16 July 2011

James Marsh's "Project Nim"

James Marsh's new documentary, Project Nim, sensibly takes as a settled matter that the efforts to teach the chimpanzee known as "Nim Chimpsky" to sign did not result in evidence that chimpanzees could generate sentences or otherwise had much in the way of linguistic ability.  That's not what the film is about, though it makes this point in passing.

It is, though, a fascinating film.  And for me, it resonated with last year's must-see, Inside Job.  Both films document the prominence of the social and behavioral sciences in "our society" -- which I might specifiy, albeit inelegantly, as mass society with a dominant (if now tottering) professional-managerial class.

In any event, that professional-managerial class has attained and continues to attain its status through education, and as a result, it has provided material support for both higher education and a variety of research activities over the last century or more, roughly-speaking.

In this regard, one important thing about these two movies  -- "Inside Job" and "Project Nim" -- is that they give quite honest accounts of two disciplines that have thrived in this higher education and research complex (economics and psychology), and the verdict, based on these movies, is that both look really bad.  It is not just the ethical lapses and rationaliations thereof -- which in both films are cringe-inducing -- but, even more fundamentally, the evidence the movies give us that the supposed experts in these fields have surprisingly little expertise.

For my part, I welcome these films and plan to teach them.


  1. fascinating juxta=position, Dan

  2. Do you know the book "Complications" by Atul Gawande? It's for a popular, rather than academic, audience. But it somewhat pulls the curtain back on surgeons/doctors, similar to what you're describing. You might enjoy it, in a 'light reading' kind of way...

  3. Hi Carmen, yes Gawande is relevant and useful; I was particularly impressed by his piece in the New Yorker last January, on why treating the neediest patients was a good way to lower health care costs and improve the overall quality of the care the system provides.