Putting ourselves in each other’s shoes: Shared discovery as a pathway to empathy

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This blog was originally posted on Medium

When I was in graduate school, I conducted cooperative fisheries research at the University of Maine (go… Black Bears? I want to say? Sorry, not a sports person but sincere shout out to the University of Maine and the Darling Marine Center!). That is, I collaborated with a commercial groundfisherman to study the impacts of trawling on bottom habitats in the Gulf of Maine. Along with my advisor, we all worked to design the methods of the study. Part of that was identifying sampling sites that would allow us to compare currently trawled areas to places that had been closed to trawling for a good five years. This would help us explore both potential impacts and recovery dynamics.

Then, once the work got underway, I traveled south to Portland where his fishing boat was based and spent nearly every week of the summer at sea — collecting sediments samples and video footage to understand who lived both in the sediments and on top. Once the fisherman asked me, “How could we even know if trawling has any kind of impact on the bottom?” I answered, “That depends on the bottom type (muddy, rocky, mixed rock and mud etc.) and frequency and intensity of the trawling.” I also explained, “There have been other studies that give us a glimpse of what we could expect, and a foundation of knowledge and theory in the science of disturbance and recovery.” He looked at me blankly, “Well how do you know if any of that is right? Maybe we just don’t know.”

In ocean science, the “we just don’t know” answer can be quite powerful. Sampling and monitoring in the ocean is costly and logistically difficult, often leaving us data poor in trying to figure out ecosystem-level questions especially and isolating what is contributing to or detracting from ecosystem health. Natural variability alone without even considering climate-driven changes can be tough to account for.

But it’s much more than that. Looking back on that interaction, it’s like we were calling to each other from two different worlds of understanding. Both of us looking at the same thing, but from two contrasting contexts that had shaped more than our knowledge about the ocean, but our beliefs about it. Look, facts are unimpeachable. But beliefs around how facts are generated are not. And that complicates things because facts can come via many pathways.

I realize now the pathway I trust is science. I did then, I do now. I said in my first post that science is about learning how the world — ecosystems, habitats, communities, and animals (us included) — works and interacts. To build on that, science is a system of processes and networks by which we continually construct that vast body of knowledge. Journals to which we contribute manuscripts. Quality control via peer review of methods, results, and application of our findings. Scientific conferences for us to discuss and debate, and much more. Put it all together and it’s a constellation of researchers all over the world producing and reproducing studies, looking at any given research question through a kaleidoscope of scientific fields and methodologies.

The world I as a young scientist at the time was being trained in was one built on the shoulders of others I didn’t necessarily know, publishing the papers I read and the text books I studied. That to me was comforting. But for him it was different. His world of knowledge was far more intimate. Built by family, generations of fathers passing knowledge of fishing and the ocean they fished down to sons through stories and shear personal experiences that put their lives at risk. He used to say (and he’s not the first or only fisherman to say) he knew the Gulf of Maine like the back of his hand. Rather, I saw it as alien. He was at home, while I was in a new mysterious place. Looking at that same patch of ocean, we each loved and valued it, interacted with it, and ultimately understood it from different directions.

Both perspectives have their flaws and blind spots. But both are also discipline driven and highly rigorous, just towards different ends. They each provide answers and insights that complement each other more often than not. Recently, I read a column perspective by Runnebaum et al. (2019) that explored how non-scientist stakeholders — in this case commercial harvesters, processors, aquaculturists, and town managers — evaluate the credibility of scientific information. They identified three attributes: Communication, relationships, and relatability.

Achieving those attributes requires trust. Trust matters much more than the usual ways we scientists evaluate credibility. It is not degrees or number of publications in high-impact journals. And on the fishing side, it’s not the number of days at sea associated with one’s permit or amount of quota share. Building trust starts with walking a mile in each other’s shoes. It is empathy, and one’s pathway to empathy. That last part will be unique to you. Find it. Be present. Listen. Engage. It is worth the effort. Then the rigor of our collective knowledge is not only appreciated, it becomes part of a rich gathering place upon which we can build understanding of our world together.

These days I mostly work in an office. No more spending summers at sea on a fishing boat or participating in fall oceanographic cruises. While I love what I do now, I miss it. But more than that, I know what I’m missing. It’s now a gap in my own knowledge and experience of the ocean that reminds me of how much I don’t know. And how much we need each other.


Runnebaum, J.M., Maxwell, E.A., Stoll, J.S., Pianka, K.E., and Oppenheim, N.E. 2019. Communication, Relationships, and Relatability Influence Stakeholder Perceptions of Credible Science. Fisheries Magazine 44(4), https://doi.org/10.1002/fsh.10214.

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