Stove-piping: maintaining firewalls separating science/social relationships/spirituality

Stove-piping: we decry it in the workplace. What about when it separates science from relationships with others from spirituality in our lives? Why do we embrace it then? We know it has clear benefits. For example, it protects the scientific method, and in the process keeps science from decaying into something less. But when it comes to the application of science to formulate policies and/or solve real-world problems, is stove-piping ideal? Or can we simply think of nothing better?

News coverage of the just-concluded AMS 2013 Annual Meeting included this piece by Juan Castillo of the Austin Statesman, which focused on Tim Miner’s Town Hall on Spirituality and the atmospheric sciences. The article is worth reading in its entirety, but here are two excerpts. The first focuses on Mr. Miner himself:

Over four days, more than 3,000 participants attended scores of panels and town hall-style meetings addressing weighty topics one would expect atmospheric scientists to sink their teeth into. But Tuesday’s session stood out like snow in Austin. Miner, a former weather officer and pilot for the Air Force, joked that it surely was one of the few times spirituality and atmospheric science were discussed in the same setting.

The American Meteorological Society’s official statement on climate change is that Earth’s lower atmosphere, ocean and land surface are warming; the sea level is rising; and snow cover, mountain glaciers and Arctic sea ice are shrinking. It cites the dominant cause of warming since the 1950s as human activity and says that avoiding future warming will require a large, rapid reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2011, a U.N. committee called for faith-based initiatives to promote stewardship of the Earth, and it urged scientists to help educate religious communities and organizations about the future of the planet.

In an interview after Tuesday’s discussion, Miner, now a commercial airline pilot and a chaplain who lives in Virginia, said scientists have a responsibility to share their knowledge with the world so that Earth can be preserved for future generations.

“It’s not just my personal faith to God, but my responsibilities to the greater body, to all of us together,” Miner said.

The second gives us a couple of perspectives from others in the room:

Barry Goldsmith, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Brownsville, said he’s often asked if he believes in global warming.

“I tell them data is data,” Goldsmith said. “It really is not a belief system. A belief system is something that would be about faith and spirituality.”

Jonathan Smith, a postdoctoral fellow at Howard University in Washington who specializes in atmospheric chemistry, said that in practicing his Christian faith he sometimes encounters uncomfortable situations in which nonscientist friends ask him about global warming and environmental concerns.

Because some might find the answers difficult to comprehend, “sometimes I don’t know how to answer them,” Smith said during the discussion.

But afterward, Smith said the dialogue had helped him reconcile his feelings.

“We believe in a God that is all powerful,” Smith said, “but we are studying this science, and we see that the climate is changing, the Earth is warming, there are more storms.”

Smith said that in his answers to difficult questions he could begin incorporating his knowledge about recent natural disasters to make a point. But he said he was undecided about whether scientists have an obligation to share their knowledge about the environment.

“My professional views as a scientist shouldn’t override my belief in God or my Christian principles or anyone else’s principles,” Smith said.

These excerpts provide only the merest hint of the challenges all of us face as we struggle to maintain the integrity of our science at the same time we’re trying to be authentically human.

One approach is compartmentalization. We can and do construct firewalls separating (1) our science from our partnerships and collaborations with other professionals from our own and from other disciplines, (2) our work from our family/personal life, and (3) these relationships from any inner, private spiritual dimension to our lives.

Yet this immediately creates/reveals a dissonance. We decry such stove-piping in our professional world (research vs. operations; feds vs. private-sector vs. academics; one agency vs. another; fed-state-local government; cloud physics versus atmospheric dynamics or atmospheric electricity; modeling versus experiments; social vs. natural science; science vs. practice; production vs. marketing…). Why should such stove-piping be any more successful or magically appropriate when applied to our lives more broadly? At the same time, it’s hard to remain objective or disciplined in any effort to break down such boundaries and barriers in our lives. I don’t have an easy answer for this…there may well not be one.

Your thoughts, please.

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One Response to Stove-piping: maintaining firewalls separating science/social relationships/spirituality

  1. About 50 years ago, C P Snow decried the rift between the two cultures – one scientifically-oriented, the other oriented toward the humanities. He saw this primarily as the result of a British higher education system that had little value for science and technology; in fact, he praised the American educational system for having a more balanced approach.

    Perhaps we have, but I still see too much hostility and suspicion between the two. Bless the bridge builders who are working to bring the two together.

    Sadly, overlaid on top of this tension between two cultures is a widening chasm between those who are educated and those who are not. This is a much more important societal barrier to break down. It’s probably not appropriate to mount my soapbox here, but anyone who looks at the unassailable data in Murray’s Coming Apart, and the recent articles developed by the Brookings Institution relating to education and our economy, will quickly come to the conclusion that if we don’t begin to bridge this chasm – and soon, we truly will come apart as a country and a society.

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