in agreement with the other comments to your post Shannon that it is a good and interesting post. But answering your question: ”If somebody wanted to cure your family of a disease, would you let them do autopsies and use your blood to try it? Even if you didn’t know how they expected to cure it, or what they were doing with it?” My first reaction will be a big NO! Unless there is proper and well laid ethics that are in line with the cultural beliefs then I would consent and accept. But you observe how Dokta bois handled the experiment for the cure of the devastating and mind boggling disease called ‘guru’ lives a lot of grey areas as what benefits culturally speaking of the ‘Fore’. Culture is the most delicate thing to deal with. It would do the experiment much good if the people’s culture was understood and respected in its planning and executing. I give this example of an intervention aimed at preventing the prevalence of malaria using bed nets. The bed nets are issued to the mothers during the antenatal and under five health clinics. In this culture the man called the husband is the head of the household and is never involved at any level of this intervention. Such communities have taken to the misconception that the bed nets are not meant for the malaria but to reduce the couples sexuality and thereby controlling the children they will have in the family. This has seen the intervention counteracting the goals because the scientist did not consider the cultural aspects of the subjects. To make it worse the people in the Papua New Guinea were in a complex cultural problem of believing in sorcery and also the issue of gifts brought in a lot suspicion. The gifts themselves were short lived compared to the gaols set for the cure of the disease. Like some of the comments I would say that the cultural aspect of the community should be considered important and proper civic education should be a tool to depend on.

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