This thing called life

Scientists wary of wearing their hearts on their sleeves – is this what we really want?

When our heart is part of our work, non-scientists will know we speak from a place of truth and honour. angelica.paciocco/Flickr

A reader complained that my last column about the environmental damage caused by super trawlers was too emotive. We agreed about the facts, but not about how to frame them. I tried to ignore this comment, but it kept bothering me, and for different reasons on different days.

After some rumination, and conversations with colleagues, I have decided to address it. Must serious conservationists avoid using their hearts? Do we do better science when we only use our brains? Is our advocacy for the planet best framed in dry factual statements? I think not, and my reasons are varied.

Reason one: science communication often suffers from a lack of emotive content. Yesterday, a colleague sent me a link to an article called three tips for science communication, in which the author complains:

“It dismays me how scientists – so full of passion and creativity – sometimes make the wondrous mundane, and the story of their work stripped of emotion.”

Part of my life’s goal is to share my enthusiasm for science and the species with whom we share our planet, and being told that I need to be wary of wearing my heart on my sleeve is frustrating. I want to keep my heart where it belongs, right here in my chest, but I want it to be part of my work. Otherwise, how can I convince non-scientists that I speak from a place of truth and honour? My integrity is firmly embedded in my passion for this thing called life.

Reason two: science is more fun than most people realise. I know from personal experience that scientists are passionate, emotional creatures. We get really excited about apparently esoteric stuff, but when we explain it, we get our students, friends and families excited too.

I have often been on field trips where we meet unique, endangered creatures, and the students do not realise how special the moment is until the senior staff’s excitement becomes apparent. If scientists do not share their emotional responses, they are not truly teaching.

Scientists, like everyone else, do better work when they put their whole person, body and soul, into their work. The world needs more people to learn and use the scientific method, but this won’t happen if people think they have to check their hearts at the door. If we portray ourselves as merely walking brains, how are we going to convince others to join us, and become scientists, too?

Reason three: my environmental students are afraid of being labelled as greenies. I think this is the crux of the problem. Young people who want to save the planet and protect our environment enrol in a degree in science so that they will have the knowledge and credentials to make a difference. But to do this they feel they must reject the extremes of some in the environmentalist movement.

I can illustrate the problem with a conversation I had about a year ago. I rang someone (in government or industry, I forget the exact issue) and introduced myself as a conservationist. The person on the other end began with, “You people”… and began to tell me what I thought, almost none of which was true. When I managed to break in and explain that I was a scientist who had been doing research in the area and had hoped to offer some useful suggestions, the individual calmed down and said, “Oh! You mean that you are a conservationist!” … as if I should have said so. Except that I had.

Conservationists are therefore somewhat twitchy, and as a group we are schizophrenic. We feel compelled to express our concerns about the environment in a way that distances us from other people who care about the environment. Some of us work from a scientific framework, base our arguments in logic, and seek solutions that are acceptable to society. Others are looking for fundamental changes to society as we know it, and are willing to take radical actions including vandalism. Most environmentalists are somewhere in between.

Is our language too limited to encompass this diversity? Or are we just too sensitive about the words people use? Personally I don’t mind being called a tree hugger, but the derogatory connotations of the phrase are both undesirable and incorrect.

What annoys me most about all this is that a physicist can get as excited and emotional as they like about landing a car on Mars, but a conservationist has to tread lightly when they express concerns about the extinction of a species or the impact of an industry that is destroying the environment.

I love fish, and I love fishers. People who harvest the bounty of the planet’s waters often know their fauna intimately and are deeply concerned about threats to the natural system that supports them. This does not, in my mind, include people who run the floating factories known as super trawlers.

Can we find a way to support both the fish and their fishers by careful management of our rivers and oceans? I think we can, but we need to be able to have a frank discussion about the impacts of certain fishing practices, the politics of fishing regulations, and the importance of sustainability.

To do this, we will have to carefully manage our emotional responses to people with alternative views. But that does not mean that we have to pretend that we are emotion-less.

I want to thank the reader whose comment got me thinking about this issue. And I want to thank the readers who are going to comment on this post. Let’s have a proper conversation about the nature of conservation.

Make a donation right now and it will be doubled by the NewsMatch Challenge!