Do you even empathize? How empathy training and communication can save us from ourselves

One word keeps surfacing in my mind over the past several weeks as headlines reveal the latest stream of human rights and environmental atrocities undertaken by our own government. Empathy.

As I learn of children being separated from parents in the name of border control, presidential decrees opening all U.S. waters to offshore drilling, and the dismantling of the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act, I can’t help but wonder—what place does empathy have in our current society?

This word, coincidentally, popped up on a number of articles and videos I’ve seen recently. Obviously, I’m not the only person distraught both by these troubling media headlines and by people’s callous responses to them. Whatever the ultimate consequences of our current political leaders’ actions, they’ve certainly shone a spotlight on just how wide the spectrum of values is in our country, values that run much deeper than political views alone.

Fear Leads to the Dark Side

In a 2017 HuffPost piece titled I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People, author Kayla Chadwick expressed this growing angst over a seemingly unbreachable moral divide among U.S. citizens:

“I don’t know how to convince someone how to experience the basic human emotion of empathy. I cannot have one more conversation with someone who is content to see millions of people suffer needlessly in exchange for a tax cut that statistically they’ll never see. Our disagreement is not merely political, but a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society, how to be a good person, and why any of that matters.”

Chadwick implies that today’s conservative values reflect a lack of empathy for those in need (especially those outside your immediate family/ingroup), instead emphasizing one’s own financial wellbeing over others. While I agree it’s pretty obvious that the current Republican administration is driven by self-aggrandizement above all else, I don’t think it’s fair to attribute our country’s steady loss of empathy and compassion to one particular political party. To me, lack of empathy seems to correlate with a much more deeply rooted tendency that knows no political boundaries—greed.

Greed is closely allied with fear; i.e., the fear of losing possessions, losing power, and losing one’s sense of identity. “Our society is paralyzed by fear, making our compassion paralyzed,” says Dr. Joan Halifax, a medical anthropologist and Zen practitioner. Halifax argues that compassion is an inherent human quality, but stimulating this compassion often relies on activating specific conditions.michael-fenton-512963-unsplash.jpgIn other words, you can’t force someone to feel empathy. But what you may be able to do is provide the right enabling conditions that allow feelings of empathy and emotion to emerge. This concept of ‘compassion cultivation’ isn’t just the fancy of new-age healers and Buddhist monks. Plenty of scientific and medical studies have shown that feelings such as compassion, altruism, and empathy can be enhanced via specialized training—and that the results are beneficial to the individual as well as society at large.

Stanford University’s medical center, for example, has a Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education that hosts workshops and other specialized trainings that teach participants ‘how to train your mind to intentionally choose compassionate thoughts and actions and develop skills that help you relate to others—and yourself.’ Their courses, designed by clinical psychologists and researchers from Stanford, include lectures, discussions, meditations, breathing practices and more to help people reduce their anxiety and build their emotional resilience in professional and personal environments.

This type of self-introspection training stretches far back to ancient eastern philosophical traditions, including Vedic and Buddhist teachings, centered on compassion via mindfulness and equanimity – meaning that you can cultivate feelings of compassion by listening to your inner voice, strengthening intuition, remaining calm in the face of adversity, and being present in each moment.

Empathetic Science?

In this era of runaway capitalism and blatant disregard for scientific consensus, what does it mean to be a scientist and a concerned citizen? Historically, being a credible scientist meant remaining objective and apolitical. But can scientists afford to stay disconnected from today’s critical ethical and moral crises? Or can they maintain credibility and perhaps even build more trust in science by engaging more fully in ethical and moral debates?

According to climate scientist Sarah Moffit in a recent interview with Grist Magazine, being a scientist and an advocate do not have to be mutually exclusive. “I think you can be both rigorous and objective and be human at the same time,” she says. “And I have come to a place where I’m no longer willing to divorce my humanity from the science that I have participated in and am stewarding.”

As a science communicator, I’ve come to see my role as a science empathizer and a human empathizer. In other words, I am committed to accurately communicating about scientific research, and equally committed to understanding human values and concerns—ideally breaking down barriers of understanding.

My goal is also to make us stop and think about the way our worldviews and cultures shape our assumptions about reality as much as (or more than) factual knowledge does, and how these assumptions often lead to misconceptions, fear, and prejudice. Many research studies have proven that our perception of ‘factual truth’ is shaped by our partisan beliefs and bias.

Even our ability to discern whether a statement is fact or opinion is based on whether we agree with the statement. The more we can reflect on our individual subjective experiences and how they affect our connection the world, the better we will be able to empathize with the views and experiences of others. We don’t have to share the exact same values to respect and empathize with others—we only need the capacity to be self-reflective and to engage in meaningful dialogue.

Science, philosophy, and intuition tell us that cultivating empathy and compassion is beneficial to our own health and wellbeing (including immunity, psychological health, and spiritual growth), that of our friends and family, and that of society as a whole. What greater reason could there be to emphasize these qualities in a time when they are needed perhaps more than ever?

gus-moretta-371897-unsplash

 

National Geographic Finds a Cash Cow in the Dairy Industry

A troubling Facebook post popped onto my feed the other day:

Screen Shot 2018-04-05 at 2.27.23 PM

It’s a National Geographic post sponsored by Land O’Lakes, a large American agribusiness and food company.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Arguably, news media and private businesses have always been in bed together. ‘Sponsored’ or ‘branded’ content, more recently called ‘native advertising’, is certainly not a new thing. But in today’s era of endless streams of online media, the line between organic content and sponsored messages is more blurred than ever. And when an entity like National Geographic—perceived by many as a trusted source for stories about nature, science, and exploration—starts sharing content sponsored by corporate special interests it begins to violate that trust.

Dairy’s Modern Life

If you click on the post link, you’re taken to a 360-camera tour of a dairy farm (at least, three very short video segments of one particular farm). You can click on various icons throughout the page to read short (very short) blurbs about the milking process. While this visual story-telling approach is in itself interesting, the sponsored content is obviously tailored to give an impression that dairy farms are clean, friendly, and innocuous environments. Some small, ethically minded dairy farms may indeed fit this description, at least to the extent possible when the intensive use of living creatures is involved.

But the typical modern American dairy farm does not fit this description in the least. Most of America’s milk is produced in largescale facilities where dairy cows are separated from their calves soon after giving birth and continually injected with hormones to keep them producing milk. They spend most of their time indoors or in crowded pens, are fed unnatural feed (lots of soy, corn, and canola instead of grass), and are sent to slaughter after approximately 4 years (the natural lifespan of a cow is 15-20 years or more). In addition, large dairy facilities can lead to local air and water quality issues due to excess manure and other waste. Then there’s the many allegations and documentation of brutal animal abuse in industrial dairies over the years (like this one, or this, and here’s another).

None of this is mentioned in the NatGeo post, of course. They only provide a few short sentences praising how well the cows are cared for (including how comfortable they are), how well they are fed (without explaining their feed is not what cows evolved to digest), and how streamlined the process is. #ThanksLandOLakes.

My point is not to point fingers at any particular dairy farmer. But the industry as a whole is problematic on many levels, and this is no secret. US Dairy sales are in decline, and the industry is scrambling to compete with the plethora of alternative ‘milks’ now on the market. Why couldn’t NatGeo discuss this challenge, and point to some of the innovative dairy farmers that are adopting meaningful sustainability and animal rights standards? My guess is because that wasn’t what Land O’Lakes paid for.

Can’t Pull the Wool Over Our Eyes

Ironically, NatGeo’s sponsored post seems to have backfired, at least initially. Roughly 95% of post comments were from angry or disappointed readers who couldn’t believe NatGeo would publish corporate agribusiness propaganda. Here’s just a spattering of typical responses:

Screen Shot 2018-04-06 at 3.19.22 PM

Screen Shot 2018-04-06 at 3.18.50 PM

Screen Shot 2018-04-06 at 3.18.13 PM

Screen Shot 2018-04-06 at 3.22.55 PM

A few commenters did express support for farmers, but not a single comment last I checked supported either Land O’Lakes or the fact that this was sponsored content. Seeing this strong negative response, I have to wonder: what were NatGeo marketers thinking when they posted such controversial sponsored content? Do they just not care as long as they get funding from sponsors? Or do any clicks and comments, regardless of the reason or type of response, count as a win for NatGeo analytics? Did they just really misjudge how their target audience would respond?

I don’t have an answer to these questions. Perhaps some of you, savvy readers, know more about this than I do and have hypotheses or insights? The frustrating thing is that most large companies never seem to respond to commenters, either to answer their questions or challenge their negative responses, so we may never know what the NatGeo folks behind the magic curtain actually intended with this campaign. I’ve seen the same sort of audience backlash to posts from companies like Starbucks as well as media outlets like NowThis, and the same silence in response. Do these companies ever have to do damage control in the wake of such incidents?

There is no Santa Claus

After I saw this post, I actually ‘unliked’ the NatGeo page. I did so with a tinge of regret, thinking of the future wildlife and nature stories I’d miss. But it felt like the only thing I could do to show my disappointment in a company, a ‘brand’, I had put my trust in since childhood.

When the Murdoch Fox media empire bought out National Geographic’s magazine and TV network a few years back, NatGeo was transformed into a for-profit company. While this may have helped save an entity facing slacking magazine sales and a changing cable TV landscape, the reality is that the acquisition forever changed the ethics and culture of the company (side note: The National Geographic Society is itself still a non-profit entity; but the NatGeo magazine, TV channel, and other media are now owned by Fox).

Realizing that National Geographic is just another company with a bottom line was as sucky as learning that Santa Claus isn’t real. Maybe I was just naïve. But I don’t think I’m alone in my disillusionment. Many wildlife scientists, writers, videographers and photographers have dreamt for much of their lives of working for National Geographic—myself included. It was the ultimate goal, the standard with which we compared all other jobs—the equivalent for scientists of getting a paper published in Science or Nature.

Transparency: It Does a Body (and a Company) Good

It seems only natural that seeing corporate-sponsored content would leave a bitter taste in many of our mouths. I don’t think that National Geographic is evil because of its affiliations, or that the Society doesn’t serve a good purpose by providing stories about the planet and its wonders, and funding great scientific research around the world. No company, organization, or person can ever be completely ethically pure. To complicate things, ethics are an ever-evolving subject that are often very specific to the time and place within which they are embedded. However, certain ethical boundaries are fairly obvious based on public reaction when they are crossed.

NatGeo’s sponsored post certainly seemed to cross one such boundary, resulting in public backlash and perhaps even some very real (however small) consequences in the form of lost viewers and subscribers. While the growth of ‘native content’ is disconcerting, I find comfort in the fact that viewers aren’t so easily fooled. Nor are they afraid to raise their voices in protest when they feel integrity has been compromised or truths distorted. I can only hope that continued pushback by wary audiences will help guide corporate ethics toward greater transparency and responsibility.

***

What do YOU think about organizations sharing sponsored content? What examples have you seen that have made you raise an eyebrow? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

DAIRY (1)
A few bits of information about the dairy industry that National Geographic did not include in its 360 video exploration of a dairy farm.

The most AMAZING story you’ll ever read! (A.K.A., the concerning rise of Click-Baiting and sensational “science”)

www.cartoonsbyjim.com
http://www.cartoonsbyjim.com

Social media can be a catalyst for spreading awareness about scientific and environmental issues, and in some cases can help affect positive change. But for every link posted that actually leads to a valid, well-researched story, there are a dozen more that MIS-lead you to some nonsense article, or worse—a sensationalized, one-sided, often poorly-researched story thinly veiled as ‘scientific’.

Let me disclose my own perspective from the start: I trust the evidence showing that climate change is happening, and that CO2 and methane from human-caused activity is a huge contributor. I am skeptical that corporations generally have the best interests of society or the environment at heart, and I realize that government is not always transparent or just—regardless of which party is in control. However, I am also not a conspiracy theorist, and in fact believe that conspiracy theorists tend to draw attention away from some of the most pressing issues affecting the world.

While I know that human knowledge is still very limited, and our view of the universe is naturally incomplete, there are methods we can use to improve our understanding—and then of course there are methods some people use to obfuscate that understanding. As a trained scientist, I am wary of explanations that lack credible evidence (or use faulty evidence) to back them up. Each time we read a scientific story, we should be asking ourselves about the credibility of information we receive—what are the credentials and reputation of the source, what evidence does the source cite, and does the source consider multiple perspectives and valid references?

As a communicator, I am particularly sensitive to journalists, writers, or bloggers who display unacknowledged bias or inaccuracy in their reporting of scientific issues. I don’t claim to know everything, nor do I endorse any particular information source; but irresponsible scientific writing ends up burning more bridges between the public and science in a time when scientific understanding is more critical than ever.

Climate change denialism (like vaccination controversy) has been addressed effectively by hundreds of scientists and communicators, so I won’t spend time here discussing the ways that climate change science has been cherry-picked or misrepresented by people either not well-versed in science or actively trying to distort it. Instead, I’ll provide a few other examples of troublesome reporting.

Aedes albopictus, an invasive mosquito species  in Florida that can spread lethal diseases.
Aedes albopictus, an invasive mosquito species in Florida that can spread lethal diseases.

Frankensquito or Insect Savior?

A smaller—but no less controversial—story popping up in news media lately is the development and release of genetically modified mosquitos to help combat mosquito-borne diseases. I won’t go into the details about their development, here but you can read more about the technology by googling, or in the articles I link to below.

GMOs typically refer to modified crops like soybeans and corn, but more and more research labs are toying with genetically modified insects and animals. I am wary of genetically modified crops for a number of reasons—the unscrupulous purposes of their creation, their reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and their detrimental social-economic impacts to small farmers. However, it would be unfair, and extremely ideological, for me to render every single GMO as evil without considering multiple perspectives.

Even for those GMOs that I oppose, such as GM soy, I must acknowledge that we don’t fully know how harmful these crops will ultimately be to our bodies or the environment compared to conventional crops. GMOs developed by academic or independent institutions (as opposed to agro-corporations) may actually provide some human or environmental benefit that outweighs risks or harms.

So what about these genetically modified mosquitos? Depending on which media source you look to, the mosquitos are either dangerous mutants who will lead the apocalypse, or they are angelic saviors in the plight against deadly disease. Of course, neither of these depictions is completely accurate, but the concept that GM mosquitos are just one more, somewhat successful but limited attempt to control vector-borne disease is not a newsworthy headline.

The click-bait culture has fed into sensationalized media, enticing people to click on extreme headlines that never live up to their hype when you actually read the story. It still doesn’t keep people from clicking on the links, however. And while clicking is harmless, when links begin to spread from reader to reader via social media, a highly distorted viewpoint can reach epic proportions.

One such story from the site Collective Evolution talks about the potential release of GM mosquitos in Florida, arguing that these mosquitos may spread their genetically-modified DNA to humans, that their populations may eventually get out of control, and the diseases they carry are not even that dangerous or prevalent. All of these points are partially valid, but have been purposely slanted or stretched beyond scientific fact. The article does site some references, but many of them are from sources with well-known biases or controversies themselves.

On the other hand, NPR published an article about the mosquitos that projects a very benign, almost positive slant, providing arguments and facts not mentioned by Collective Evolution, but also not delving into much about the risks of GMOs. On the other extreme, an author from Discovery Magazine attempts to squash all fears about the mosquitos point by point, arguing that protests against their release are ignorant fear-mongering. Another pithy author took this approach to the issue in the Washington Post.

A recent article on the GM mosquitos in Time Magazine.
A recent article on the GM mosquitos in Time Magazine.

There are more than 50 Shades of Gray—metaphorically speaking

As with any issue where science meets society, there are many nuances to the GM mosquito story, only some of which are discussed in any one news article. This is not a clear black/white, good/bad issue. The decision to release these mosquitos or not is contingent on particular societal values at a given time.

Some things to consider: the mosquitos being targeted are not native to Florida, so eradicating them (or reducing their numbers) would not necessarily be a disruption to native fauna and flora. The diseases the invasive mosquitos carry, while not widespread in the U.S. at this time, are projected to increase as the climate continues to warm. The same mosquitos have been released in other cities around the world with great success, and no recorded harm, resulting in reduced rates of disease. The current method of controlling these mosquitos is with tons of pesticides—not exactly a healthy alternative. However, there have been many cases of biological releases gone wrong, so this is not a fail-safe procedure.

Would you rather be exposed to pesticides or take antibiotics rather than GM mosquitos? Do you fear GM technology more than tropical diseases? How you feel about these various trade-offs will color how you interpret the issue, and the media provides additional filters. My main point is just to be aware of your own biases as you react to any scientific story—while your viewpoint may remain the same, understanding how you construct your perspective is a valuable thought-experiment that can help you build tolerance and openness to other perspectives.

Our world is a mix of cultural relativism, objective external reality, and subjective reactions to that reality. Cultivating a greater awareness of what you read, and what you share with others, will help us as a society to expand our consciousness and be more thoughtful about how we co-exist in the world.