Is there room for emotion in science?

By Anna Sandiford 30/09/2011

Last night, I looked at Auckland city from a new perspective: the top floor of Auckland Museum.  Fantastic views of the 360-degree variety.  Aside from that, I was there for the Auckland SCANZ panel discussion.

All the speakers were excellent but, being a geologist by training (and secretly still am, in my head), I was particularly interested in the comments of Hamish Campbell of GNS about the reaction of GNS to the Christchurch earthquakes. My overall impression of his comments was that after the September earthquake and exacerbated by the February quake, GNS had underestimated two things:

  • the public’s need for information in times of crisis; and
  • GNS’s position as being that immediate point of contact at such times.

After initial problems in communications with the media, the GNS website now has a wealth of information for public access.

One other thing that was discussed was the battle between providing information to the public in a scientific manner (i.e. factual and without emotion) whilst trying to counter emotive responses that non-scientists make.  The example was given of Ken Ring, who has provided a voice and emotion at a time when the scientists with the best knowledge were not being given a voice with emotion and, in some instances, were not being allowed a voice at all by some higher-ups.

It is very hard to fight emotion with non-emotion, and one excellent example was provided by another speaker regarding the issue of vaccinations: she has a constant discussion with her daughter-in-law about the fact that the grandchild is not vaccinated – the mother does not believe in vaccination but the grandmother does.  It is upsetting for both of them because they both believe their opinion is the best for the child in question.  It is near-impossible to fight a person’s emotive but perhaps incorrect view on a scientific subject.

I have encountered similar problems in forensic science – how do you fight the misperceptions of the non-science trained but potentially emotional general public that may make up a jury?  My best solution has been to try to educate through lectures, presentations and blog posts and for that I think the Science Media Centre has provided me with an exceptional opportunity.  I will always be stymied by the fact that there are some things on which I just cannot provide comment because of the nature of my work but where I am able to do so, I do.

Is it possible to argue a scientific point by bringing in emotion?  The opinion was somewhat mixed last night with the geologist of the opinion that science should be cold, hard facts and interpretation with no emotion whatsoever (and I agree) but the biochemist believing that emotion should come into the equation because of the emotional attachment that the general public has.  I wonder if this divide might be a reflection of the fact that the biochemist works with the effects of disease on people and has therefore had a career that, by definition, has been driven by the desire to make people well and to help prevent disease – this would be, I imagine, a very emotional job.  Indeed, her current research involves helping to repair nerve damage and potentially get paraplegics out of wheelchairs for the first time in their lives – an immensely emotional end-goal.  Compare that with the majority of geologists who spend a significant period of time pretty much not interacting with people other than their own colleagues – being able to predict earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis is extremely emotive in the long run but, at the time, you’re dealing with rocks and mathematical data rather than directly witnessing the relief of human suffering.  Some geologists are better at the human aspect of geology than others and they may also have been drawn into the emotive arena in debates such as those involving climate change.

GNS, I think, has taken the best direction for them.  If you visit their website you can now access real-time data about seismic activity – this is the sort of information people want to know.  It is non-emotive but it is quick, which is also half the battle in an age where people think the internet can provide all the answers but get upset and perhaps paranoid when the organisations they trust to provide them with information in their time of need don’t come up to the mark.  That’s the time when they look for alternatives sources of information and comfort; that’s when the less desirable but maybe more emotive sources fill the gap and then become the ‘answer’.

0 Responses to “Is there room for emotion in science?”

  • Given that scientists are people too, I think showing emotion is not only likely, but probably. And part of the public’s distrust of scientists, perhaps, may come from the modern scientific community’s external projection of being emotionless. Humanity fears automatons 😛

    Of course, showing emotion should not be confused with using emotion _as_ data – science should be able to present the ‘cold, hard facts’ without itself coming across cold and hard. It’s very difficult to engage with a public otherwise, as we’ve seen with issues such as climate change!

  • I see your point aimee, but as expert witnesses it is our job to present information in a non-biased and non-emotional way; we cannot be seen to have any emotional attachment to a case in which we give evidence as it implies emotional involvement when our Codes of Conduct and court rules require impartiality.
    It’s a tough line to follow in some cases because you can’t deny the impact of the circumstances but it’s something we have to manage. Hence the need for regular psychological support, particularly for those who work frequently in the category called ‘crimes against the person’.

  • Anna

    I agree with you that as expert witnesses scientists need to present information in a non-biased and non-emotional way, but I think that one valuable thing they can also do is actually acknowledge to their audience where it is appropriate that they are dealing with an emotive issue.
    I’ve seen a similar approach work when vaccine researchers are confronted with antivaxxers who believe that their child has been affected by a vaccine. To acknowledge the other persons pain even while disagreeing with them on the cause is, I believe very important.
    Just my 2 cents worth

  • HI Michael,

    I think there are two issues here:
    1. showing emotion as the science communicator, and
    2. being sensitive in presenting information on an emotive topic.

    The former is not ever generally acceptable for an expert witness but the latter is very important for establishing and maintaining connection with the audience, particularly the jury – that to me falls into your comment about the antivaxxers.

    Occasionally, acknowledgement of an emotive issue in the witness box is appropriate but generally only when it is raised by Counsel or the court – unless it involves priming the jury for viewing of disturbing images and even then that should usually be left to Counsel or the judge.

    In 13 years of giving evidence, it’s never been appropriate for me to express emotion in the witness box because of my areas of expertise – not much room for acknowledging emotion when talking about investigative procedures, beer, footwear, glass or pollen!

    I have also seen the court and lawyers leap to attack experts who talk about anything in an emotive manner because of the need to prevent bias – no-one wants a trial aborted because of the actions or comments of an expert witness.

    In fact, in court last month a doctor was (quite rightly) asked to refrain from referring to the Complainant as the ‘victim’ and the Defendant as the ‘assailant’ and also saying that the examination in question was ‘painful for the victim’ – she didn’t know it was painful for the Complainant, she should have reported what the Complainant said, not interpreted it into direct emotion. The Defendant was found not guilty so reference to him prior to the verdict as the ‘assailant’ was presumptive, biased, prejudicial and, ultimately, inaccurate.

    All in all, it’s a fine line and something that has to be learnt by different scientists through their different careers. The only route I have to be able to express any sort of passion or emotion is to write books, articles and this blog but even then I take care to steer away from my emotions and personal opinions on specific cases. There are some things I wish I could say, but I just can’t. Until I retire. And the way things are going with the criminal justice system and Legal Aid, that’s a loooooong way off!