Science that Breaks Your Heart

“A scientific man ought to have no wishes, no affections — a mere heart of stone.” Charles Darwin

Birds, babies and baobab trees are what inspire and move us. (Photo: Toa55)

By Lee Anna Sherman

It was late Friday afternoon at Dearborn Hall. Professors Michael Nelson and Kathleen Dean Moore stood before an audience packed with scientists. Mixed in were students, community members and a few stray poets, attentive and expectant for a presentation titled “Five Tools of Moral Reasoning for Climate Scientists” and sponsored by Oregon State’s Environmental Humanities Initiative.

Nelson began by quoting Darwin on the necessity of emotional detachment in the lab and the field. Science requires cold objectivity to preserve the purity of data, the clarity of analysis and the accuracy of conclusions.

In truth, though, scientists are rarely unmoved by the work they do. In fact, by dint of their profession, they understand Earth’s precariousness even more deeply than most of us. When a researcher sterilizes her glassware and hangs up her safety goggles for the day, she carries with her the burden of her findings. Nelson regards that burden with compassion. “It’s hard to be a scientist in the age of climate change,” he told the crowd. “The data are so heartbreaking.”

As a thinking community, we face a conundrum: Scientists uncover some of the empirical knowledge we need to save our planet and ourselves. Yet their devotion to neutrality — an unquestioned necessity in the lab — impedes their voices in the wider world. “Scientists feel disempowered to weight in,” noted Nelson, lead principal investigator of the H.J. Andrews Long-Term Ecological Research Program at Oregon State. “They feel that ‘advocacy’ immediately ruins their credibility. So ironically, the people who know the most get to say the least.”

Adds Moore: “When we silence ourselves, we grant a great gift to those who do harm.”

So how to act upon one’s wrenching discoveries when shackled solely to facts? How to tell the story of a planet tipping toward calamity with graphs and charts when it’s birds and babies and baobab trees that move and inspire us? In a world of collapsing ecosystems, stone hearts would be excellent buffers to anguish. But even the most disciplined investigator struggles with the truths he uncovers.

What Nelson and Moore, OSU’s nationally renowned conservation philosopher, came to Dearborn Hall to say is that beating hearts and electron microscopes are not incompatible. The “perceived dualism” of science and humanities can be — must be — overcome, argued the two philosophers, co-editors of the recent book Moral Ground, a collection of writings on climate and values.

Science, values and policy are a kind of holy trinity for acting on climate change, Moore asserted. By joining forces with philosophers, clergy and skilled communicators to tell the stories of their studies, scientists can connect the cold, hard data to the warm, human values that drive social change. Because we know that merely bludgeoning people with facts only gives them a sore head.

“In the American tradition, ethics are a great force for change — building pressure through a growing affirmation of great moral principles of human decency,” she said.

Added Nelson: “We need to couple the facts with the morality.”