This post is part of our ongoing series of SMASH Reflections, authored by our inaugural class of Fellows.
By Adam Haar Horowitz
SMASH was wonderful. The Science Media Awards and Summit in the Hub lasted the whole week of 9/19 and focused on science communication. Science storytelling is complex, nuanced, crucial: I applied as a Fellow to SMASH16 because brain science—teasing apart these universal experiences like empathy, attention, memory—is by necessity a science that takes first person perspective as data, and as such a science that benefits from active inclusion of everyone’s subjective reality in the conversation. A diverse dialogue is not only morally right, it is essential to gathering quality brain data. It’s an open question as to whether a synesthete or a seasoned neuroscientist knows more about synesthesia, and that’s pretty cool.
Because of this necessary diversity of perspective—this diversity of experiential truths—throughout SMASH I reflected on an important personal truth: If I want to take a stand for anything as a scientist, as a person, it’s that curiosity should be as important a part of my neuroscience “toolkit” as objective knowledge or technical skills.
If you back away from that notion of first-person perspective as data for a minute, you realize that it’s quite wild. Neuroscience offers this bridge between the objective and subjective, this great equalizer between subject and scientist, between body-as-data and scientist as data collector.
So when I went to SMASH, it was with the intention of creating media that would encourage non-scientists to have unembarrassed engagement with neuroscientists. In a sense, I want to open doors to neuroscience labs around the country for people with some curiosity between their ears.
People who are curious about sleep can go to Harvard’s division of Sleep Neuroscience, and someone like Dr. J. Allan Hobson there will actually care about your lucid dream story. The same can be said if those of you with insight into fluctuations in happiness send Dan Gilbert an email. And that’s not true of chemistry, or physics—as a ‘lay-person’ (that term, ever a wall between experts and non-experts, a binary I’ll take a crack at in another post) you’d have nothing much to offer in those labs. At best, you might be given a link to a MOOC to go learn more.
And neuroscience is such a young field, with yawning white space to be filled! Conclusions about the brain are regularly turned entirely on their heads—even at times by just one case study. So my interest in creating neuroscience media is not so much about spreading capital T Truth, but more about spreading breadcrumbs, curiosity, and insight into the stuff of the self, so that those who are uninitiated and feel unwelcome might be excited enough to engage and send the field for a tumble or two.
Scientists Taking A Stand
I sat down to write about a panel I watched called Scientists Taking A Stand, but had to start with where I was coming from. I heard some wonderful career scientists like Sean B. Carroll and Chris Filardi on this panel quote Asimov saying “the saddest thing about society is that science is producing new knowledge way faster than society is gaining wisdom.” And I understand that science produces knowledge, which I value immensely and commit myself to daily. But I also recognize that knowledge is not wisdom. That the thing creating that gap may not simply be a lack of more knowledge, that often problems like climate change or attacks on neurodiversity are as much about bending cultural spectrums as they are about battles waged between legions of the ‘ignorant’ and the ‘educated'.
Later in the SMASH16 programming, Dan Kahan, of Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project, told all of us that scientific facts don’t change policy to save the environment or get homosexuality taken out of the DSM 4; media that works to change perspectives of voters and takes the task of engaging opposed perspectives seriously does. That the distinguishing factor between those who would, and would not engage with viewpoints opposed to their own was level of curiosity, not level of information.
So, if I can take a stand for anything at the moment, it’s that. It’s inquisitiveness, it’s the opportunity to initiate a conversation. Because in my work as a fledgling scientist—if I even can be called one this early on in my career—I’ve already seen that experts can be truly damaging if they impart knowledge upon non-experts as an objective authority on how those non-experts’ bodies and brains work. Do it wrong, and you are suddenly assuming ownership, forcing labels, devaluing layperson perspectives, making subjects feel like objects.
I recognize, of course, that neuroscience is different than ecology, that facts exist and are crucially important. But the second piece I heard on stage from the panelists (who were eloquent and wonderful, let me say) was that I should wait until a few years after my post-doc before I engaged in Science Storytelling, so I could be sure of what I said and not upset any higher-ups. In my mind that hierarchical, peer-review based form of communication so common in science is patently anti-curiosity. And it seems so strange in the world of neuroscience, where facts are ever-shifting and space to be explored far outweighs space explored, to suggest that I’ll ever ‘know what I’m talking about,’ that there will be a moment where I’m sure my knowledge is wisdom and it must be shared and sharing it won’t offend anyone.
All in all, I feel comfortable taking a scientific stand for curiosity like wildfire and an open dialogue, but not much else. It may be that neuroscience is simply too young for the imparting wisdom game. It may be that I am.
About the author: Adam Haar Horowitz is a neuroscience Teaching Assistant at MIT’s McGovern Institute exploring mindfulness, meditation, and mind-wandering. He has always loved playing the role of translator from experiential to empirical and connecting personal stories to scientific inquiry. Adam is fascinated by what it means to be human—micro and macro—and by what advancing this understanding can mean for the future of self, communication, and community.
As the curators of the Science Media Awards Summit in the Hub (SMASH), we believe storytelling is a common thread in our shared human experience, and that new media allows us to convey the wonders of scientific discovery in new and compelling ways.