How we try to scare the elephants

In 1967, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel released a song called “At the Zoo” in which they chant pleasantly about a harmless trip to Central Park Zoo (yes, play it right now; it’s a great song). In the course of the song, various animals are decorated with suspiciously human attributes. As such, orangutans are “skeptical,” giraffes “insincere” and elephants are described as “kindly but […] dumb.” Although subject to personal interpretation, I always see the song as a parody on human society, which is reinforced by the cover of the single release, showing Paul and Art’s faces with animal bodies (obviously pre Photoshop era). Conclusively, I can’t listen to “At the Zoo” without thinking that it is a humorous critique of our tendency to be deadlocked in our own views and to stereotypical thinking. Regardless of whether this interpretation is a product of my addle-headed fantasy or not (S & G might actually just really like going to the zoo), I feel that it is exceptionally topical, despite the fact that it was released almost half a century ago. That’s right, it’s THAT old. The reason why I feel this way is delivered freshly every day by the social media and all my friends, followers, followees or whatever you can have. As a matter of fact, many of my [insert appropriate social media term for people I’m associated with here] are environmentally conscious and scientifically trained. What this means is that a large proportion of [insert appropriate social media term for whatever they have to say here] I’m going through each day revolves around a) science is awesome, b) climate change is not so awesome and c) religion is far from being awesome.

Let’s stop here for now and have a look at a parable that the Austrian psychologist Paul Watzlawick published in 1980. While not correctly recited word for word (blame the language barrier), the parable goes as follows:

A man is walking down the street, clapping his hands together every ten seconds. Asked by another man, why he is performing this peculiar behavior, he responds: “I’m clapping to scare away the elephants”. Visibly puzzled, the second man notes that there are no elephants there, whereupon the clapping man replies: “See, it works!”

With these few sentences, Watzlawick exemplifies a huge problem (that Simon & Garfunkel may have actually picked up on first – audacious conspiracy theory right there). Elephant-man (which is how the clapping man shall be called hereafter) is so locked up in his own views and ideas that he manages to artificially construct a real-world problem in which he is caught up forever (basically an elephant-death-spiral, as he can never stop clapping).

All right, let’s rewind and see if my little digression to elephant-man and his friend actually have anything to do with this blog and the real world (almost depressing that I refer to the real world as in the social media). I will start with b, just to keep things confusing, and because it made the progression in the earlier paragraph possible.

b)    Climate change is not so awesome

Okay, this one’s easy. To make it nice and simple: find elephant-man in the picture below. No, I’m not kidding; there are actually still people out there who doubt that there is an anthropogenic effect on the world we live in, and depressingly, they appear to be some of the folks that try to rule this world. As many others, our particular elephant-man is charmingly (haha, good one) clapping away the solid evidence that we do in fact influence global systems and processes, potentially threatening the livelihood of future generations and is in fact so busy clapping that he (and all his clapping friends) has neither time for logical thinking nor time to make any effort to actually prove that there is NO anthropologically-induced effect on the planet. I know that this is not particularly novel news, but hey, it’s a nice little warm-up for the “Find-Elephant-Man” game in the following paragraph.

Finding elephant-man...

a)     Science is awesome

While I may be pretty poor at being one, I’d call myself a scientist and would therefore agree with this statement.  Yet, as the attentive reader may have already guessed, I’ll probably try to squeeze an elephant(-man) into this little section too. Can you here him clapping? There he goes: as scientists, we are naturally curious, which is great. Unfortunately, as pointed out in many contemporary pieces of writing, our time is seeing a trend from rather comprehensive long-term studies (everybody loves the good old 78-pages Am Nat monster paper, right?) that sometimes present valuable results (or not) to incomprehensive, short-term studies that always present results. This is certainly not because younger generations are much better scientists than older generations but, well, you know… try the #publishperish hashtag on twitter or try to get a post-doc. As a consequence, the integrity of scientists these days is in serious jeopardy. Now, I personally believe in the integrity of scientists. But, and as history has told us (this is particularly true for people that are very enthusiastic about what they do), sometimes enthusiasm combined with the immense pressure to reveal spectacular results and to publish about 50 papers per year can create a certain blindness for truth outside the bubble in which every experiment or observation yields the results that will make it a great paper. While this may happen largely unconsciously, it may be worth taking the time to listen closely and become alert if there is a faint clapping noise in the distance. It may be the little Austrian psychologist in you, trying to scare away the gentle grey pachyderms (that’s the version for scientists – just in case you didn’t get who’s the elephant man).

c)   Religion is far from being awesome

As I paid some attention in writing class in school, here’s the most important part of this blog. I obviously didn’t pay attention to basic life lessons, which teach you to never discuss religion. Yet, there is a part in me (hopefully not clapping) that wants to address the following issue:

Most scientists, and de facto the vast majority of people I know, perceive any kind of religion as the evil brother (or sister, yay for gender equality) of the climate change-denying-elephant-man (see above), and the most common treats that scientists associate with religion are charming things like crusades, burning people on the pyre or the whole “god should have smushed those mozzies when he created the world” thing. While I am aware that there is some truth in this and I certainly agree that tolerance should be put aside if anything is truly harmful to humanity (like intolerance), I feel that many scientists underestimate the value that religion provides to many people around the world on a daily basis. Why? Because the majority of confessions are, first and foremost, philosophical handbooks to life based on justness and moral values rather than a potpourri of murder, misery and miracles. As such, a story of some guy curing a man’s blindness through mere touching is of course not because he has magical or supernatural hands but a metaphor for opening someone’s eyes to the good parts of life. The truth is in the interpretation. Seen in the right light, this applies almost without exception (yes, even a story about a god creating the world can contain a lot of points that many people on this planet should take to heart: take as much as you need but not more; foster the environment, etc), and, in my opinion, makes many parts of religion exceptionally timely, given that we live in times where morals and justness are often paid to be on permanent vacation. So, given that evolution has provided us with these lovely grey animals I’ve been going on about, where’s the guy trying to scare them away in all of this? The answer is: it’s most scientists (yay for generalization). In believing solely in scientifically demonstrated truth and evidence, I feel that many scientists have evolved a view of the world in which nothing but cold hard scientific facts have the right to exist, and not only neglect, but actively shun spirituality from the heights of their ivory towers. I may be listening too closely (or clapping myself), but this sounds like a pretty good clapping effort to me. Maybe it is time for a little bit of self-reflection (which we are clearly capable of) in the scientific community when it comes to values such as tolerance and open-mindedness, and maybe we should take the Simon and Garfunkel song to heart and break with some stereotypes that have evolved in the recent past. Clearly, as long as the elephants are kindly (but not dumb – see elephant-man in the picture above), stopping the clapping won’t hurt anybody.