Scientific Reason and Emotion in Balance

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As a scientist-in-training, I have often wondered how some intelligent and seemingly rational people manage to completely reject scientific evidence if it doesn’t support their point of view.  An article I read in the New York Times led me to think about the issue even more. The article discusses the idea that humans may be “hard-wired to reject scientific conclusions that run counter to their instinctive belief that someone or something is out to get them.”

This is the opinion of David Ropeik, professor at Harvard University and author of the book “How Risky Is It Really?” He argues that we are subjective analyzers of data, and any scientific facts we encounter will be processed through our evolutionary lens that is focused on survival, rather than truth.

The way information travels through our brain seems to fit with this theory. It is processed in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for fear, before it moves to the parts of the brain in charge of reason. Thus we are “hard-wired” to respond to new information, including new scientific discoveries, with emotion and instinct first and logical reasoning second.

It seems undeniable that we have an evolutionary lens of fear.  So when we hear some wacky story about vaccines causing autism, our first reaction is to panic and vow to never have our children vaccinated. But we are aware we have an evolutionary predisposition to fear new things.  Unlike other animals, we have the power to understand that our initial panic response was merely a part of our evolutionary hardwiring.  Upon further examination of the scientific evidence, we discover that there is no evidence for vaccines causing autism (see the CDC and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies) and that the only rational decision is to have our children vaccinated to protect them from disease. We are not helpless to overcome these animal instincts, and it is our responsibility to do so.

Using reason to override our animalistic fear responses is a pretty obvious conclusion for a scientist to draw. But shouldn’t we all strive to have minds in which reason and emotion exist in a balance? This idea got me thinking about the emotional responses of scientists themselves.  So often I see scientists become hardened to their emotions, having spent their careers actively using reason to override them.  Sometimes in science, amazing, inspiring, earth-shattering discoveries are made. And so my advice to the scientifically minded is to let your emotions take over every once in a while.  When you hear about some new discovery, first process it with reason and skepticism, as that is your scientific duty, and then turn off your scientific autopilot and let emotion take over.  Stop and take the time to enjoy science for how extraordinary and awe-inspiring it can be.

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