Thursday, January 16, 2014

The emotional lives of scientists

"Scientists should be allowed to be upset about things that are in fact upsetting" was the general gist of an interesting set of live-tweets that came flying by me from the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Naomi Oreskes, Harvard professor and author of "Merchants of Doubt," was giving a talk that is now conveniently summarized in this ClimateWire article. At the time that article was not yet written, but because I was intrigued I searched around and came across a seemingly recent (can't find a date on it to save my life) piece she wrote called "The scientist as sentinel" in a special issue of Limn on "sentinel devices." What had first captured my eye about her talk, at least what I could glean about it from the tweets, was the need to "allow" for the emotions of scientists to be a part of the discourse around climate change. It makes me somewhat sad that we need permission, but also, um, yes, please?

Before the holidays, I wrote a post on grief and science that has been surprisingly widely read. I honestly wasn't sure what would happen with that piece. Over the past couple years I've tested out the use of that word with a variety of fellow scientists and practitioners and it seemed most often to make people cringe a little, feeling it to be perhaps too heavy-handed, too emotional, too personal. Thankfully there have also been good number of people who have said oh, yes, let's talk more about *that*, which always helps. And, as with most things, timing is important, and I am feeling some collective energy around creating more space for the emotional lives of us science types. Hence my interest in the the Oreskes piece.

As always, I really recommend reading the original (it's a short one). It's focused on climate change in particular, but as somebody who works on a wide range of environmental science topics, I feel you could substitute "water" or "oceans" or "forests" without much trouble. One of her most fundamental points is that we as humans are in the midst of an environmental emergency of sorts that we have a hard time reconciling because the experts that we are relying on to tell us about it don't overall sound that alarmed. The spirit of her assertion resonates with a lot of my own experience that scientists, myself included, are challenged by both talking about things that are upsetting in an "authentic" way and by dealing with how upset other people might become by what we are conveying. To me, that's an overlooked part of the issue -- that allowing for our own emotion often invites engaging in a conversation about collective upset, which is a fundamentally relational process - an area where I feel science is truly challenged.

As part of her article, Oreskes notes that professionals like medical doctors that deal with emergencies regularly have been trained to do so, and that climate change presents a new challenge in that the scientists in this situation have not been trained in the same way. She asserts that the "dispassion" that scientists are sometimes known to speak with stems from a cultural emphasis on rationality, which is undoubtedly a part of the equation (and backed up by a research paper she refers to). I wonder though, if in some implicit way, perhaps another part is that we have taken a cue from popularized depictions of medical professionals or emergency responders, feeling it is our job to stay calm in the midst of chaos. Which is, in many ways, a beautiful and honorable role. Adding our own freak out to already upsetting situations is often really unhelpful. For example, I've also seen talks that felt violently alarming with image after image of sea level rise or melting glaciers and a tone to match, and they can be as equally challenging to hear as the dispassionate ones.

This is where I think it's important to recognize that making room for the emotional lives of scientists also means allowing for a full diversity of both feeling and expression. We may feel alarm, or sadness, or calm, or even optimism - there are many possible, valid, important emotional processes and reactions. And, we may choose to express those emotions in any number of ways. Normalizing emotions and their expression in science is a much needed transformation. And, for me, what that leads to is a focus on developing the professional mastery that comes from a lifelong process of learning to recognize how I feel *and* also recognizing when, where, and how it is or isn't helpful to share.

This is where a lot of research that I've done about the medical profession makes things interesting, because there's been a similar discourse there for at least a good 20 years. There has historically been a sense that medical doctors could and should give terrible news with a kind but professionally distant "bedside" manner, but more recently there's been a lot of conversation around the emotional lives of doctors, as well as tools for both coping with and enhancing their professional experiences. The evolution of thought and practice in terms of professional emotion in the medical arena has been pretty phenomenal, and although many can probably attest to the fact that it hasn't completely changed our interactions with our doctors, it is at least an ongoing discussion that has been incorporated into training and practice, and is something other fields can learn from.

I guess what I'm winding my way to here is that there must be some middle path where we swing the pendulum toward normalizing the fact that scientists have feelings about the things that they research because, well, humans. I also really want to honor the full spectrum of emotion and forms of its expression, with a focus on mastery and relatedness, as we move through this transformative time.

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  1. Totally necessary to talk and make "that" visible!! And to see how we scientists as the rest of the people can learn to being able to identify our own emotions. I share here a blog post I published some weeks ago that you may find interesting. Best!

    1. Marien, thank you for reading and for commenting, and for the link to your post. It's always great to hear from a kindred spirit. As you may be able to tell, I also very much view things through a psychoanalytic lens, though probably more with a Jungian bent, and am very interested in the emotional component of environmental conflict, including my own role as a practitioner (instigated as with you working directly with communities on forest/fire issues). It seems to me this line of questioning is stronger in other fields and much more nascent in the environmental sciences. I would love to hear more about your work as it progresses.

  2. Interesting how science, which is about pursuit of knowledge, ignore the access to knowledge that comes from emotion. As if cognition was the only route to understanding!

    Descarte could have just as well said, "I feel, therefore I am," or "I act, therefore I am," but instead he elevated thinking above feeling or action.

    1. I totally agree. We are so much more than our cognition, and there is much value in our subjective selves/knowledge. It's a challenge to think about how to overcome the idea in the sciences that emotion is something to be eradicated rather than integrated.