The power of empathy by Olivia A. Cole

One of the sources of inspiration of A CONSPIRACY OF STARS was a conversation I overheard once on the Megabus, in which a woman was talking about her daughter’s love for science. Her daughter loved biology, I heard, but the woman was concerned about “how sensitive” she was. Apparently there was a project at school that involved dissecting a rabbit or another small mammal and the woman’s daughter didn’t want to do it. Too many feelings, the woman said. “Too empathetic.”

This is something I mentioned briefly in my exclusive video for Uppercase, but I wanted to give it a little more space here. The idea that feelings and emotions and empathy are weaknesses is a damaging myth that has been rooted in our culture for a long time. Long before Hillary Clinton ever ran for office, stand-up comedians told different versions of the same joke over and over about the idea of women in decision-making roles: “A woman in charge? Women are too emotional!” The same myth has been spread about women in science. Science, it is said, is an area of study devoid of emotion and based wholly on logic. Not only is this entirely false, it’s a rather frightening view, isn’t it? Empathy banished from science and medicine? We should be centering it.

This is a conversation that stretches in many directions. The history of American medicine, for example, is fraught with torture and racism. Questionable studies that put humans at risk still exist. Animal testing continues. New technologies exist that mean high school students don’t necessarily have to dissect a dead rabbit. There are digital tools that can be used to mimic the experience, but who has access to those tools? Who doesn’t? When we center empathy, the answers to questions about scientific practices lead to more questions. And questions are at the heart of science.

In short, A CONSPIRACY OF STARS explores the love of science, and ultimately explores the power of empathy. The protagonist posseses and values both, and I believe that’s possible in our world.

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