Science, Passion, and Getting Personal
Why do scientists pursue science with so much vigor and enthusiasm? It is because of the passion we have for our subjects. Even what would appear to be the most boring subject of a lecture can be invigorated when the speaker is passionate about his subject. When the listener sees the speakers eyes light up with that passion, it enables the listener to share in that experience with the speaker. I have watched the Charlie Rose Show and listened to his guests and have been enthralled by some of the guests speaking on the most mundane subjects because of their passion for their subjects.
I think research scientists and artists share much in common. Both groups delight in the product of their efforts without concern for how practical it might be. In one the search is often for knowledge for its own sake, the simple delight in “knowing.” There is the story of Harlow Shapely who in the early 1900’s figured out the size of the Milky Way and discovered that the sun was located in a non-descript corner of the galaxy. It was late at night when he finished his calculations. He sought out the only other person in the building, a cleaning lady, and explained his discovery to her, saying they were the only two people on Earth that understood it. It is this excitement about pure knowledge, even if there is not an immediate practical application that drives scientists, like the creation of art that drives artists.
As a scientist we are told to remain dispassionate about our subjects so as to not introduce bias into our results. We are not assembly workers on a production line. There is no science without passion. What we can do is to use protocols to limit bias in our analysis, but I don’t think there can be science without passion. The passion is to find what is true rather than to find a desired answer.
Robert Leverett wrote (2004) about the Eastern Native Tree Society in an essay called “Looking Back”:
What keeps ENTS from being exclusively research-oriented is the value judgments we make. We get up close and personal with the trees and forest sites. In doing this, we may appear to violate the impersonal requirement of objective science. But we can keep different objectives separated in our approaches. We just want the range of future researchers to be able to go beyond an either or dichotomy: superficial public site descriptions at the one extreme and heavy scientific data at the other. We want future generations to know not only about the ecology of Cook Forest State Park’s Forest Cathedral, but also about the Longfellow pine and Seneca pines. We want people to know which trees were climbed, when, and the results. Individuals matter to us, and if they don’t to others, they should.
This comment came back to me as I was looking on the web for material about Jane Goodall, the famous primate specialist who did groundbreaking work with chimpanzees. She is giving a talk at a university here in Pennsylvania in a couple weeks and I am planning to attend. I came across this video interview, it lasts only a couple of minutes that discussed criticisms she received when she named her chimpanzee subjects and interacted with them. It talks about passion, and getting personal, and where she thinks science has gone wrong.
She says in the video:
“I was told you have to give them numbers because you have to be objective as a scientist,” Goodall says in the video, “and you mustn’t empathize with your subject. And I feel this is where science has gone wrong. To have this coldness, this lack of empathy, has enabled some scientists to do unethical behavior.”
She says empathy can bring a better understanding of animal — and human — behavior, adding, “I think only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our full potential.”
I am saying that as individuals, whether you are a scientist or simply an enthusiast, go forth and be passionate about your subject. Allow yourself to become personal about individuals. Allow yourself to feel and explore the range of logic and emotion inherent in your subject and work. Allow yourself the joy of discovery and simply knowing. Dispassionate comes into play when you are analyzing your data, when you are analyzing your sampling protocols, when you are forming your conclusions. And even though they might be redlined in a professional publication, include in your analysis non-quantifiable observations that help in the3 understanding of the subjects and processes you are observing.
Edward Forrest Frank