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Bearing Witness: Science as a Wisdom Tradition

By Carolyn Raffensperger Perhaps the old reductionistic, objective science is a form of autism. This is the science that promotes dissecting frogs, but not loving them enough to work to protect them. It is the science that does risk assessment on toxic chemicals and says that some childhood cancers are acceptable. It is science funded by industry designed to block precautionary action on greenhouse gases.

But there are other scientists who are upfront about their emotional engagement with the subjects of their research. The primatalogist, Jane Goodall, is explicit and unapologetic about the role of empathy in her studies with chimpanzees. "There is absolutely no problem in having empathy and being objective. Empathy helps us gain an understanding at a different level that you can then test in a rigorous scientific way."

The word science comes from the Latin "scientia," meaning knowledge covering general truths of the operation of general laws as obtained and tested through the scientific method. The word science can also refer to any systematic field of study or the knowledge gained from it. The purpose of science is to produce useful models of reality.

The big worry about emotions is that they will interfere with the systematic study and the basic truths. If Jane Goodall is emotionally involved with chimpanzees, will her research be biased? Will it be replicable by other scientists? Will it distort the truth? Maybe. But consider a different possibility, what if her empathy actually allows her to get at larger truths than she would be able to discover without empathy?

Goodall is describing the difference between science as an I-Thou relationship between scientist and subject and an I-It relationship between scientist and object. She is claiming that objectivity does not require that the subject of the research become an object, an “It” for the science to be rigorous and truthful and expand human knowledge. Objectivity is a quality that remains with the scientist but does not prevent the round emotions of emotion, respect, generosity between scientist and subject.

I recently received a poignant email from a dear friend, an epidemiologist, about her display of emotion in a media interview on toxic chemicals. “I cried,” she said. Her tears were in response to the interviewer who said: “I really want to touch women. I really want women to feel that this is an issue of concern to them. What would you tell a woman?’  "That was it. I talked about all the women I know trying to conceive, who can’t conceive or have had miscarriages, and how their experience is not reflected in the science I encounter, and the science that exists is not translated in a manner that is meaningful, and so women feel alone, and often to blame. And that we should make this an issue of greater meaning than just our own concerns, and join together.”

What my friend was saying is that all of the epidemiology, all of the toxicology, didn’t come close to resembling a model of reality, that basic definition of science. Maybe it got at the reality of causation and infertility--a piece of the reality model--but it missed the physical, social and emotional facts of infertility. This scientist was bearing witness to the suffering of the women who cannot conceive and those who have lost babies and those who feel alone in their suffering. Tears were the only appropriate response.

Both my friend and Jane Goodall stand for a larger premise than the narrow confines of “science as knowledge”.  They are practicing a deep empathy. They are bearing witness. They are creating a "science as wisdom".

What, I wonder, would we want of our scientists who are predicting the climate of 100 years from now? I hope that they bear witness. I hope that they not only create a scientific body of research that can be called wisdom but that they call us all to wisdom and action to prevent harm.  I for one trust the scientist who is capable of a deep empathy with future generations to ask the right questions and search hard and well for good answers.