The Science of Wisdom

February 27, 2006

Jane Jimenez

Jane Jimenez

It’s a strange memory, but a vivid memory.  Christmas afternoon 1964, my sister, 11, and I, 13, sat in the family room watching news.  Not because we wanted to watch the news.  But it was the only show my father would let us watch on our new Christmas color television set.  It was the only show in color.

Color television had been available since 1953.  The first commercial television program on color film was an episode of Dragnet, followed by such milestones as a live telecast of the Tournament of Roses parade the following month.  As with all firsts, history tracks the first color broadcast of a president (Dwight Eisenhower in June, 1955), the first color coverage of the World Series (Dodgers vs. Yankees in September, 1955), and the first colorcast cartoons (the Flintstones and the Jetsons in fall, 1962).

Yet, my family along with most other American families continued to watch television in black and white.  The first RCA color sets cost $995, the equivalent of over $6,500 today. In 1954, it was enough to buy a car, and nearly enough to buy a modest house.

By the mid-1950s, every company with the exception of RCA stopped manufacturing color televisions, and few produced color programming. Yet, losing some $65 million over a decade, RCA persisted in developing and marketing the technology.


The premier of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color in September, 1961, was a turning point.  It was a magical experience to see the peacock’s tail unfold in red, orange, green and yellow.


Finally, in 1964, the tide turned, and RCA began to profit handsomely from its investment in color television.  It had taken 25 years for color television to go from its earliest prototypes to mass acceptance. According to Alex Magoun, director of the Sarnoff library holding RCA history, this is about the time every new technology takes to really catch on.

Today, a teenager is probably unable to conceive of a world where we would not be  able to watch live color coverage of downhill skiing at the Turin Olympic Games from 20 different camera angles.  In a child’s mind, television has always been here.  Like snowflakes, pine trees, and sledding, color television is and was and always has been.

In the short span of one human life, it is hard to maintain the long view.  Technology is easy to follow, with every detail recorded many times over in tech manuals and corporate profit and loss statements.

But televisions, computers, and air travel are not the only “new fangled” inventions of modern man.  Even our ways of thinking are marked by radical shifts that we have lost track of.

One mental shift has made an impact every bit as dramatic on modern life as color television.  It is hard to conceive of a university without a department of sociology, but in fact, no sociologists even existed to set sail and land on Plymouth Rock with the Pilgrims in 1620.

Sociology is actually a relatively new academic discipline which evolved in the early 19th century. It usually concerns itself with the social rules and processes that bind and separate people not only as individuals, but as members of associations, groups, and institutions.

Motivated by an interest in our behavior as social beings, sociologists began to quantify any number of human actions, allowing these academicians to perform their intricate analysis of short contacts between anonymous individuals on the street and to expand their theories to the broad study of global social processes.

A related trend in sociology, emerging since the late 1970s, attempted to make it a more “applied” discipline, applicable in areas such as non-profit organizations and nursing homes.  The results of sociological research have been used by educators, lawmakers, administrators, and others interested in resolving social problems and formulating public policy, through areas such as survey research, evaluation research, methodological assessment, and public sociology.

In other words, if we want to know what’s wrong…and if we want to know how to fix what’s wrong…ask a sociologist.

So, what was the world like before sociologists began to engineer and quantify human behavior?  How did humans seek solutions to human problems?  How did we organize life?

This is not idle speculation.  As a nation, we have nearly stopped thinking and acting unless we can open our briefcase and pull out a 3-inch file of social statistics and research to support our views.  Consider the following.

Solomon’s wisdom is often cited in a famous incident in which two women came before him with a baby, each claiming to the the mother.  Solomon ordered the child be cut in half, and by observing each woman’s reaction, determined the true mother.  Today, we have case workers, MSWs for sure, who interview the entire family and neighborhood, cite studies on mother love and bonding, and make their final report in triplicate.

Or in September, 2004, behavioral research on 1,792 adolescents proved that teenagers who watch a lot of television with sexual content are twice as likely to engage in intercourse than those who watch few such programs.  Katie Couric’s reaction was a brief, “Duh?”

King Solomon was a bit more expressive.  Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.  Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.  Let your eyes look straight ahead, fix your gaze directly before you. (Prov 4:23-25 NIV)

For all of our numbers and studies and statistics and analysis, have we really advanced beyond the centuries-old wisdom that informed men’s hearts and guided their steps?  And is it just possible that social scientists have found ways to add and subtract research that would justify why a lemming should follow his brother over the cliff?

Sociology has not always existed.  Thankfully, great minds and human wisdom are not modern inventions.  They are, they were, they always have been.  Even before sociology.

October 29, 2004 – Food for the Brain

September 10, 2004 – Duh

 See Archives for more past editorials.