We need a healthy critique of the dominant role of science and technology in the modern world to avoid crashing the planet.
Based on a few centuries of scientific rationalism and the ensuing technological muscle its given us human beings today live with a sense of domination over the planet. But at the dawn of the 21st century, nature itself collides with this dominance model as we are threatened by erratic climate, interruptions to the food production system, disease, fires and exaggerated natural disasters due to weather. Our pollution-based prosperity has made a toxic mess of the planet. This blog post is inspired by my reading of various (unrelated) science writing that, each in their own way, challenges the popular perception that the scientific worldview has all the answers for our modern civilization to find its way forward. Picking our way forward requires vision and adaptation, but reliance on the western model of scientific inquiry and technological innovation would, by itself, drag us only into a deeper hole.
Let’s be clear on the terms first. What exactly is science? Science might be defined as the pursuit of a style of rational inquiry that yields insights into how the world works. By using specific methodologies the scientist, himself or herself, is separated from the insights and conclusions. Scientific knowledge is viewed as “disembodied”. The popular perception is that, unlike other human endeavors, science produces independent truths about the properties and relationships of things (“the laws of nature”). (Scientists themselves have a much more nuanced and humble view of their understanding of a vast, infinitely complex and intelligent universe into which scientific inquiry provides a partial and often fuzzy lens, but popular culture uses this convenient notion that science produces truths about how the universe came to be and how it works.)
Science is an enormously potent force in the modern world. We valorize the scientific approach as a kind of supreme achievement of human beings. Over and above politics, art, or the search for meaning, purpose, and morality, modern man hangs his hat on an orthodoxy of belief that says “scientific rationalism”, as a mode of thinking or an organizing principle, is at the top of the hierarchy of human enterprise. Julian Huxley, the evolutionary biologist asserted that Scientific Man has become “the growing point of evolution”.
The points I have assembled together challenge the notion of science as disembodied” or objective knowledge independent of a social context of values, financial interests, and power relations. The investigations of science are themselves, critics say, a complex skein of purpose and intent. Other critiques direct focus on the fact that the tradition of scientific investigation is rooted in culturally-specific, historically-situated, notions of personal identity and moral beliefs about the world. Finally, some critiques relate to the importance given to science and its excessive weighting at the expense of other types of knowledge and human faculties such as ethical negotiations, spiritual belief, aesthetics, kinesthetics, compassion, intuition, and cultural understanding.
- As a product of human social institutions, science reflects their prejudices and interests. In particular, scientific inquiry reflects where power is located. John Horgan writes about how American science is shaped by the capitalism and militarism of its culture. More than half of the U.S. budget for research and development is allocated to military agencies according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The science on genetically modified foods is influenced by its sponsorship by large agri-chemical business conglomerates (e.g. Monsanto, now Monsanto-Bayer after the merger between the seed and the chemical firm). Their conclusions, not surprisingly, promise that GMO foods are safe for consumption and will provide bigger yields. Independent scientists in Europe challenge claims that GMO seeds lead to lower herbicide use and higher yields.
- Professional and academic scientific associations, responsible for the peer-reviewing process, are in theory committed to the freedom of scientific inquiry, but in practice subject to competing political positioning. Scientists are conscious of socially acceptable norms, corporate funding of research, and competing interests and have frequently jockeyed to marginalize and discredit scientists who challenge norms with unusual conclusions and unpopular associations. Societal values, funding agreements and restrictions, and power struggles curtail scientific publishing (and autonomy) all the time.
- “Culture” refracts the investigations of science and sometimes blinds it to the contributions of other ways of knowing. Patriarchy, male chauvinism, and sexism have interfered with the contributions, lines of inquiry, and insights put forward by (all but the most tenacious) women scientists in history. Stories of research questions biased towards men rather than women are frequent in the history of medicine and pharmacology. When Rachel Carson challenged the male-dominated, scientific establishment that disregarded the links between environmental and human health as they used military aerial technology and chemicals to spray agricultural chemicals indiscriminately in the 1960s, she was undermined, discredited, demeaned, and threatened in all kinds of ways including at a personal level. As a result of her indefatigable persistence in science research and writing, she is viewed as the mother of the modern environmental consciousness in the United States. (Read more in Fire Ant Wars: Nature Science and Public Policy in Twentieth Century America by Joshua Blu Bluhs)
- The capitalistic model produces a plethora of technological development based on science. Technology innovation drives profit in industry and commerce. Therefore science research is often focused on technological tweaks, to gain a leading edge. But few people ask critical questions about how the technology will be implemented. New technology has become an unquestioned addiction and has been associated with growing inequality in the U.S. because it often works in the interests of some groups of people over others. (Erik Brynjolfsson co-author of The Second Machine Age has written about this.)
- Science in health care illustrates some contortions of research in which funding is channeled towards science research that serves specific goals of technology and pharmaceuticals (which are directly associated with greater profit). In the United States spending per capita on health care is more than 50 percent higher than Norway, the second biggest spender, yet results and outcomes of care in terms of patient healing and wellness are no better. Cancer treatment and psychiatry are two branches of medicine that demonstrate the perversions of the health care science in the United States, focused on expensive drug treatments, technology, and administrative costs over the focus on preventative care using diet shifts, life-style shifts, and so on.
- Scientific inquiry is somewhat of a victim of the phenomenon of a diffuse modern media. Science journalism helps to keep scientists honest and open debate about science research in civil society at large. In the context of social media where ill-informed public comments feature as highly as, and sometimes more highly than, the actual content conveying science research, thoughtful science journalism is the loser. Shouty voices that either laud or criticize scientific conclusions on the basis of beliefs and special interests prevail. Who loses? Long-form and meaningful critical treatment of the ramifications of research. Science is all too often subject to popularity contests just like any other commodity in a commercially driven society. (Check out the How Do We Fix It podcast #35 “The Backlash Against Science” featuring Alice Dreger)
- Cultural superiority and cultural domination have conveyed as a kind of normative superiority of western science over other forms and ways of knowing. One example of this is in the field of ecology where traditional ecological knowledge held by indigenous people is diminished as “traditional” or “folkloric” or “specific to a place”, while ecological science is recognized by western institutions of research, education, and governance as “real science”. The assumptions of the western ecological approach went long without critical examination, for example, the historical bias that kept the human realm distinct from the realm of animal and plant communities. This bias had long blinded western ecologists to the possibility that plant and animal communities have adapted to take advantage of human participation/interference for their own evolutionary advantage. For example, the health and vigor of certain plants communities such as American native sweetgrass is related to the selective harvesting done by traditional people. The propagation of certain plant communities is linked to fires intentionally caused by humans. The western scientific predisposition was to not acknowledge plants as having their own “intelligence” and rational “agency” in directing the course of their own development. Ecological scholars who have recognized the limits of western science are now doing groundbreaking reconciliation to point out the rewarding complementarities with knowledge from the indigenous way of understanding ecology. (See Traditional Forest-Related Knowledge by Parotta and Trosper (eds), Springer 2012. And read more about the intersection of indigenous wisdom and traditional science in “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer)
- Just as sexism and cultural imperialism/racism influenced the practice of science, species-ism also has blinkered science. The Christian creation myth sets up ‘mankind’ as an inherently superior being that God created above all else in creation. Western scientists operate from a fundamental species chauvinism that denies the animated, rational intelligence of other non-human beings. Animals are frequently measured against a human yard stick, through reasoning such as “Animals are incapable of moral reasoning in the same way as a human being” (so consequently they don’t deserve the same treatment and protections as humans nor is there any other moral standard of respect for animal life). The cultural belief that the only “intelligence” which counts is our own is reinforced by a scientific worldview (or in other words, the scientific approach reflects the cultural underpinnings of the scientists). In contrast, consider indigenous creation myths that do not rank humans as superior to other species on earth, rather asserts that humans are part of a democracy of species in which other species are viewed as ‘distant relatives’ with whom humans have co-evolved in nature. This has ramifications for language, cultural ethics, and scientific research. It sheds light on the sadistic and fatal outcomes for non-human species as a result of science. Science feeds industrial resource extraction and commercial activities that have resulted in the mass extinction of millions of species and continues today, seemingly unstoppably. Science feeds the complex of systemic, torturous, captive breeding program of animals, in the service of animal agriculture for modern humans to consume grotesque quantities of meat.
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An abattoir that gets its products from a factory farm processes chicken into consumer friendly breasts and thighs.
- The scientific worldview is married to specific spiritual beliefs and values. The cultural values we hold about the terrestrial substrate of our lives—the earth itself—has ramifications. In the Christian belief, corporeal life on earth is viewed as a temporary, transitive phase while true eternal life is found in heaven, the spiritual realm. And for the duration of your time on earth, the earth itself is viewed as an inert platform for human activity; its resources free to be used, cultivated, and exploited for the benefit of humankind. Consider the extraordinary emphasis in scientific and technological research on mechanizing extractive resources to get at earth’s ores, biological gene manipulation, and innumerable efforts to replicate natural systems with artificial ones. Consider that western science has given us technological developments to destroy entire mountain ranges to strip coal from the soil beds within the mountains. We have the most advanced science and technology to dam rivers and straighten them into canals for all kinds of human purposes. Yet these technological ‘developments’ destroy the functions of life for myriad other species that are interwoven into the natural course of mountains, watersheds, and rivers. These ‘developments’ display an underlying ethic of exploiting the earth for its resources purportedly (and self-justifyingly) for human beings to exploit. Contrast this ethic, with another spiritual understanding of the earth, held by indigenous people, as an animated being with her own intelligence and rationality, “a mother”. Indigenous people view their relationship with the earth as a heavenly gift of life, which comes with a sacred reciprocal responsibility to be a good steward for future generations. Wrapped into the idea of a sacred relationship between humans and an animated, intelligent earth are values of ecological compassion, caring, and limits that help protect the longevity of earth rather than a short-sighted resource cultivation and profit. Consider the kind of science that might flourish if this cultural view were held as dominant.
- The practice of science is descended from a specific cultural history and set of beliefs about what it means to be a human being and our place in the world. It stems on a particular western European notion idea that the individual human mind was created with special faculties (restricted to only human beings) that give a unique cerebral capacity to understand the physical world. William Whewell who first coined the term “scientist” in 19th century England believed that God created the universe in accordance with certain divine ideas, and God created capacity in the human mind in accordance with those same divine ideas. He felt that knowledge of science—geometry, mechanics, chemistry—originated in “ideas” in the human mind rather than empirical observations of the world. Human beings used their divinely created, exceptional, scientific mind to explore those “ideas” and thus arrive at ‘necessary truths’ about the physical world. Scientific development was a process of “discovering” more and more of these necessary truths, progressing towards a complete understanding of the natural world and a deepening conviction in the existence of a Divine Creator.Although much has evolved in our understanding of the universe since the 1800s, there is no denying that scientists’ culturally inherited beliefs inform their science. The fissure between the practice of science and all other human faculties—the pursuit of meaning, purpose, and morality, is indefensible and false. Scientists are a product of historically and culturally transmitted beliefs about what it means to be a human being. They inherit ethical constructs and specific outlooks on personal identity and spirituality from families and social groups. They develop complex linguistic and kinesthetic abilities from these groups. There are real consequences in terms of our knowledge throughout the history of science that persist today, because the scientific worldview has been informed by such beliefs about human exceptionalism. The value of dominance of humans on the planet translates into an arrogance of outlook, the opposite of humility. If we held humility high as a value, we would understand that we have to learn the language in which other species express their intelligence and learn how they find their place on the planet. We would not swagger scientifically-derived truths as the most important truths of the universe, and acknowledge wisdom in other ways of being and knowing.