Valentine’s Day reflection for Earth scientists

“Out of the heart, the mouth speaks.” – Jesus (Matthew 12:34)

“Love doesn’t erase the past, but it makes the future different.” – Gary Chapman[1]

Joel Achenbach has written an interesting piece you can find online at the Washington Post, entitled Why Science is so Hard to Believe. Worth reading! However, you may find you have already discovered for yourself many of the reasons Mr. Achenbach lists: much of science is counter-intuitive; a lot of science debates, whether on fluoridation or measles vaccines or climate change, really manifest tribal warfare; our brains are wired to operate emotionally as much as rationally; today’s internet allows us to adopt a cafeteria-style approach to science, finding support for whatever positions we choose a priori to believe; and more.

Valentine’s Day reminds us that something else might be at work. It just might be that as a class, scientists have a problem with love. We could be among the Valentine’s-Day-impaired.

You might think this off-base. Somehow, as individuals, scientists find ways to have lasting, loving, meaningful relationships. We get married. We parent children. We’re attached to significant others and partners much as everyone else. But in my case, and this may hold true for others, this is largely due to the patience and grace my wife, my family, and many friends have shown me for decades. This extended group has overlooked my faults and encouraged me by example and not by criticism to function better as a member of a true society than I would otherwise. You have been inclusive, and taken the initiative, and drawn me in. Despite my repeated provocations, you’ve never cast me aside or thrown me under the bus. (THANK you all!)

In return, we scientists have deliberately, and with glee, set up science as a largely love-free zone (with the possible exception of a few branches of psychology). We can’t write an equation for it, and measuring love has proved elusive, so we’ve left it out.

When it comes to the Navier-Stokes equations, or Newton’s laws, that’s exactly the right approach! But we carry it a step further. If our science happens to reveal our colleague’s science as deficient, so be it. No room for sensitivity there. He/she should have taken more care. If our science catalogs worldwide human failure, while failing to offer solutions, no need to pull any punches. Our work is done. Meeting these challenges is someone else’s problem. (But by the way, that failing, struggling world should keep paying us, and maybe even a bit more.) To top it all, as a class, though again perhaps not as individuals, we find the idea of a God, a God who is pure love, as a special irritant. With each new scientific advance, we’re fond of thinking, and sometimes making public, with a flourish… yet more proof that there’s no need for God. Therefore He doesn’t exist.

This love-free thinking carries over to our communication. The oceanographer Randy Olson in his book Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style points out we target our messages to people’s heads when we should be aiming for the heart and the gut.

As scientists, how can we learn to be more loving in our communication? Perhaps we could start with what the author and counselor Gary Chapman termed the five languages of love: gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical touch.

It might be tempting to dismiss these as playing no role in science, but remember: we’re talking about the communication of that science now. And fact is, we can point to success stories in how scientists have used these five languages of love over the years to build public and political support for science and scientists. Here’s a brief compilation of some of these best practices. With a little thought, you can quickly improve on this list:

Gifts. Science and innovation have been a source of material gifts since the beginning of time. Food for a hungry world. Water for every spigot. Electricity to every wall outlet. Medicines and therapies to improve health and extend life. Labor saving devices. Communications technologies to allow seven billion people to express their love more widely on Valentine’s Day. This has been science’s paramount language of love.

Acts of service. These come a close second. Science has provided many if not most of these gifts in the service of mankind… making life easier, more pleasant, more manageable, even more meaningful. The social scientists come especially to mind here. As the physical sciences and technology have advanced, social science has enriched our understanding of the resulting benefits, and how they’ve been distributed across social classes, their impacts on social equity, and much more.

Quality time. Through books, articles, talks, the Discovery Channel, and social media, scientists have created and spent quality time with the larger public, making science accessible to that public. And, fact is, time spent thinking about science and its benefits constitutes quality time.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Science and technology have created more opportunities all seven billion of us to enjoy quality time itself, and multiplied the ways such quality time can be used. They’ve provided insights into the nature of the universe and our place in it that enliven discussions of philosophy (and even the much-maligned idea of God). They’ve created new opportunities and arenas for artistic expression, adding richness to painting, sculpture, the performing arts and venues that don’t fall conveniently into these categories.

Words of affirmation. So far, science has been looking good! But this category and the next need work. Affirmation? Sometimes it seems we can’t be bothered. To start, we see little to affirm. We’ve been trained to look for shortcomings and we find them. Everywhere. Given such a reality, we feel that to affirm would be to lie, and there is no place for that in science. So we’ve become scolds, not just on climate change but also on the environment more broadly; obesity and other aspects of health and lifestyle; and more. Even the social scientists find themselves joining in. It may be one reason that political leaders find it difficult to support social science is that they find themselves favored targets of that science, whether on equity issues, matters of foreign policy, the state of the economy, etc.

We might do much better. Science could have evolved along different lines. We could have adopted the approach of improv theater and built science by supporting our predecessors and colleagues and building on what’s right about their work, however flawed, rather than focusing on the faults. We could seek to understand why leaders and the public behave as they do, and only then seek to be understood. This grace is the hallmark of all lovers.

Physical touch. You might think we can’t go there, but the fact is, we can. This is precisely what happens when scientists are embedded in the world of the practitioners: in electrical utilities, agribusiness, water resource agencies, emergency operations centers, teaching hospitals, etc. It’s what happens when social scientists engage in participatory action research, versus building firewalls between themselves and the people they study. In these settings, the differences between scientists and their practitioner-collaborators blur. The working relationships are especially close. Oh, and by the way, affirmation, not criticism, is the order of the day. This happens organically, from the grassroots, not because of any top-down prescription or mandate.

Two concluding thoughts. One negative: We’ll fail in our use of these languages of love if we pursue them as purely manipulative techniques. Jesus put voice to that truth we all know: you and I don’t take words at face value; instead we read each other’s hearts. One positive: While we can’t erase the past, we can make the future different. Let’s get on with it!

Happy Valentine’s Day! Much love to all.

_______________________________

[1] Author of The Five Languages of Love.

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1 Response to Valentine’s Day reflection for Earth scientists

  1. Newton said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” I’m not sure old Isaac would have appreciated the analogy to improv (he was kind of stodgy), but he certainly seems to have had the right spirit!

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