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Editorial: Putting the passion back in science

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2006. Editorial: Putting the passion back in science. the Exchange 13(4):2, 4–5.

If you had to choose one word to describe science, it would probably be dispassionate—that is, the opposite of subjective, emotional, illogical, imaginative, exciting... indeed, the opposite of passionate. Such beliefs become deeply embedded in a culture, and you can see this in the popular images that have become part of a culture's collective consciousness. For example, if you think of the portrayal of scientists on television, you'll immediately think of Star Trek's Mr. Spock from the 1960s and his spiritual sister of the 1990s, Dana Sculley of The X-Files. One doesn't think of poets and artists and impassioned lovers.

Like any other stereotype, this one contains both truth and myth. It's certainly true that the careful, methodical, objective approach that sets science apart from most other human endeavors would be impeded by subjectivity, unconstrained emotion, illogic, unrestrained imagination, and the excitement that leads to each of these mental states. Yet these states are essential parts of human nature, and though most humans can attain the scientist's dispassionate state of mind at certain times and for a limited duration, it's not our natural state. Failing to recognize this can have serious consequences.

For example, separatists in Quebec who were striving to attain sovereignty from Canada nearly won their 1995 referendum—a vote among all registered voters to determine whether the province should secede from Canada—in large part because the federalists relied excessively on cold, hard logic—the economics of belonging to Canada, among other things. In contrast, the separatists took great advantage of the emotional side of the argument, recognizing that humans are not swayed by logic alone. For my American colleagues, the comparable situation might well be Gore's election loss to Bush; the clearly more intelligent candidate lost, in large part, because he was perceived as having all the charm of a block of wood. People do want smart leaders, but they also want human leaders.

Of course, politics is about as far from science as one can imagine—the phrase political science is an oxymoron—so it's hardly surprising that an emotional argument trumps logic in this field. But the political example reveals the larger point: that by relying solely on logic, scientists do themselves a tremendous disservice. For those of us who are astonished and enchanted by the photos NASA sends back from Mars, it's hard to understand why a faded, washed-out band of dull orange-brown pebbles and sand is mind-numbingly boring to most viewers. It's that lack of understanding that undermines most attempts by scientists to communicate with the public. Imagine, for example, if NASA had landed its Mars probes on the slopes of Olympus Mons (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympus_Mons), a volcano the size of Arizona, or the Valles Marineris (http://astrogeology.usgs.gov/Projects/VallesMarineris/), a tremendous canyon system that makes Earth's Grand Canyon look like a crack in the sidewalk.

There are many reasons why NASA didn't choose either location, but in the end, the most influential was undoubtedly that NASA chose the most logical locations for their landings: areas where the probes would have the best chance of landing safely and answering scientifically important questions. But the disjunct between this logic and the emotional response to seeing Olympus Mons or the Valles Marineris close-up is clear: people visit Mt. St. Helens and the Grand Canyon because they are spectacular natural sights and evoke an emotional reaction that inspires the viewer. Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats (www.utah.com/playgrounds/bonneville_salt.htm) and China's Gobi Desert (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gobi_Desert) may be more interesting scientifically, and they have a certain stark beauty if you love landscapes, but they're clearly less spectacular, particularly to the untrained eye. It's interesting to speculate that more money would be invested in NASA and that the American public would be more interested in and excited by NASA if the agency understood this key point. Yes, science is important, but if you can't communicate that importance to people on an emotional level, you can't convince them to fund your research or invest the effort required to understand it. Sometimes it's necessary to indulge in a bit of short-term spectacle to secure support for more important long-term goals.

This does not mean that science should focus on the spectacular at the expense of the important. It does mean that we, as communicators, must learn that dispassionate doesn't necessarily mean passionless. Anyone who's seen the faces of scientists as they realize the magnitude of a discovery knows that these people aren't the passionless drones portrayed on TV. There are also scientist poets, scientist artists, and scientist philosophers, all of whom understand the importance of emotion in their lives, and write about it passionately.

Yet somehow that passion never seems to come through in our efforts to communicate. If we start with a clear recognition of the fact that the most important audience for our science may be the people affected by it (and not our fellow science geeks), this can reshape how we think about our communication efforts. Consider, for example, the effects of Kennedy's moon speech (http://history.nasa.gov/moondec.html), which launched the "great space race" between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Consider the following excerpts:

"These are extraordinary times. And we face an extraordinary challenge. Our strength as well as our convictions have imposed upon this nation the role of leader in freedom's cause. No role in history could be more difficult or more important."

"Finally, if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere."

"I believe we should go to the moon. But I think every citizen of this country as well as the Members of the Congress should consider the matter carefully in making their judgment, to which we have given attention over many weeks and months, because it is a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful."

Nowhere is there any mention of the science, and the only appeal to logic and objectivity comes towards the end of the last quote, when the burden is admitted. And although the speech mentions minds several times, it's clear that this is standing in for its true meaning: emotions.

By no means am I suggesting that we should distort science or conceal our true objectives in performing science. I chose Kennedy's speech solely to illustrate how effective an appeal to emotion can be. Years of secure funding for science have made us somewhat overconfident of our ability to sustain that funding. The shaky economics of the U.S., and of other developed countries to a lesser extent, may turn that confidence into the hubris that precedes a fall. That being the case, I urge you to think carefully about more than the logic and fact of your scientific communication. I urge you to remember that humans respond better to emotional appeals than to logic alone, but that both are important. And I urge you to do this (in the words of Kennedy's speechwriters) "not because it is easy, but because it is difficult". The rewards from overcoming a difficult task are much more satisfying than those from taking the easy route and cleaving to the status quo. Plus, science is exciting stuff. It's time we shared that excitement.


My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.


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