Kiwi Post: Remember When You Were Young

The greatest introduction to any song in the history of man is of course the almost nine minutes of instrumental that kick off “Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, by Pink Floyd. I defy anyone with an ounce of heart to sit through that 8:50 of creative genius without feeling moved.

That’s before the dulcet tones of Roger Waters ask us to ‘”Remember when we were young”. The lyrics are suitably poignant and the whole song is simply a masterpiece. Remember, this was created in an era when we were dropping napalm onto villagers in jungles and building more and more atomic bombs. Not much else from 40 years ago comes anywhere near to being as much value to humankind as this one song alone.

As veterinarians, we like to think of ourselves as scientists. We consider evidence and we weigh up cause and effect. We talk of evidence-based medicine. We argue the science to justify the procedure.

Science is about rationality and, to a degree, certainty. It’s about measurement and recording and verification and repeatability. Science has a long and respected tradition and has delivered us from the times when we wandered around caves and clubbed things to death to the dizzy heights of someone in Silicon Valley knowing where I am at any time of any day. Or at least, where my phone is. Which is much the same thing.

At the PanPac conference in Brisbane the other month, science was on display. It was another excellent trans-Tasman offering, and was well attended. The scientific content was good and there were some excellent talks presenting novel data and new ideas. But some of the most stimulating presentations for me were the ones where the audience was challenged, or where the speaker moved beyond the orthodox.

There is a creative aspect of human nature that is every bit as important as our scientific enquiry. And the two are not mutually exclusive. There seems to be a trend in society that creativity and science are polar opposites- that a scientist interested in the rational should be unmoved by Shakespeare; or that a visual artist simply wouldn’t understand the complex science of quantum physics. This is seen in the idea that as a schoolkid you should choose between ‘the sciences’ or ‘the arts’ for your career or university course.

But this is a modern deceit. It wasn’t that long ago that there wasn’t such a distinction. In the halcyon days of scientific discovery, in the late 19th century, philosophy was closely intertwined with chemistry and Greek mythology quite happily overlapped with physics. There was a sense that what we would now tend to see as opposing mind views were in fact entirely complementary and integrated. The greatest thinkers were philosophers and engineers and chemists at the same time.

And interestingly, what engaged me most at the PanPac were comments from speakers where the scientific merged with the creative. Guy Lonergan, for example, suggested that some of the science of antimicrobial resistance was complex and often contradictory, certainly incomplete, and possibly too hard to ever unravel completely. He turned the question of why did the general public not understand scientists around and asked ‘why do scientists not understand the general public?’ And he mentioned the idea of values as being an important part of a scientific process.

And I quite liked that. In the wellness sphere, there were some great discussions around the science of human wellness and of mental health. But what struck me was the innate integrity of a non-scientific statement such as treating people well and looking after their health and wellbeing was simply the right thing to do. No science, simply a value statement.

Mental health in our profession- and in rural and farming communities in general- is not great. There are many reasons for that I’m sure. One of the presentations presented some preliminary findings studying the trait of perfectionism amongst vets and high achievers. Many veterinarians are perfectionists. We like to deal in absolutes and data and actuality. I wonder if that is because we like the certainty of science, or vice versa? The comment that most resonated with me from the whole conference was from the perfectionism session- “maybe the best message we could give younger vets and undergraduates is that near enough is good enough?”

This is not a scientific approach, and I wondered if our fixation on science clouds our ability to let in the creative? I’m an epidemiologist, and so for me, data and evidence are the holy grail of my days. But recently, in our business, we completed a major overhaul of our approach to continuing education for all of our staff. We started with the holistic view that whilst developing and maintaining technical skills are important, learning and development for their own sake are equally important. We also considered that mental and physical wellness go hand in hand. And finally we decided that the scientific needed to be balanced out by the creative.

This led us to revamp our CE offering to staff so that 25 per cent of the time and money we allocate for this can be used for personal development. Art classes, joining a gym, learning to fly, pottery. We think we need to get closer to the heart. This isn’t science, but it combines creativity with a key value for us. Our staff need to be moved to tears as much by Pink Floyd as by the latest development in feline urinary tract disease management. Maybe we’ll report in at the next PanPac…