Feb 6, 2012

Killer Empathy

Sometimes being a good scientist requires putting aside your emotions. But what happens when objectivity isn't enough to make sense of a seemingly senseless act of violence? In this short, Jad and Robert talk to an entomologist about the risks, and the rewards, of trying to see the world through someone else's eyes. 

Lulu Miller introduces us to Jeff Lockwood, a professor at the University of Wyoming, who spent a part of his career studying a particularly ferocious set of insects: Gryllacrididae. Or, as Jeff describes them, "crickets on steroids." They have crushingly strong, serrated jaws, and they launch all-out attacks on anyone who gets in their way--whether it's another cricket, or the guy trying to take them out of their cages.

In order to work with the gryllacridids, Jeff had to figure out how to out-maneuver them. And as he devised ways to keep from getting slashed and bitten, he felt like he was getting to know them. Maybe they weren't just mindless brutes ... but their own creatures, each with their own sense of self. And that got him wondering: what could their fierceness tell him about the nature of violence? How well could he understand the minds of these insects, and what drove them to be so bloody?

That's when the alarm bells went off. Jeff would picture his mentor, Dr. LaFage, lecturing him back in college--warning him not to slip into a muddled, empathic mood ... not to let his emotions sideswipe his objectivity. And that would usually do the trick--Jeff would think of LaFage, and rein himself back in.

But then one night, something happened that gave Dr. LaFage's advice a terrible new kind of significance. Tamra Carboni tells us this part of the story, and challenges Jeff's belief that there's a way to understand it.

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