Losing humanity and other questions science doesn’t ask

By Joern Fischer

Prompted by a recent visit to the US, I am once again wondering what kind of science we ought to be doing for it to be of use in the sense of creating a better, more sustainable world. A woman in the street yesterday wanted me to (financially) support an anti-bullying campaign. She explained to me all the wrongs of school bullying, as well as the substantial legal costs that needed to be covered to fight it. While her cause was worthwhile the whole interaction left me somewhat befuddled – the insanity of appealing to the good will of a few to fix what is systemically messed up seemed almost unbearably pathetic; and a theme that to me (as an outside observer) seems to run through much of the US in particular. Electric cars, good-natured philanthropists and coffee sleeves made of “85% post-consumer fiber” will not fix the many deep, underlying problems that make the US one of the least sustainable countries in the world. While this situation is particularly apparent in the US, it applies to different extents to virtually all places dominated by Western (consumer) culture: we’ve institutionalized un-sustainability, and de-institutionalising it won’t happen overnight. (Incidentally, to my mind, the “new conservation” that has been talked about so much won’t deliver an ultimate fix to the biodiversity crisis either, though it may buy time.)

Among scientists, my view is unpopular because it suggests that we need deep changes; to many colleagues, such changes sound dreamy and naïve, potentially dangerous, and plain unrealistic. Delivering concrete solutions to concrete problems (via campaigns to pay for legal fees resulting from bullying, via the “new conservation”, or via recycled sleeves on throw-away coffee cups) is just so much more satisfying! Yet, many small steps in the right direction do not amount to anything (unfortunately) if our societal systems as a whole are set up for ever-increasing unsustainability.

My reading of the current science in conservation and sustainability science is that there are colleagues that agree with my assessment; possibly many. However, the most prominent discourses remain firmly controlled by practical and tangible issues, rather than vague but fundamental issues. Invariably then, many pragmatic scientists simply follow suite and do research on “practical” themes put forward by others, without rocking the boat. It gets them published, cited, and after all, holds the promise of being of immediate and tangible, practical use.

For those who, like me, question the extent to which focusing on the concrete, bit by bit, and on its own, will ever lead to the changes we ultimately need, I suggest including the following elements in their research agendas:

  1. Take a holistic perspective. Systems thinking (to a scientist) is one of the more obvious ways of being holistic; and social-ecological systems thinking holds substantial promise for sustainability. So as a first cut, I think researchers interested in not just fiddling around the edges can try to embed their work within a systems perspective – always seeking to cross-check whether specific insights are still relevant if considered in a bigger context. Viewed within such a context, some “neat” research that is elegant from an ecological perspective, for example, might make a lot less sense when considered in the context of social-ecological systems. Different projects are being designed by people who take a somewhat holistic perspective than by people who are interested only in specific questions – personally, I’d like to see more projects embedding the specific within a broader perspective.
  2. Help to shift discourses. While providing tangible solutions to tangible problems is satisfying in the short term, in the long term, one of the most useful things scientists can do is to help shift societal discourses. Take research on biodiversity loss. The dominant discourse here used to be on protected areas, and then shifted to conservation outside protected areas; and most recently shifted towards ecosystem services. Such “big shifts” fundamentally shape how many, many scientists then start to frame and communicate their research (and how governments, NGOs and other actors respond to it). Personally, I believe we need a lot more elements in our discourses that fundamentally challenge the societal structures we have created. Everything we write contributes to the mélange of discourses that is out there, somehow – and it’s up to us, which bit of this mélange we want to strengthen. Science can shift, in big ways, within a decade or so, if only enough people start to recognize the need for a shift. It’s these discourses more so than individual pieces of research that end up being influential – hence, shifting the discourse towards the fundamental challenges we need to face would be a useful contribution.
  3. Embrace the inevitably normative nature of conservation and sustainability. Natural scientists in particular are comfortable with the tangible, objective, and value-neutral. Such knowledge is useful to describe problems, but it’s inadequate to solve them. Just like cancer scientists are allowed to passionately speak out against cancer, sustainability scientists should be allowed to passionately speak out against un-sustainability. We’re not doing ourselves favours by keeping all normative statements to conversations in the pub after work, instead of actually arguing for something in our scientific papers. Note I am not saying we must advocate specific policy positions – but if our analysis shows that certain societal directions are fundamentally unsustainable, and we take sustainability as a guiding principle and societal goal, it follows that we ought to judge such societal directions as “bad” in our papers, and not just in the pub.
  4. Don’t shy away from the deep stuff. A holistic analysis that embraces marginal discourses and normativity will inevitably raise uncomfortable questions – questions that are at the core of what it is to be human, and how we ought to live. All of this requires time to reflect. Erich Fromm noted that being “active” these days had connotations of being busy; when among Greek philosophers being “active” was more akin to quiet contemplation, that is, having an active mind. How active are our minds, really, when we’re caught up in the busy cycles of everyday research life? Here, too, our institutional structures are increasingly keeping us from thinking, feeling and being human. Bringing about external change will only work if we alternate between internal reflection and outward-oriented action: otherwise we run around blindly.

Like many other science fiction movies, the (cute, apocalyptic and ultimately happy-ending) movie Wall-E depicts a humanity that is obese, caught up in superficial entertainment, and controlled by the technology it created. This image is not at all new in science fiction, familiar from writings that criticize capitalism – and yet, many of us are living within this future already. For science to be relevant to sustainability it has to wake up to the full depth at which humanity is losing itself. Only then will we ultimately be able to conserve biodiversity and live sustainably.

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15 thoughts on “Losing humanity and other questions science doesn’t ask

  1. I guess, one problem with what are asking for is that it is not easy to get such research funded. People who have some standing in the research community can afford such “less conventional” kinds of research, but they are often trapped in path dependencies, focused on “fiddling around the edges”, as you put it. Younger researchers (such as myself) find it much more complicated to engage in such research, because you don’t really get appreciation for doing that – not from colleagues, nor from funding institutions. So, while I wholeheartedly embrace your call, I see practical difficulties there.

    • Thanks for your comment. I suppose I agree with you at some level — you are certainly right that being unconventional is largely impossible when it comes to establishing a career and/or chasing money. But I think the bigger issues can remain a beacon in the distance, to aim towards, while we’re doing research on specific issues, and while trying to embed that within something like social-ecological systems thinking — which is not too radical for it not to get funded. I.e. I think the core of much of what many of us do will have to remain at least somewhat pragmatic; but with a view towards holism — and then the deeper questions can follow as we get opportunities.

  2. I am an ardent reader of your posts and I would encourage you to keep up with the good and deep stuffs you share with your readers.

  3. Some very thoughtful ideas in here Joern, thanks. At a research funding workshop I attended earlier this week there was some bar stool criticism of a prominent researcher in my field who was described as “a polemicist” trying to stir up controversy. Whilst I agree, at least in part, I also think that’s quite an admirable position for a scientist to take in many ways, as long as the polemic is backed up by sound science. It’s also brave given that perceptions of scientists can change the likelihood of their research being funded – reviews and reviewers are rarely as objective as they would like to believe.

    One thing you didn’t mention was teaching and the importance of embedding these notions into our lectures and seminars. The research should flow into the syllabus and influence how our students see the world.

    • I guess those deeper things about you write necessitates more intellectual maturation than just being a wery well skilled researcher. These needs certain types reflections. Deeper you go more you may realize how hopeless things may be. Things may look hopeless not only because you may realize how hard is to trigger those kinds of changes in the society we want to see, but you may realize that its extremely difficult to change even yourself. Then you may turn back to the ‘surface’ and try to popularize a tree, a pond or do other things which are tangible. Ultimately these are useful things too, right? (…) Ok, if you emerge in those less palpable levels, and may remain still optimstic, then let me know and I would like to drink a beer with you, or, I would come to you on my knees:) (‘joke’…) – this means you are truly special. Hard things, often its better to float on the surface:)

      • Hi Tibi, indeed, doing the “simple and potentially useful”, happily and cheerfully, while *also* engaging with the deeper issues is perhaps the ultimate achievement of a good scientist! A good vision to live up to, it would seem to me! — J.

    • Hi Jeff, thanks for bringing up the notion of teaching. It’s a tricky one, somehow, because it’s so easy to just “manipulate” students into opinions as a professor. And that surely can’t be the goal. But I agree with you that including discussions about normative elements, and how they fit in, can be extremely useful in classes on conservation and sustainability. — J.

  4. Pingback: Should biodiversity scientists be campaigners and polemicists? | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

  5. There’s quite a bit to chew on here Joern. And I like much of what I think you’re suggesting. But I’m also troubled a bit with some of the ideas – and I wonder if I’m being too sensitive to some of the wording.

    For instance, in the second paragraph you suggest that only deep changes will be successful. Many small steps in the right direction are inadequate. Revolution is the solution. If I’m misinterpreting or exaggerating your meaning, please say so. For me, however, many small steps in the right direction can have the desired effect. It may come back to a time perspective. If one imagines the need for drastic change is so immediate that smaller improvements are inadequate then for me the need should be more apparent. That not everyone is ‘on board’ signals to me that perhaps the crisis is not as close or perhaps not as significant (or, that a convincing case has yet to be made to illustrate “our societal systems as a whole are set up for ever-increasing unsustainability”). I think this is for me more a matter of degree – small steps encourage me.

    As for venues for discourse – I like Jeff’s suggestion of using teaching opportunities to further the conversation. Blogging and other engagements with wider audiences also makes sense to me as a means of making opinions known. But I have reservations about using peer reviewed research papers as a forum for making value statements about what is “bad” (your point 3). Make a hypothesis, test it, communicate the results. Making inferences from the data is appropriate (absolutely necessary). But IMHO you venture too far if you begin to editorialize in a peer reviewed forum. Letters to the editor, conversations at the pub, even political activism if you can achieve this within the freedoms allowed by employers… these seem the right venues for value judgments to be expressed.

    • Hi thanks for your comments. These are some very good responses — and part of the point of blogging is to get a conversation going, so “disagreements” like ours are quite useful to further refine what we think is right or wrong etc.

      So first, the issue of small steps. I think small steps CAN be encouraging. Unfortunately, I think they can also distract us from systemic issues. So yes, taking small steps in the right direction is good, but it’s not good if it distracts us from the overall forces continuing unchallenged in the same (unsustainable) direction. I am not necessarily arguing for a revolution: but I would like us to face reality. Reality is that the systems we are operating in are simply failing *as a whole* — and so systemic change is needed. Minor changes in bits and pieces can be nice along the way, but I am concerned that this distracts us from the more fundamental changes that are needed.

      Second, the issue of communication, and value statements in peer reviewed papers. I think this depends on the papers we write. If you are in straight ecology, for example, it’s appropriate to test hypotheses and move on, much like you say — and leave the rest for other fora. If you are in sustainability or conservation science, however, you are in a field that is inevitably normative. Both fields have goals associated with them, and those are not value-neutral. So in those cases, we make recommendations a lot of the time about things that “ought” to be done (e.g. policy, management, etc). In that kind of context, it makes sense to me to also highlight some of the more fundamental drivers of the problems we write about.

      None of this must ever distract us from doing good, honest science. And not every paper must have normative statements in it, of course, and we need to be careful about what we say in which context and to which audience.

      So I suspect that we disagree not so much, after all — the disclaimers (some of which I have now added here) were missing from the original post.

      Thanks again for engaging! — J.

  6. Looking at my field of expertise – environmental economics -, I do not agree that scientists shy away from holistic or fundamental questions. It seems to me that there are enough approaches beyond “fiddling around the edges”. However, after half a century of fruitless recommendations for respective environmental reforms (and with many of the fundamental questions solved in the meanwhile) I guess it is just natural for scientists to retreat to more pragmatic (and more specific) research questions.

    On top of that: Why should we flail at science when politics are much more obviously to blame? Environmental and social activists running around with charity cans are not sign of scientific navel contemplation but of a government sneaking out of its responsibility to protect nature and ensure equality. This is especially evident in the US where Congress-millionaires applaude at civil society’s soup kitchens while caring for poor and homeless people is actually their own job.

    My impression is that we have enough scientific knowledge and courage to ask uncomfortable questions. What is missing is political will to take uncomfortable action. Science rather might be to blame for formulating politically useless ivory-tower-proposals and neglecting science-policy-interface-issues.

  7. Pingback: Humanities vs Science. 1. Literature & Language – Ecology is not a dirty word

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