Scientific Rationality: Comforting Illusion in a World Falling Apart

Science is viewed as synonymous with progress, however in reality science is easily reduced to an impotent handmaiden of power and ideology.  As we face planetary crises, we need a deeper engagement with our humanity—both individual and collective— using spiritual and political consciousness.  Because, ultimately scientific rationalism is not a supreme human faculty, it is one of many. And rather than being value-neutral, it always finds itself in a political context. 

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protests in 2016 thrust a huge spotlight on resistance to fossil fuels.  Indigenous tribes and their supporters sent a loud message that oil was not only going to leak from pipeline cracks and pollute their water source, but was the wrong investment at a time when renewable sources of energy were growing in leaps and bounds worldwide.

As winter set in on the northern plains, two developments in late 2016 confirmed what the DAPL protesters had been protesting.  First, a peer-reviewed, scientific study published by the EPA confirmed that fracking, as a technique for excavating oil reserves from rock formations does indeed contaminate aquifers.  Second, an oil pipeline, not two hundred miles from the DAPL protest site in North Dakota, cracked and released nearly 180,000 gallons of oil into Ash Coulee Creek. The disaster, euphemistically referred to as a “spill”, effectively rendered the creek dead.  Rather than a living ecological structure, it became a channel for toxic water that doesn’t support life.  This latest oil disaster—exactly what protesters feared would happen to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation’s water source—added to numerous oil pipeline breaks which, although cataloged by North Dakota state authorities, go unreported in the media.  (The North Dakota Department of Health has recorded more than 100,900 gallons of crude oil, waste oil, bio solids, natural gas, and brine spilled in the state, since January 2016 alone, not counting this latest. Another agency, North Dakota Industrial Commission calculated a total of $4.5 million in fines for spills in 2015 and 2016.  These fines are negotiated around the costs of clean ups.)

Both the scientific study and empirical, real world evidence pointed to unmistakable conclusions that (1) fracking for oil poses unacceptably high risks to irreplaceable water resources; and (2) breaks or cracks in pipelines that cover long distances are almost inevitable and cause irreparable damage to water resources.

In spite of this, as often happens sadly, the powerful men in the U.S. government who direct decisions about fossil-fuel economic activities don’t blink.

The newly-elected state Governor Doug Burgum issued a video statement that the state government would continue to support the oil pipeline regardless of the past year’s protests, because, “…it’s the safest way to transport North Dakota products.  Failure to finish it would send a chilling signal to those in any industry who wish invest in our state and play by the rules.” Newly-elected President Trump has directed the Acting Secretary of the Army to set aside the full Environmental Impact Statement required to do a proper cost benefit analysis of DAPL, and grant the easement for Energy Transfer Partners to drill under the disputed section of the Missouri River, right at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

Trump, an avowed climate science denier, also threatens to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreements, even as NASA and NOAA scientists continue to demonstrate temperature warming trends across the globe, and recently presented alarming updates that Arctic sea ice is disappearing and thus causing faster warming trends in the Arctic than the rest of the globe through a positive feedback loop.

The logic behind the decision to push forward on additional, risky fracked oil pipelines?  Trump thinks it’s good business. It’s that easy for power to make arbitrary decisions that shun and dismiss meticulously peer-reviewed science and real-world evidence.

Progress or Political Ping Pong?

Our culture appeals to science for “reason”, “information”, and “evidence”, but as the North Dakota problem illustrates and as happens throughout the world, political or ideological interests easily hijack and sideline its offerings.  Time and again, clear scientific evidence is reduced to an impotent handmaiden of power and authority.  It is bent to economic agendas, or twisted to fit specific political purposes.

Decision makers can, on the one hand, exhibit a blind spot for atmospheric science that demonstrates rising global temperature trends while on the other hand, embrace mechanical engineering to develop cost models of extracting fracked oil from subterranean reserves.  Climate change naysayers who deny the science will still embrace the technology—produced by other parts of science—that suits their outlook.

The course of our lives, and the ecological survival of the planet, can be decided by people who wield the power to pursue cherry-picked, selective science based on capricious whims, economic agendas, or ideology—as suits them.  Science is too easily used as a political pawn.

Science itself however, remains an enormously potent force in our culture.  People call for more science and for better science communication with sincere hopes that it will guide and promote better public discourse and decision-making.  The Pope (trained in science himself) is quoted as saying that there has “never been such a clear need for science” to guide human actions “to safeguard the future of the planet,” at a gathering of scientists at the Vatican in the winter of 2016.

How do we reconcile our appeal to science for “reason” and “good judgement” while acknowledging that we negotiate within a complex socio-political world with (powerful, rogue) actors who may often be anything but reasonable?  How is it we hold on so blindly to an illusion that we are on a path of progress guided by science, when we are clearly on a path that is shaped by the complex negotiations of social power, by patriarchy, by a history of colonial occupation, and human impulses of tribalism and domination?

Technological Domination is Self-Affirming

Many thinkers on the subject of how power subverts science, distinguish science from technology and technocracy. Technology is derived from science but distinguished from its academic practice.  Technology shapes tangible reality, but manifests in the intangible human spirit: through our language, daily transactions, our fears, and our collective ethical and moral transactions.  Technology can be exploited opportunistically by specific actors to accumulate profits and power, for example.

Philosophers like Mary Midgely have pointed out that technological dominance of the planet is enabled by chauvinism about our own power and might.  She quotes Julian Huxley the evolutionary biologist who wrote that Scientific Man has become “the growing point of evolution”.  This view says that human intelligence, working through scientific rationalism, has emerged at the apex of evolution, and it makes human beings the top of the heap on the planet.  Scientific rationality makes human beings masters of the universe.  With science to explain the workings of the universe God as a notion, at least of a higher power, has itself been sidelined–left as an anachronistic artifact.  Mary Midgley has described this human omnipotence, as “not just anthropocentric but effectively anthropolatrous, self-worshipping.”  We are Gods because of our (specifically human) scientific minds.

Scientists might be the first to bring some humility into the self-aggrandizing arrogance of the scientific enterprise because they are constantly reminded they don’t have all the answers, and that their conclusions are mis-used or used in ways that they would not ethically approve of. But they are drowned out in the domination of technology.

In a worldview of scientific rationalism and technological domination, we are bound up in normative ideas that scientific advancement and new technology equates to progress. The assumption is that science points the way to “common good and universal goods”.  There are books devoted to how much we need the rationality of science to actually overcome the vagaries of socio-political jockeying.

Naive Optimism: A Blinding Preoccupation With Technology

A technological worldview that asserts that human intelligence is supreme and can shape the world.  We hold on to the comforting, yet delusional, discourse that scientific rationalism will help us technologize our way out of the maelstrom of ecological devastation, itself caused by industrial technology.  We are unquestioningly optimistic about technology, ever hopeful that there will be technological developments and solutions for every environmental limitation and disaster, even as we irrationally perpetuate unsustainable lifestyles, wars, and environmentally-destructive policies on a finite planet.

Indeed television channels dedicated to science fiction serve up stories of self-aggrandizing, limitless human enterprise based on scientific advancement.  There is no end of Sci-Fi TV shows whose premise is that humans, in our technological advancement, have left nature behind.  We are so advanced that we are actually able to create improved humans with artificial life, or we can go to other planets and galaxies and conquer life over there.

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An imaginative view of colonizing a new planet, say for instance, Mars.

There is a rub however, in the problematic reality, that, at the dawn of 21st century, nature collides head on with the discourse of scientific rationalism and technological muscle.  The “anthropocene” is a geologic classification that describes the characteristics of the planet’s soil, air, vegetation, climate, and water cycles resulting from the cumulative impact of human technology.  As we forge forward into the 21st century, we are coping with the social and ecological fallout of humanity’s colossal imprint on the planet, caused by technology and industrialization that permeates every aspect of our lives and is a pollution-based model of prosperity.  Energy and mineral ore extractions, and the endless production and waste of consumer goods and electronics now threaten life on the planet because of the resulting environmental pollution and toxic by-products.

Technological domination and the supremacy of scientific rationalism is so deeply embedded in our collective cultural mindset however, that it gives us a kind of a naive optimism.  This naive optimism says we can technologize our way out of a dead planet; that we can find solutions for food production, adaptations for changes in climate, human-nature interactions and any other constriction we face. This optimism focuses on the intrinsic qualities of the technology, which may be wonderful, yet, can fail because its situated always in political context: technology is controlled by specific actors, its price is exacted by specific profiteers, its implementation is manipulated by others.

To put this in Sci-Fi TV terms, technology has made a mess of our own planet, but we are so convinced of our superiority that we have illusions of coming up with technological fixes for the mess.  And better still, we can simply become masters of another planet—one which we have yet to find, that would offer conditions that sustain life.  All the while we assume that just because the technology exists, it will translate into access and solutions for all.  Naive.

Old Fashioned Moral and Cultural Negotiations: What Technologists Pooh-Pooh

The excessive focus on scientific rationality and technology divorces us from questions of responsibility, choice, and insight into our moral obligations to the world. This mindset doesn’t require us to check how technology is used: who benefits and who loses.  It doesn’t ask what values we bring and carry forward as a species on this planet. And, this is a dangerous omission.

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A boy on his bike in front of oil fields in Mosul Iraq, set on fire by fighters symbolizes a world in which technological advancements are consistently undermined by the fundamental human impulse to negotiate social power, often through brute means.

As my introductory story about DAPL illustrates, the real world practice of science may aspire to be, but is anything but “rational”.  The pursuit of meaning, purpose, and morality is done by people in complex negotiations with each other and with power imbalances.  How quickly science is subverted to power should teach us that science and technological innovation don’t exclusively determine the shape of our lives.

Remove the technological optimism lenses and look more closely at how we operate and you will see that the powerful drivers are human faculties of belief and social negotiation of power.  Scientific rationality is seen as somehow superior to the many, essential human faculties of social negotiations, spiritual yearnings, ecological connections, the feminine principle of love between mother and child, desire, love, and beauty.

Why would scientific rationalism in fact distinguish itself as ‘superior’ to those essential qualities of being human?  What is wrong with those aspects of being human that makes scientific rationality superior?  I question why we value an enterprise that eschews and isolates itself from such core faculties of what it means to be a human being.  The discussion about “progress”, “reason”, and “universal good” has to be on what we care about.  Science doesn’t produce answers about what we care about, and our scientific worldview is obscuring our insight into our own souls and the moral decisions we need to make there.

Every Technology Has Political Strings

Yes, we need science to explain the world and to describe how things work or break down.  But social negotiation is the context of how we use science.  And in this we need a stronger critique of power and profit. As we see repeatedly, powerful actors/leaders hoard wealth and profits, rig the game, and use technology to benefit their own enterprises, at the expense of others.  What struggle with power will we have to undertake, to consciously shift towards collaborative and cooperative models of living, rather than exclusionary models based on powerful people hoarding wealth and resources? How do we use social pressure to reign in those who use science as a handmaiden of power to advance their own profits, while violating ecological principles of balance and compassion, and social principles of justice?  These are the questions that will help us survive into the future.

We might have to confront historical and colonial oppression and recognize how power consolidates itself through the use of specific economics and technology.  Every technology is politically situated. Too often we default to technological solutions to address the world’s problems.  But we would have to recognize technology as an instrument of violence against communities.  We ought to examine the underlying models of economic power that have created technology, that benefits some while leaving others behind.  It’s time to deliberate about the relative advantages of technology, rather than to assume that technological fixes will produce what it is we value.

Scientific rationalism and technological innovations are vital tools but, contrary to the aspirational claims of their enthusiastic, are hardly able to replace the complex socio-political negotiations within which they are developed.  Ultimately, technologism and scientific rationality cannot obscure the negotiations of social, political, and moral values and choices that we are constantly bound to wrestle with.

Epilogue: Machine Men! With Machine Minds and Machine Hearts! You Are Not Machines!

The brilliant irony of Charlie Chaplin expresses these ideas better than I ever could. In the film “The Great Dictator” (the  1940 American political satire comedy-drama film that Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, and starred in) he plays a poor Jewish barber who is mistaken for a dictator of a similar appearance.  In the role of the Dictator he gives a speech about rejecting autocratic power, rejecting technocratic control of the human being and rejecting a bleak vision of a militaristic and mechanistic world.  The message is amplified by his brilliant use of contrast and visual irony.  It holds true today.


About ansuseye

Blog writer and photographer
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