Morale Compass Declination: An Over-Extended Metaphor

I was twenty when I first learned about Magnetic Declination–the fact that Magnetic North can vary significantly from place to place depending on local magnetic forces in the Earth’s mantle. It surprised me that I had gone so long and had so much compass use without learning something so important. Moreover, it struck me that something I had assumed to be precise and empirical was, in fact, subjective.

To me, a compass was absolute. Hard science. Quantitative and unbiased. How was I supposed to deal with the knowledge that its directions were subject to the whims of local geography? To little swirls and eddies in the liquid ruminations deep below, all mixing and layering and simmering for some time?

Have I mentioned that I am not a geologist?

I’ve come to realize that so much of science is based off data that is–(yes, I’m using “data” as a collective singular word, deal with it)–is not as absolute and empirical than everyone would believe. Just like a compass, it is affected by “local geography,” so to speak, or to put it in other words: “deep ruminations, simmering for some time.”

You get it? It’s our minds. The psychology of the researchers collecting the data.

“I think they get it.”

Morale. The project-killer. The devil in the footnotes. The qualitative bull in a quantitative china shop. The curse of bias. The Heisenburg Unhappily Principle. During stressful periods, I worry that data is tainted by biases of the mental/emotional states of myself and my fellow researchers.

Examples: One day earlier this week was perfect. Good weather–overcast but no rain. We found the monkeys by miracle and stayed with them all day. The took us through a good area, nice and open with few thorns or ants. Crisis struck: my friend stepped into a sandy gully and sunk up to her thigh. Quicksand! I helped haul her out, and we laughed it off despite the fact that she was now soaked in what looked like concrete from the knees down. The monkeys let us catch up and we collected a record amount of data.

Few days later: Pouring rain. Miserable. Personal trouble at home had put everyone on edge. We followed monkeys through soggy brush and rough terrain, griping all the while. Summoned the energy to do a few observations while sinking in mud. I had ants crawl up my pants and grumbled about the stings all day. Observations were incomplete owing to visibility. We followed protocol, but ended up with little to show for that day.

Nothing except several bites in places I’m not going to show. Here’s a picture of a caiman we saw instead.


Morale might be the greatest, most significant factor that never appears in any scientific publication. When’s the last time you read a paper that gave a margin of error in its results, but then said something like, “also, these reports were entered after a long week of rain.” Or, “two of the three individuals conducting this study had just suffered a difficult breakup.” Or, “the following protocol was sound, but for several days the PI had gone a long time without a smoke break.”

I try to keep things together as best I can. This doesn’t mean I put on puppet shows or tell Dad jokes to elicit laughs from my coworkers, but minor things like checking up on everyone without being too nosy. Or keeping our workplace relatively clean of cockroaches and mold. Or cooking big satisfying dinners and the occasional warm baked good. I don’t do this because I’m a social butterfly or natural entertainer. Nor am I anyone’s maid or personal chef. But group morale has an actual, significant effect on data, and I know it’s the little things–little shifts in local geography–that can get that compass needle to point back to True North.

For me personally, the best method is small doses of giant reptile, administered regularly. This doesn’t have the same effect on everyone.

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