Dr. Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C — © 2015
New England Science Public – An Initiative for the Public Understanding of Science – on Twitter @EvoLiteracy – @gpazymino – ResearchGate – Academia.edu
Golden Age of Violin Making Challenged by Modern Science
[click on subtitle to be redirected to The Standard Times]
“…As for the value of a Stradivari or a Guarneri del Gesu, they are priceless relics of our collective history, treasures from our always evolving civilizations. I wish they continue to be preserved for eternity, to be fervently admired for what they mean and meant; but not for what they no longer are.”
Unsubstantiated beliefs interfere with the acceptance of evidence. Belief is a powerful cultural pollutant: it disrupts, distorts, delays and stops the assessment of reality, what I call in my academic work “the 3Ds + S cognitive effects of illusory thinking.” Indeed, I explore, at a scientific level, why people struggle when confronting inner beliefs with facts, and for that I examine acceptance of evolution by highly educated audiences —university professors, educators of prospective teachers, and college students at elite institutions, who, despite their fine education, embrace distinctive degrees of superstition.
But illusory thinking is not restricted to deniers of evolution or human-induced climate change, another truth rejected by the general public (although less frequently by the literate) upon the conviction that “as long as we faithfully repudiate imminent environmental menace, it shall never happen.”
Self-deceptive ideas, collectively or individually reinforced, affect our ordinary living; and science keeps documenting astonishing examples:
Let’s celebrate the New Year with music and with the most revered classical instrument, the violin. World class virtuosos believe that instruments crafted during the Golden Age of violin-making (1550s to 1750s), by Antonio Stradivari or Giuseppe Guarneri “del Gesu,” outshine the quality of other violins, chiefly the contemporary ones.
Various attributes have been hypothesized to account for the tonal superiority of Old Italian violins: local weather effects on wood growth, density of early– and late–growth layers in the wood, chemical treatment of the timber, varnishing, plate-tuning techniques, and the spectral balance of the radiated sound (efficient energy propagation in each of the instrument’s sound–producing–frequencies). However, no tests had been conducted to discern between the professed value (monetary, historical, or just musical) ascribed to the antique violins in respect to the plain acoustics of their modern counterparts.
The first properly controlled study on player preferences among old and new violins was published in 2012, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). In it, 21 experienced violinists played and compared instruments crafted by Stradivari (one violin) and Guarneri del Gesu (two violins) with three new, exquisite exemplars. Under double-blind conditions, in which neither the violinists nor the experimenters knew the identity of the instruments, the players preferred the new violins over the old. In fact, the least appreciated was the Stradivari. And most players seemed unable to tell whether their favorite instrument was new or old.
“…the perceived monetary and historical value of the Old Italian violins were so ‘cognitively influential’ that they likely primed the violinists to believe that such instruments had better tonal quality…”
The combined estimated price of the antique violins was $10-million, about one hundred times that of the new instruments. And this was precisely what Claudia Fritz and her collaborators at the National Center of Scientific Research, University of Paris, who coauthored the study, intended to bring to our attention: both the perceived monetary and historical value of the Old Italian violins were so “cognitively influential” (my emphasis) that they likely primed the violinists to believe that such instruments had better tonal quality.
Of course Fritz and collaborators’ study ignited emotional responses among musicians. The very violinists who judged the virtues of the instruments hardly accepted the results of the trials. The research challenged conventional wisdom and a five-century old tradition. “There is nothing like an Old Italian violin sound,” goes the saying.
To overcome the passionate criticism –scientists adore rebuttals— Fritz and her team published a second paper in PNAS, in the spring of 2014. Their follow-up study contrasted soloist evaluations of six Old Italian (five Stradivari) and six new violins, thus increasing the sample size and sharpening the methods. Ten renowned virtuosos evaluated the instruments under, again, double-blind experimental conditions.
Six out of the 10 performers chose the new violins as “most preferred” over the Old Italians. The soloists also rated higher the preferred new violins than the older instruments in playability, articulation and projection; and at least equal to an old violin in timbre. Fritz and coauthors bravely reiterated: “some studies open new fields for investigation; [ours] attempts to close a perennially fruitless one —the search for the ‘secrets of Stradivari.’ Great efforts have been made to explain why instruments by Stradivari, and other Italian makers, sound better than high-quality new violins, but without providing scientific evidence that this is, in fact, the case.”
Belief disrupts, distorts, delays or stops the acceptance of scientific evidence. And only science can ultimately guide us to accurately explore reality, to demystify the polluters of our perception. As for the value of a Stradivari or a Guarneri del Gesu, they are priceless relics of our collective history, treasures from our always evolving civilizations. I wish they continue to be preserved for eternity, to be fervently admired for what they mean and meant; but not for what they no longer are. — © 2015 by Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C. all rights reserved.
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