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The Role of Compassion and Empathy in Science and Communication

Written by Grace Lloyd Miner SoGES 2014-2015 Sustainability Leadership Fellow, and PhD Student in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences

At a recent science communication training workshop, I noted in an informal discussion with colleagues my frustration with the frequently ‘political’ nature of my scientific discipline – agricultural science. I described how I could not go to a dinner party without being bombarded with questions (accusations?) regarding my opinions on topics such as conventional vs organic agriculture or genetically modified crops (GMOs). “Seemingly everyone is an expert on food and agriculture,” I complained. “There is no acknowledgement of any sort of specialized knowledge– if they disagree with you, they posit to have equal authority and understanding of the issues. It would be rare for someone to portend to be an expert in medical science if they had never studied medicine. Yet, everyone is an expert when it comes to plant breeding and crop production.”  Oftentimes, I admitted to them, my discussions with non-scientists are unproductive and strained. At best, they are carefully measured and civil. Only rarely is there significant and meaningful exchange.

I was startled by how strongly my colleagues resonated with my experience, and surprised to hear that this was a familiar situation for them as well. Of the three scientists present, all of them worked in fields where public sentiments and opinions run high (and are often polarized). One is an atmospheric scientist, working on topics related to climate change. Another works on questions surrounding fracking, while the third individual studies water and water policy. All of these friends shared my sentiments – science communication is not always as simple as excluding jargon and having a strong ‘elevator speech’ and it is clearly not always exclusively about our research or the data.  Our research disciplines cross into social, economic, and political realms that ‘animate’ individuals (and rightly so).

This conversation sparked a personal reflection on my methods of science communication, particularly, on how frequently I lack empathy and compassion towards viewpoints that are not my own. Cognitive empathy helps immensely in communication, as it seeks to understand how another individual thinks about particular issues.  Compassion, a synonym of empathy, is often equated with ‘pity.’ However, I am inspired by Krista Tippet’s recent call for a “linguistic resurrection” of this word [5]. In her linguistic exegesis of the word, she ascribes to it a multi-dimensional nature that includes kindness, curiosity without assumptions, empathy, generosity, and hospitality. She describes how our societal encounter with diversity in the 1960s resulted in the adoption of ‘tolerance’ as a core civic virtue. Tolerance connotes “allowing,” “indulging” and “enduring.” Tolerance has been my typical stance towards some of the opinions expressed in dinner party conversations. Tippet dubs compassion a ‘worthy successor’ of tolerance. Compassion, Tippet posits, is “so important when we are communicating big ideas,” to root our ideas in “space and time and flesh and blood – the color and complexity of life.”

In the past few months, I have attempted to incorporate empathy and compassion into my discussions, specifically those related to agricultural production, policy, and the research that I do. Instead of immediately referring individuals with contrasting opinions to read peer-reviewed literature like Peggy Lemaux’s “Genetically Engineered Plants and Foods: A Scientist’s Analysis of the Issues” (albeit a well-written and thorough paper), I have allowed myself to mull on the color and complexity of agriculture. What other issues, beyond the inherent safety of food, concern for personal health, and/or ecological sustainability, might be lingering behind the concerns frequently vocalized towards agricultural research and production?

Here are a few of the insights I have gained. Clearly, food is central in our lives. Agricultural systems are, in a poetic and literal sense, a reflection of how we choose to organize our society. Debates surrounding topics such as the method and scale of production systems and GMOs often have a more subtle and deep root - perhaps they are debates about to whom we choose to allot control of production, knowledge, and power. Biotechnology in agriculture has an impact on how we live. Biotechnology and economic patents bring questions of membership, power, freedom, and justice to the forefront of the conversation. Technology actively shapes the ecological, biological, and social landscape - the role of biotechnology in shaping our food system is substantial, and it should be a conversation that all individuals can be involved in.

Incorporating empathy into previously frustrating dinner party conversations has proved highly effective not only in improving communication, but also in identifying potential research questions and citizen concerns. For example, a recent conversation with one individual revealed that their concerns were rooted in a sense of ‘separation’ from knowledge of how their food is produced and processed. They felt that the production processes are obscured, and that this obscuration prevented them from acting responsibly in their food purchasing choices. This is useful information that I would not have gleaned if I merely inundated the individual with facts and data.

Yes, I believe agronomists and plant geneticists should contribute heavily to the discussion over the scales and technologies used to produce our food. I will continue to communicate the science I do, and my best understanding of key issues. For example, while I ardently support organic and local agriculture, I do not believe that labeling GMOs makes scientific sense [2, 6] or that there is anything inherently ‘better’ about the local scale, as “local-food systems are equally likely to be just or unjust, sustainable or unsustainable, secure or insecure... the outcomes produced by a food system are contextual…” [1].

However, I do not think scientists can ultimately be the only ones to make the decisions regarding our food production systems, because making one decision involves choosing against other values. For example, even as consensus rises in the scientific debate surrounding the environmental safety of GMOs, [2 - 4] the arguments surrounding the social and cultural sustainability of industrial production systems are a growing part of the current ideological conflict. I must let my research inform the discussion, but I must also listen attentively to discern other issues and concerns that my research cannot inform.

Effective science communication and dialogue often involve more than the ability to verbalize ideas succinctly and simply. An extension of empathy and compassion towards issues and sentiments that our research may or may not inform can greatly enhance the productivity of our science communication and reveal surprising research questions still needing to be pursued.  

References:

[1] Born, Branden, and Mark Purcell. "Avoiding the local trap scale and food systems in planning research." Journal of Planning Education and Research 26.2 (2006): 195-207.

[2] Byrne, P. D. Pendell, and G. Graff (2014). “Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods.” Colorado State University Extension Fact Sheet no 9.371. Retrieved from http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09371.html

[3] Lemaux, Peggy G. "Genetically engineered plants and foods: a scientist's analysis of the issues (Part I)." Plant Biology 59.1 (2008): 771.

[4] Lemaux, Peggy G. "Genetically engineered plants and foods: a scientist's analysis of the issues (Part II)." Plant Biology 60.1 (2009): 511.

[5] Tippet, Krista. (2010, November). Krista Tippet: Reconnecting with Compassion [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/krista_tippett_reconnecting_with_compassion?language=en

[6] Specter, Michael. (2014, August). The Problem with G.M.O. Labels. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/problem-g-m-o-labels

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