The difference between scientists and normal people

The distinction displayed in this cartoon is an important one to bear in mind when discussing climate change.  I’ve been told by many people, most of whom don’t know any actual research scientists, that all projects are corrupt, and are conducted with government funds, and therefore totalitarian motives, or with private funds, and therefore with profit in mind. This seems to go along with the notion that science is boring, a notion that I have heard of, but just sort of assumed, until recently, nobody really believed.

They do believe it of course, and so the question that follows from that belief is often “so why do they do it?”

Because of the mad money involved, right? Wrong. It’s true, there are ways to make money as a scientist. The easiest is to find a controversial issue in your field, like climate change, or whether cigarettes cause cancer, and to conduct research for the large, profitable corporations who have a specific interest in the issue, and are willing to pay handsomely to be able to claim scientific backing for their public relations stance.

Beyond selling out, however, there are not many ways to make money in science, except for the rare few who invent some brilliant something or other and make a killing. Most scientists get by on somewhere between $50-100,000 a year – not starvation by any means, but not especially the kind of money to buy souls either, at least in this era.

So what does drive scientists? Why do I laugh when told that scientists can’t possibly be motivated by their work?

Part of it, as alluded to in the above diagram, is that the mind of a scientist doesn’t work along normal lines. It’s not that we’re smarter (we’re not) or that we have some mental advantage over anybody (we don’t) it’s that we have a slightly different perspective that leads to an inquisitive compulsion. More on that later.

The implication of this is that we have people who are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to retrieve data which, to some people, cannot possibly have any practical use outside of the realm of statistics. I have reached blindly into a hole that I knew contained a displeased iguana with serrated teeth, because I wanted one more data point to add to our study. I have crawled in 80 degree weather through thorns that tore my shirt to shreds in an effort to catch just one more. I freely admit that I enjoy wrestling snapping turtles out of nets in a wobbly canoe in the dark.

I am the kind of person who, upon hearing that the safari ants of Tanzania have jaws designed to cut rather than pierce, as is the case with army ants in South America, wanted to know what they did when presented with an “enemy” big enough that mere cutting wasn’t a possibility. Since there was no other way, I let one bite my finger, and watched to see what it did.

These traits are not unique to me – I have seen them in every scientist I have ever worked with (don’t have an exact number, but it’s at least 20, plus others that I’ve only met or talked to). It doesn’t make them good people, but it does form a common thread in their behavior and psyche.

So scientists are motivated by curiosity, and passion, and love, and by a compulsion to understand.

This has been a particularly useful trait in dealing with climate change, at least for me, because as Elizabeth Kolbert said, the more you know about climate change, the more it scares you. It’s hard to think about it every day and to know that every day nothing is done makes the problem just a little bit worse. It’s hard to have a clear understanding of the various chain reactions that could result in humans becoming extinct, and to worry that I will see the beginning of that chain in my lifetime. It’s really hard to go around every day with all that hanging over you, and it makes it easy to despair. Part of coping with this is to selectively ignore it in order to go about your day, like a person walking by a graveyard alone at night – there’s a degree of fear, for some, but really you just walk by because that’s how you’re going to get home – it needs to be done.

One nice thing about the way my mind works, however, is that while the situation is utterly horrible, the blind inaction of my country is infuriating, what’s going on is also fascinating. Case in point is the storm system from this past week.

This is not fiction.

It looked rather like the beginnings of a hurricane, and it covered most of the continent at one point. For some perspective, this has never happened in our era. These are images that, a couple weeks ago, would only exist in climate thrillers, and my response, as I linked a friend to stormpulse, was to say “you have to check this out – it is so cool!” She pointed out that she didn’t think it was cool at all – she thought it was kind of scary, and, of course, she was right. The difference is that while I also find it scary, I find it sufficiently fascinating to help keep me from despair.

Now back to how I got this way. In talking about what drives scientists at near this beginning of this rather long post, I mentioned that there is a slight difference in the way the scientific mind operates, and that (in my opinion) it has nothing to do with the brain the person in question was born with. Any time you really focus on something, it changes how you see the world. Conspiracy theorists, for example, tend to go on an inward spiral of paranoia that leads to becoming a LaRouche supporter, at which point you can be safe in the knowledge that the entire world is out to get you, and your little dog too.

With science, if presented properly, you learn a few explanations for how things work, and they stick with you. If you spend an afternoon watching  a whisp of cloud disappear as it descends, warms, and is absorbed into the air, and then reappear as that patch of moist air rises from the warmth, cools, and the water condenses out of it, the explanation for it sticks with you, and it’s always there when you see clouds. The same goes for seeing a red eft in the forest, and learning that it matures into a newt – from then on, you have that little bit of knowledge. From there, you start to develop a reflex to wonder what else there is to know about the things you see, and before you know it, some part of you, after pulling the lever on the lightning machine, wonders if that happens every time.

Part of the problem with the current situation is a lack of understanding of science, chiefly brought about by a lack of good science education. Fixing this problem – teaching people how to be scientists, and instilling them with a degree of that curiosity about the world – will have more than one effect. It will enable them to understand the science behind climate change, of course, but it will do more than that. It will also enable the people of this country to see life in a new light, and to be curious and interested enough about the world to be able to see it in all its tainted glory, and still want to know more. Finally, it will enable them, when confronted with a viewpoint they do not understand, to say “I don’t get where that person is coming from, but I really wonder what makes them say that.

From there, we have the beginnings of a society that can work together through adversity, and difference and disagreement – a society, in short, for whom climate change is not an insurmountable obstacle, but something we can face with courage, and with creativity, and with the capacity to enjoy saving the world.


One response to “Mindsets

  1. Hi H.A.

    Love the cartoon. I think you could branch the scientists into two lines of thought. Yours, the curious experimenter. And another, the theorist who wonders ‘How to model this in one dimension.’

    snipped to remove personal communication

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