A panic resolution
December 30, 2012 2 Comments
Sometimes lives hinge on a few opinions, some arguably non-scientific and emotional. These opinions can defy logic and common sense, but they are deemed valid because of the emotional charge they carry. They “feel” right.
Over the holiday break, I read The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin, co-director of MIT’s graduate program in science writing. To say the book blew me away is an understatement. I’ve rarely read a book better researched, more balanced and more elucidating. Needless to say, I learned a lot from the professor.
In my line of work, persuading readers that James Madison University people do indeed work to change the world for the better, I am often confronted with the passion that drives an individual to act. Seeing an ailing child. Learning the plight of a hurricane ravaged community. Experiencing the depravation of a third world country. Confronting injustice, intolerance and pure unadulterated evil. All produce strong emotional reactions. Or at least they should.
We, being human, feel some measure of despair when we witness the troubles that others not as fortunate as ourselves experience. That drives us to act. What actions we take based on the “truths” we embrace, however, is a critical message of The Panic Virus.
Mnookin traces the evolution of the debate over the efficacy and the impact of immunizations against disease, specifically the anti-vaccine controversy. It details the history of immunization — a fascinating read by itself — and addresses causality in the autism story. I was drawn to read the book initially when I read the author’s philosophy that it is better to be right than to be first, a sentiment wholly lost on much of today’s media.
The author, in fact, takes the news media to task for their irresponsible promotion of junk science and nonsense — often under the false nobility of “fairness.” Few escape the sword: Oprah Winfrey, CNN, NBC affiliate WRC-TV, The Washington Post, Newsweek and even some prominent medical journals.
In one passage, Mnookin references the Oprah Winfrey Show, explaining how using emotion only is a perilous approach:
Winfrey’s suggestion that she is just a neutral disseminator of information is a dodge offered so frequently that it’s easy to overlook how absurd it is…. A more frank reckoning with the message Winfrey promotes would have acknowledged that in her world, being responsible for your actions has less to do with determining how your behavior affects those around you than it does with making sure you’re “living in harmony” with your true nature. This “I feel therefore it is” outlook may empower Winfrey’s viewers to take charge of their lives, but it ignores completely the perils that face a society where everyone runs around intuiting their own versions of the truth.*
This is where education comes in; why education, reason, logic must be balanced with emotion. This is the promise of change inherent in education.
Those who serve others through magnanimous acts, through generosity, through kindness and overt charity must be cognizant of the truth behind what stirs their passion. Years ago, I was moved by the plight a local family only to learn later they gladly took whatever goods were given them but had summarily refused to participate in any financial counseling. It made me wary and, frankly, a bit cynical.
I learned a similar lesson from Daniel Morgan (’10) about the importance of understanding a culture before one begins to help those who live there. Knowing how best to help is as important as wanting to help.
The Panic Virus, however, gives me hope because it demonstrates that truth can prevail. Emotion will always sit alongside science. Real change, substantive change, lasting change happens most often when both the heart and the mind are thoughtfully engaged — and thoughtfully is the operative word.
We must never lose the passion our humanity produces; at the same time, we must act mindfully, reasonably, scientifically when that is called for, and globally. Passion without thinking is dangerous. Thinking without passion is heartless.
So in this New Year, I have a personal goal for this blog: to write with no less passion — but with way more thoughtfulness, and to look more dispassionately on passionate issues. Call it my panic resolution. It won’t be easy. Instead, it will be hard. Truth is not easily gained — yet it is quite easily missed. Truth requires hard work.
Real, true and lasting change, though, demands we seek it and find it, using both our hearts and our educated minds.
* The Panic Virus: A True Story of Science, Medicine, and Fear, Seth Mnookin, Simon and Schuster, 2011; pp. 270-271.