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Empathy, Narrative, and Communicating Science


I sat in on a meeting a few months ago that included a panel of Native American scientists from several tribal colleges sharing their experiences integrating teaching, research and Native American legends. One of the younger faculty told a story about how she linked Native American mythology about Coneflower (Echinacea) to its natural history. She described an exercise in which she told her students the story and then sent them out into the forest to find the plant using details from the legend. To my surprise, it worked and most of the students successfully identified the coneflower plants. I had never heard anything like this before. Her story opened my mind to a few things that have since been reinforced by subsequent experiences with narrative forms in and outside of the sciences. For me, these stories and experiences are wrapped up in a larger conversation about science communication that has gained great momentum in the scientific community as trump’s war on science and truth has accelerated rapidly.

This may be reflective of my own naivete when it comes to the power of stories, but I have been thrown into a bit of cognitive disequilibrium. I have never spent much time considering the environmental truth behind myths and legends, nor the critical role they play as a form of natural history. Indeed, if you look back at the old, classic, seminal papers in the early development of ecological thought, you will find that scientists wrote very differently back then. Darwin, Stephen Forbes, AG Tansley and many others wrote in a form more akin to oral tradition and narrative than the colder, machine-like style expected by scientific journals and reviewers today.

A few weeks ago, I read a children’s book called Zazu Dreams (by Cara Judea Alhadeff). Truth be told, it is really a book for adults, disguised in a form acceptable to children. I met Cara several months before at a field station called EarthDance, where we were participating in a festival organized by Somatic Experiments in Earth, Dance and Science (SEEDS). Zazu Dreams is a beautiful book with explicit environmental themes, a strong critique of convenience culture and corporate greed, and deeply held reverence for cultural roots, all intertwined in a 10 year-old boy’s dream, which he narrates to his friend over breakfast the next morning.

I learned a few things from Zazu (and Cara too) about the Sephardim, universal connectivity, and, most importantly, the concept of bal tashchit (do not destroy or waste), which is deeply embedded in Sephardic culture. I was also reminded of the importance of poop as a resource.

This story has deep roots in ecology. Ecological concepts like food web connectivity, and energy and material flows are weaved throughout the book. A clear sense of immortality emerges from the conservation of matter and energy that creates a chain of connectivity across generations, species, and ecosystems. A humpback whale, while flying through space, gives an emotional, metaphysical description of decomposition and nutrient recycling as means of our rebirth. Matter lasts forever, even if the information that organizes it into any particular form eventually fades away and releases it back into the universe. This seems a bit paradoxical when I reflect on the impermanence and constant movement of materials into and out of my body. I used to think it was funny as hell to tell my students that I’m not half the man I used to be 20 years ago because the atoms that comprised me than have moved on, replaced by newcomers guided by my genetic blueprint to their place in my body. So the information that creates my form persists longer than the residence time of a particular atom, even if the atom itself outlasts me by an eternity. That means that part of me might quite literally be in you now. Maybe its just me, but I am both comforted and disquieted by that knowledge. Comforted because this constant exchange of materials between each of us and the rest of the world sharpens our awareness of our interconnections across space and time. We must eat the

products of our environment to bring in new atoms and energy to replace what we have lost, and we expel what is unwelcome or no longer useful (at least to us) back into the environment. Disquieted, because most of us take for granted this constant exchange and have lost the feeling of deep connection with the Earth and each other that should result.

In my conversations with Cara and many of the other artists I met through SEEDS, we often came back to intersectionality and the need to destroy binaries. I do not claim to fully grasp what these words mean, but both concepts are clearly rooted in an acknowledgement of complexity, not just as something to be dealt with, but as a source of beauty and life and salvation. Recognizing the reality, beauty, and necessity of complexity in our social, urban, agricultural and natural ecosystems is the key to our salvation.

I read Zazu Dreams as preparation for a panel on the intersection of Art and Science and the role of narrative in developing scientific understanding that Cara invited me to participate in at the Ecovillage in Ithaca, NY. Cara asked all the participants to use Zazu Dreams as a point of departure for a discussion of the importance of storytelling as a way to transmit information, particularly how it might be used to improve scientific communication.

I was lost at first and had no idea what I was going to contribute to this conversation. Recent events have certainly laid bare the inadequacy of science communication, particularly to the public at large. We have forgotten how to create empathy or how to weave in our personal stories and use them to share our love for science as a way of discovering the truth, the importance of our work for human well-being, or just the sheer joy that comes from the discovery of new knowledge or a deep understanding of complexity.

While I was meditating on what I had to offer, I remembered reading Stephen Alfred Forbes paper The Lake as a Microcosm when I was a graduate student. This is a natural history classic, published in 1887 and instrumental in the development of ecology as a scientific discipline. It is also a beautifully written narrative of the great chain of being in Illinois lakes and brings this underwater world to life for the reader. You don’t see passages like this in scientific papers much anymore:

The animals of such a body of water are, as a whole, remarkably isolated,--closely related among themselves in all their interests, but so far independent of the land about them that if every terrestrial animal were suddenly annihilated, it would doubtless be long before the general multitude of the inhabitants of the lake would feel the effects of this event in any important way.

The modern scientist presenting the same idea in your typical scientific journal might write the same passage like this:

In general, the food webs in these lakes are relatively isolated from the surrounding terrestrial watershed. Alterations to nearby terrestrial ecosystems are likely to have only minor impacts.

This may be concise and to the point, and even scientifically accurate, but it certainly does not paint a very vivid picture, nor would it capture my imagination the way Forbes’ writing does. Recalling these old papers that I read as I was becoming an ecologist helped open my eyes to the power of language and narrative form as a means to share information.

Which brings me back to the meeting at Ecovillage. Cara had organized a whole sequence of events leading up the panel, including a talk by me about fire in the Arctic. She did a reading to open the evening, and while I was listening, I felt that Zazu’s story was meant to be part of an oral tradition. I also had a bit of a revelation (again, exposing my naivete here), or some sort of memory, that oral tradition was the only way to pass along information for most of human history. We are evolved to expect knowledge to come from shared experience and indirectly through the stories of those we trust. Many experiences we are taught to avoid through oral tradition and that saves us pain and suffering and death. We are also taught what not to fear, even if we do not know a thing by direct experience.

Very little of what we know do we develop from first principles or direct experience. We rely on those whom we view as experts and trustworthy for knowledge. And we are drawn to stories of personal experience, probably because we trust individuals to whom we feel connected and who we believe have reliably gained knowledge through legitimate means. Scientists used to be amongst those we trust to tell us the truth about the world, but this trust has been undermined. We are complicit in this because we have largely lost the ability, or the desire, to use our personal stories, or even the narrative form used by Forbes and his contemporaries, to communicate what we do and, as a result, have lost our ability to create empathy for our subject or, more importantly, ourselves. Communicating through graphs and statistics may get you high marks for reliability and rigor, at least with some people, but will not create empathy.

That talk I gave on Sunday? Well, I decided to try to convey information on climate change, fire, and permafrost carbon with stories of our travels and sensory experiences with the landscape of the Yukon River delta, with some maps and photos, and almost no data (although I couldn’t resist a couple of simple bar graphs). I put great emphasis on how we used all of our senses to create a connection with the landscape at many scales, and what our lives were like while we were there, and how we felt about what we were doing. And, you know what, I think it worked. I certainly felt a change in me, a growing sense of connection and empathy for the plants, soils, and microbes that live in the delta, right there on the front lines of climate change. I realized that all this time I’ve been trying to listen to their stories in the hopes that I will someday understand them well enough to tell them to you with sufficient heart to do them honor.


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