Integrating Basic and Applied Vision Research

Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books
August 2004, Vol. 49, No. 4, 488–489

A Review of

Visual Perception: The Influence of H. W. Leibowitz
by Jeffrey Andre, D. Alfred Owens, and Lewis O. Harvey, Jr. (Eds.)
Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2003. 253 pp. ISBN 1-55798-945-1. $39.95

doi: 10.1037/004409

Reviewed by

David Whitney

Visual Perception: The influence of H. W. Leibowitz, edited by Andre, Owens, and Harvey, presents a collection of diverse papers on basic and applied vision research by a broad group of scientists who are connected by a single theme—the man to whom the book is dedicated, Hershel Leibowitz. The aim of the edition is twofold: first, to provide a broad sketch of the kind of research, both practical and theoretical, which Leibowitz has inspired and, second, to provide a narrow sketch of the kind of scientist and teacher that Leibowitz was.

Because most of the chapters are authored by students and friends of Leibowitz, the book provides an incisive and fond view of Leibowitz in his role as a scientist and, perhaps more important, as a teacher. The book, for example, opens with a striking chapter on the scientific and pedagogic methods of Leibowitz. The warm tone of this chapter is echoed in nearly every chapter that follows; rather than emphasizing only the scientific accomplishments of Leibowitz, the authors chose to highlight the value of Leibowitz as a mentor, teacher, and friend. The implication (perhaps unintended) of these sentiments, and the conclusion one naturally draws, is that good mentoring and good science go hand in hand.

The dramatic diversity of the book's contents provides evidence that good science is a direct consequence of good mentoring. Beyond the fond recollections and truly important statements about what makes a good mentor (useful information for the rest of us), the book contains a surprisingly diverse set of papers on topics ranging from the history of lenses to statistical methods in psychological research and the practical and clinical application of vision science.

The strength of the book as a whole is that it is loosely bound around a single figure. Leibowitz, the scientist and educator, is a single theme that cuts through the entire book, highlighting the introductions of each chapter. The book provides an excellent tribute to a mentor and researcher who is clearly respected and admired by many students and colleagues. The strength of the book, however, also becomes its weakness. To adequately reflect Leibowitz's career, the range of topics covered within roughly 250 pages is immense. How does one cogently tie together chapters on traffic safety and the history of optics? Admittedly, this is a difficult task.

If readers are looking for a reference book on optics, the history of vision, psychophysics, science and public policy, or clinical vision research, this would not be the book to read. There are simply too many topics in too little space to adequately cover each of these issues. However, it is important to keep in mind, and perhaps it is fortunate, that the purpose of the book is not to serve as a textbook of facts. The aim of the book is, at least in part, to provide an overview of how a single person managed to shape vision science, ranging from basic to applied research. In this regard the book is a success.

Nevertheless, one cannot help thinking that the book has a divided message. As one reads, there is a strong sense that Leibowitz is present, holding the subject matter together. Yet, at the same time, many of the chapters are filled with so much detail that the big picture gets lost. Many of the chapters, for example, start out by quoting one of Leibowitz's sayings: “Why is that important?” (p. 10), or “How important will this be five years from now?” (p. 45). Clearly these are important things to keep in mind in any scientific context. In the context of this book, the key would be for the reader to know what the broad picture is for each chapter. However, this becomes difficult at times. In a book filled with immensely different topics, the question of how each particular chapter relates to the big picture frequently gets lost. In some sense, it would have been nice if each chapter had concluded by addressing Leibowitz's second law: “Applied research should illuminate basic understanding of visual perception, and basic research should illuminate solution of practical problems” (p. 97).

The almost necessary drawback of a book that is a tribute to a man who clearly had a wide influence on science, teaching, and policy is that the contents will be just as diverse. In this case, this drawback is attenuated by the fact that many of the chapters are interesting on their own, even independent of the overarching theme of the book. There are a number of chapters on applied and clinical vision science (e.g., the influence of visual illusion on road safety and the use of well-known visual illusions to detect visual impairments), research that has obvious and important implications for public policy. There are also useful chapters that one might rarely, if ever, see in typical vision books. One chapter outlines signal detection theory, and aptly shows how these statistical methods not only apply to vision science but to other fields as well.

Keeping in mind that the purpose of the book is to accurately reflect the scope and depth of Leibowitz's scientific and teaching career, while at the same time providing a broad sketch of several areas of vision research, the book deserves credit. Perhaps the book's most important contribution, through the variety of subjects that are covered, is the message that it carries about Leibowitz's outlook—that basic and applied science are mutually informative. This rare view that can be easily forgotten as scientific fields, like psychology, become increasingly divided, specialized, and entrenched.

JEFFREY ANDRE, Department of Psychology, James Madison University.

D. ALFRED OWENS, Department of Psychology, Franklin and Marshall College.

LEWIS O. HARVEY JR., Department of Psychology, University of Colorado.

DAVID WHITNEY, Department of Psychology, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario N6A 5C2, Canada. E-mail:

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