The Real Meaning of Empathic Science, and Why We Need It Now More Than Ever

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My daughter showing empathy

by Shannon Olsson – One of the major goals of our lab is to pursue science in an empathic manner; connecting more deeply with the natural world by identifying how our human experiences relate to those of the animals, plants, and microbes around us.  But this isn’t the only, or perhaps, even the most important meaning of this phrase.

I recently came across a quote from Gus Speth, law professor and former administrator of the UN Development Programme:

“Thirty years ago, I thought the top three global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I was convinced that with enough good science, we would be able to solve these problems.  But, I was wrong.  The real problems are bigger than that.  They are things like selfishness, greed, and apathy. For those kinds of problems, good science isn’t enough. For that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

India, and, to a large extent, the entire planet, stands at the crossroads.  With its economic growth, India has enormous potential to make a difference for its health, education, and natural resources. But it also stands at the precipice of antimicrobial resistance, disease transmission, lack of education appropriate for the robotic age, and ecosystem collapse.

The wonderful thing is that there are people, right here in this country, ready to tackle these issues.  I have met so many individuals from all walks of life – teachers to artists to philosophers – who have the ideas, the drive, and the passion for positive change.  But, the change has not yet come.

To achieve this revolution,  I believe that we need to unite disparate fields – science, technology, humanities, and others.  We must locate and nurture the many wonderful people in all walks of life who are ready and willing to make a positive difference here. True change will only happen when we stop making boundaries between basic and applied research and science and humanities and come together towards common goals – with open minds and open hearts.

How do we do this?

…by learning how to make connections.

At its heart, Empathic Science is, simply, the application of empathy to scientific research.  Empathy is perhaps the most profound human emotion, but it is also one of the most difficult for us to understand.  It is often confused with sympathy – the act of feeling about or for someone else. Empathy, however, is entirely different.  Empathy is feeling such a deep connection with another human that you experience their world as if it were your own.  This is precisely what makes empathy so difficult – it requires multiple attributes:

  1. Conscious observation of others
  2. Courage to become vulnerable to those around you
  3. Communication to connect with other human beings.

When someone is in pain and the only thing you can do is hold their hand, embrace them, and tell them that things will be ok – because that’s what you would want to hear if you were in the same position.  THAT is empathy.

How do we translate this very personal and emotional experience to the rigors of scientific research?  Well, essentially, we apply the same rules. 

Observation

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Observing hoverfly pollination in Ladakh

First, we try to keep our eyes, our minds, and our hearts open to the world around us.  In the spirit of Naturalists, we observe the world around us for its own sake. We observe an organism’s place in its ecology and consider how and what it is doing at that moment, and how these actions fit with the organisms around it.  This could be a flower, a bird, even a bacteria. As recently noted in an article about our lab in Club SciWri by Debarshini Chakraborty entitled “Eat, Pray and Love”, all life on this planet is essentially concerned about three things:

  1. Reproduction, or transference of genetic material to the next generation
  2. Resource allocation to survive until #1 is achieved
  3. Avoidance of destruction before #1 happens.

Love, Hunger, and Fear unite all of us.  And I believe that once we realize this, we can begin to relate to almost any living being, because in the end, we are all concerned about the same things. This knowledge is especially important for our beasts of choice  – the insects.  When looking at a house fly, it might seem so foreign to us – so different in all aspects with its six legs and compound eyes.  But when you observe that little fly is probably looking for food, or trying to avoid danger, then you realize that it might be making some of the same decisions we do as humans – just on a tiny scale.  This concept drives all our research.

Courage

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Hinal teaching neuromorphology to high school students

One of the most important skills needed for empathic science is  courage – the courage to be vulnerable. When we follow our observations, we might find ourselves far afield from what we know.  We might be looking at a bacteria and have no knowledge of microbiology.  Or speaking to an economist with no idea about blockchain technologies.  But empathic science means that we have the courage to admit our lack of knowledge, to ask questions, and to ask for help.  In my ten years as a Principal Investigator, I have found this is one of the hardest things to teach my students. Many students feel that they must be experts in all things right away, and are extremely afraid of seeming “naïve” or even “dumb”.  But the wisest people I know are those who realize how little they do know, and are willing to learn, and listen to others.

Communication

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Aditi explaining a science presentation at the  NCBS Annual Talks

Which brings us to the last, and most important skill – communication.  Beyond opening our minds, we must learn to communicate with others.  I believe that the problems I outlined at the start for India are completely solvable, if we just work together across fields.  This requires us to be able to communicate our knowledge to others who do not have our background. Every week, our lab members write a blog, like this one. We also participate in outreach and events with both four and forty-year olds. Why? Because that’s how we learn to communicate our science. Our breakthroughs in the lab are meaningless in a vacuum. They must reach others, not only in science but in all fields, where they can be useful.  And that will only happen once we are able to explain to persons from all walks of life what we do. Who knows?  Maybe our research on insects will not just be useful for basic science and agriculture, but can lead to new ideas, and inspire young people to become scientists.  Maybe it will become art that helps humanity care about pollinators, or even create new technologies.

Our pursuit of empathic science is a work in progress.  It is an ever-evolving process of observation, courage and communication that we pursue each day.  And we hope, through our success and through our failures, that we can inspire this empathic interaction in others as well.  Because, in the end, we are all connected on this Earth, and our future depends on our connection with both Nature, and with each other.

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