Is there room for emotion in science?

Categories: News, Opinion, Sciblogs

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’.


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Dr Anna Sandiford

The Forensic Group was established in 2008 by Dr Anna Sandiford, a Senior Forensic Science Consultant with many years’ experience in New Zealand and overseas who started her forensic science career in 1998.