Is science emotionless?

Ryan Hill

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should”- Dr Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park 1993[1]

The world of science is often portrayed as being one devoid of emotion and connection to humanity. Whether it is by simple lack of care, as in the Jurassic Park quote, or by natural design as with the Vulcan race in Star Trek, who attempt to live by logic and reason with no interference from emotion, science in the media is often removed from the usual level of human emotion. But scientists are not emotionless humanoids. We are real people with real feelings. So what is it about science that causes this emotionless portrayal?

Science is defined in the Oxford dictionary as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”[2].  The endeavour should take place without bias or prejudice and conclusions drawn from the results, which must then be presented to one’s peers in a convincing yet unbiased manner. You should never look at your results solely for the answer you want rather all possibilities should be considered, especially the possibility that you are wrong. For a non-scientist outsider, journals and publications are simply blocks of text with no passion behind them in which there may seem to be no real conviction to an idea- not quite the same as reading the emotional journey of an artist or novelist. But, as any scientist will tell you, their journey was fraught with emotion be it jubilation at finally achieving results, or heartbreak at the bitter end of a futile effort. It is not until you speak to the scientist themselves that you truly see the passion they have for their work, both in professional and private conversations. Emotion has to be present to conduct science in the first place. If you have no interest in your work, why would you explore it? Why would you voluntarily spend months, maybe years, maybe even decades of your life working on something you had no interest in? Obviously in a normal profession being paid is often a key motivation, but in the scientific world money is never a guaranteed factor. Funding can be cut or reassigned to other, more promising work. In grant applications enthusiasm needs to be portrayed to be successful. If the applicant isn’t genuinely excited and enthused by their work, they will find it very difficult to convince others to fund the work.  In private conversation, should you ever witness two scientists with strongly opposing views, debates can often become heated. Ewan Birney, a computational biologist and joint associate director of the European Bioinformatics Institute, describes his experience with a co-worker where “things got pretty heated and harsh words were said”[3]. He also recounts witnessing his first scientific debate that, after no more than five minutes of the invited speaker’s talk, descended into an auditorium-wide argument (on something as small as whether a figure used was too complex for the point in hand) in which the speaker was not even involved. It is clear to see that scientists are very passionate about their work but the general public very rarely witnesses these events, and so the dry, unemotional presentation of data is all that is seen.

So how is science shown to the public?

Films and TV shows often portray scientists in relatively negative lights. A classic example is the evil scientist holding the world to ransom with their latest weapon. Other times they merely create evil through ignorance or commitment to their work. There are zombie movies, in which the cause of the outbreak is scientists being careless with cancer cures; the Planet of the Apes prequels show the test animals revolting against the cold-hearted scientists that keep them locked up; everyone is familiar with Dr Frankenstein; it was the over-reaching, overly ambitious scientists’ fault.

But if it isn’t the scientists’ fault, there often seems to be negative connotations with what they do. Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons” involves isolated antimatter being stolen with the intention of being used as a bomb. If a new technology makes it into the wrong hands it could be the end of the world! This isn’t going to do wonders for the general public view on science and technology, no matter how impressive the advancements may be. In modern society this is completely understandable. So many revolutionary ideas and inventions have led to or been used for sinister applications. For instance, the invention of dynamite by Nobel[4], an idea that intended only to help with mining, was soon converted to a weapon. However, it is not only the weaponisation of technologies that presents an issue, but the unknown complications that can arise. Many times a new idea has been developed in which the future consequences were not foreseen such as X-Rays and asbestos. Both had amazing applications but were later found to come with serious health risks, the latter now being completely removed from installations. Science gets things wrong- and the public knows this all too well. This knowledge often leads to a fear of technological advancement with many people not trusting the claims made. For example, if anything has the term “nuclear” in its title people are instantly wary due to the several incidents with nuclear power plants. Nuclear has become almost synonymous with harmful radiation in the public’s eyes. This is an issue that will be hard to remove. There will always be uncertainty in any pursuit and, as long as scientists are mindful, the consequences will hopefully never be that great. It is something that is already becoming increasingly safeguarded especially with respect to clinical trials in the pharmaceutical industry.

However, a more trivial example of public concern is the attitude of older generations towards new technologies such as mobile phones. There is a common complaint of how children are losing the ability to physically interact with others. As a young person, I feel this claim is somewhat nonsense because we still communicate with each other as much as any other generation around us. The frequently used anti-social image of youths staring into their phones while travelling to me seems no different than an older photograph of a train carriage full of people staring into their newspapers. At least these children are probably talking to someone somewhere in the world. Yet I can concede that social interaction is changing into something emotionless. People are communicating with screens and emotion has to be converted into text form. This can lead to a simple text having many different connotations depending on the emotion in which it’s read. Ask any sarcastic person how well sarcasm comes across in text! Perhaps one of the most common phrases to arise from this conversion of emotion to text is L.O.L (the abbreviation of laugh out loud). The majority of the time this is sent by someone with a completely straight face, quite the opposite of laughing out loud. But this phrase has somehow seeped its way into physical conversation with people saying this to each other rather than simply laughing, removing the emotion from a conversation. While trivial, this example could be indicative of science and technology’s ability to remove emotion from society furthering the view that science is emotionless. As we become more dependent, we lose our emotion.

This is a concept that has been presented in many forms, one notable example being Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World[5]. Genetic engineering and hypnopaedic education leads to a class system with Alphas at the top working down to Epsilons at the bottom- all of whom are content with their pre-determined status with no chance or opportunity to switch classes. Reproduction is done entirely through IVF with a handful of women volunteering to be “mothers” which removes the need for families. While emotion is not completely eradicated from this society, with its citizens still experiencing joy and happiness, the lack of familial needs leads to the eradication of love. These people are still human and thus still capable of feeling love but there is no need for it, and the ones who choose our current ‘normal’ lifestyle are seen as savages and excluded. This is once again an example of a view in which science has the ability to remove emotion from our world, reducing interactions to nothing more than fleeting occurrences rather than meaningful experiences.

Yet, the impact of science is not a ‘human’ thing so one could argue that it has no capability of showing emotion. It is purely the projection of our human characteristics that leads to this personification. But scientists are often blended into a sort of bridge between humans and the ethereal science. Again using Brave New World, the scientists’ overalls “were white, their hands gloved with a pale corpse-coloured rubber. The light was frozen, dead, a ghost”[5]. They are almost “blank” humans, and appear to be to science what a priest is to a religion; serving it rather than conducting it. This image however is simply a gross misrepresentation of a typical sterilised laboratory. Of course the surfaces are clean. Of course people will cover their faces to avoid contamination. This level of care needs to be taken otherwise the science can be faulty, contaminated, even ruined. Even factory workshops take this level of care just as good practice, but a sterilised world is never going to be pleasantly portrayed because of its blankness; its emptiness; its lack of anything.

Fortunately in more recent years, the portrayal of science has been getting more and more balanced. While there are still the powerless pawns working for the evil mastermind, there are now becoming many heroic scientists such as the Iron Man superhero or Morgan Freeman’s character in the Dark Knight trilogy as the technology inventor. There are also many cases in which the scientists are the lead characters such as The Big Bang Theory television show. However, in many of these examples, particularly the latter, they are shown as recluses, eccentric or anti-social geeks. They are still not in the image of a “typical” person and are once again placed on a separate emotional plane, be they recluses who stay away from the social world out of choice, or instead people who struggle with or are incapable of social interaction. While they are not completely emotionless, they have a lesser capacity for emotion often in an almost autistic fashion- Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory being an example. A real example of this detachment is Paul Dirac. He was one of the pioneering scientists in quantum mechanics but is described as “pathologically reticent, strangely literal-minded and legendarily unable to communicate or empathise”[6] in his biography The Strangest Man. With his years of activity being in the early twentieth century, the dawn of television and cinema, he was no doubt a key influence in the early depictions of scientists in the media as well as being a prominent figure in British science.

Another issue may be that people distance themselves from that which they don’t understand. For many people, the sciences are difficult and challenging. Upon asking a friend his view on the topic of this article his response was

“Of course science is emotional- I cried every lesson!”

When hidden behind the scientific jargon of the journals and papers, the public may feel even more bewildered by science so cannot identify with scientists who understand it. It is something I certainly experience when I come into discussions with economics or politics students. While I still have a curiosity about the subject, I do not fully understand the concepts and so I can never seem to identify with these students as readily as others. Perhaps it is also the Ivory Tower of academia, the view of seclusion from the real world, which leads people to believe that scientists are separated from emotion too.

Fortunately, in recent years these views are being combatted and debunked as scientific television programmes have become more and more popular. From David Attenborough’s Planet Earth to the Horizon series, there is becoming a plethora of shows that are both inspiring people into science but also educating many people on scientific concepts. More of Britain’s youth watched the Planet Earth 2 series rather than the X-Factor in 2016[7]. The dispelling of the academic Ivory Tower allows scientists to once again be real people in the eyes of the public. The anti-social and Dirac-esque portrayals of scientists are also able to be countered with often outgoing and charismatic presenters showing a real wonder and passion for science. Dara O’Briain, a well-known comedian who certainly does not lack public confidence, has several shows from discussing astronomy to explaining maths. His School of Hard Sums show pits solving problems such as the quickest way to the middle of a swimming pool from a corner mathematically against a hands-on, practical approach. This simple design enlightens the viewers to the real world application of maths and that it is not a purely academic endeavour done purely for the sake of doing.

So no, science is not emotionless; it has just been hidden in archaic stereotypes for far too long. In order to undertake scientific research, emotion needs to be there as motivation, to inspire others, to make a difference in the real world. However, the careful balance between emotion and bias needs to be preserved in order for successful science to continue, and publications will continue to appear as dry and emotionless as ever before especially when compared to works of a novelist. But the view of scientists in the media is also slowly becoming more and more positive with more influential and leading roles being cast in films and television. The Ivory Tower view is being knocked down as greater access and outreach are being offered to the public. The scientific publication veil, which for so long has shrouded science in jargon and blocks of thick text, is slowly being pulled away revealing the true nature of science.

  1. Jurassic Park (1993) Directed by Steven Spielberg [Film]. USA

 

  1. science – definition of science in English | Oxford Dictionaries. (2017). Oxford Dictionaries | English. Retrieved 16 January 2017, from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/science

 

  1. Scientists and their emotions: the highs … and the lows. (2013). the Guardian. Retrieved 16 January 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/feb/10/scientists-emotions-highs-lows

 

  1. Alfred Nobel’s Thoughts about War and Peace. (2017). org. Retrieved 16 January 2017, from https://www.nobelprize.org/alfred_nobel/biographical/articles/tagil/

 

  1. Huxley, Aldous. Brave new world. New York: Harper & Bros., 1946

 

  1. Farmelo, Graham. The strangest man: the hidden life of Paul Dirac, mystic of the atom. New York: Basic , 2009.

 

  1. Hooton, C. (2016). More young people are watching Planet Earth than The X Factor and David Attenborough is very happy. The Independent. Retrieved 16 January 2017, from http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/news/planet-earth-2-ii-young-viewers-x-factor-bbc-itv-david-attenborough-vieiwng-figures-ratings-a7449296.html

 

 

Is science emotionless?

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