Imagine you’re strolling with a loved one in a local park one bright Sunday morning. You and your companion pass a cluster of flowers and you overhear another stroller say, “Look at those gross weeds. They should be pulled out, they ruined this entire garden.” You look where he’s pointing and see the happiest, cheeriest, sunniest, albeit ugliest, bunch of daisies you’ve ever seen. You look at his face and recognize the speaker as a highly regarded and respected nursery owner. What do you do? What would Emily Post say? What would Freud advise? You look over at your loved one, panic clear on your face. If your loved one is like mine, s/he smiles, squeezes your hand and asks, “is it worth it?”
You decide it’s not. No damage done. Who cares that the nursery owner confused a rare variety of daisies with weeds? But then you look over and see a group you recognize from the local gardening club, nodding along. “Bad weeds” you hear one mutter. “Terrible things. They should be yanked.” Another pulls out a garbage bag and covers up the bunch of daisies. “No one should have to see these weeds.” She says and you hear the passion and conviction in her voice. Her voice practically vibrates with anger.
The nursery owner is consulting a gardening book and reading aloud the problems he sees with the weeds and your stomach drops as you recognize he’s misreading some of the information. “They’re going to strangle the whole garden.” You hear him mutter and you start to twitch, knowing that the daisies actually attract a particular strain of butterflies that help germinate a different section of the park.
You know because you’re a botanist. You spend your professional life studying plants. While your work actually involves roses, you had to study daisies in order to better understand the species you grow. There is the real possibility, you admit, that you’re wrong. The longer you stand there, the louder the group gets, the more convinced you are that you must be off-base; daisies aren’t THAT necessary and it would be great to use the space for more of your roses..
So, you say nothing. The moment passes. The group is unified by their hate for those damn not-really-weeds. Not much you can say. So you walk on with your companion, working hard to not give your loved one yet another lecture on the importance of ugly daisies in a well-balanced ecosystem. On your way out of the park, you hear members of the gardening group telling incoming strollers how the owner of the nursery had, just that morning, published a piece in a national gardening newsletter, “setting the record straight” on those nasty weeds.
What’s the role of expertise in conversations like this? Do you, with expertise in flowers, though you way prefer roses to daisies, speak up? Does your obligation to speak up change based on the size of the crowd? Is it changed by knowing the nursery owner isn’t fond of you, and has even publicly called you “uninformed?” In truth, last time you spoke up, you had a middle school flashback to being told “your opinion doesn’t matter because you’re not tall/ short/ athletic/ musical/ smart enough/ right-handed enough” to comment. Even worse, the last time someone spoke up, it seemed some members of the gardening group became even more insistent and vocal about calling the much maligned daisies “weeds.”
Help me out here, gentle readers. If you were the botanist, what you do? What if you were the nursery owner, would you want the botanist to speak up? Is there a right time and place to speak up? Is it worth it?