Back to the truth: when there’s nothing new to say

By Joern Fischer

I have to admit I’m pretty tired of science right now. Back in 2012, I led a paper that essentially said “we have enough science, it’s time to do something”. And perhaps not surprisingly… that’s still the case. Frankly, science can get tiring when there is nothing new to say.

There are of course scientists who are simply so excited to find new ways of thinking about the world, or new aspects that are as yet not well understood that they will keep going, and going, and going. I applaud those people driven by endless curiosity – they are the “real scientists”, and it’s wonderful that we have them. But I guess in conservation and sustainability, there are many other scientists, too, who have a hope that their work is somehow of use. And those can get pretty disillusioned when there’s nothing fundamentally new to be said – when it’s just the same old stories, re-hashed over and over, telling different versions of the same overall plot, namely that the world as we know it, is falling apart.

If science is to be useful, rather than just “new”, what does it have to look like?

Sometimes, it feels we’re in an endless science factory of generating ever more nuanced knowledge when frankly, it’s not a lack of knowledge that is keeping us from creating a healthier world. Most of the insights important for biodiversity conservation are many, many decades old – bigger patches still have more species than small ones, species have their bioclimatic niches, intensive agriculture leads to simplified landscapes and those have fewer species, chemicals harm the environment, etc etc etc … frankly, the kind of understanding we need to actually understand, in general terms, our environmental crisis is at a basic undergraduate level. The rest is simply different types of exciting little turrets that academics stick onto their conceptual castles because … well, because they like turrets.

And so we talk about this turret and that one, is my turret better than yours, and we talk and publish and write and (over-)work … while Rome is burning.

What do we do, as scientists, when there is simply nothing new to say, nothing more to do than construct ever more refined turrets? What do we do when entire groups of peers, and funding bodies, deeply believe in turret construction as a way of making an academic living? What do we do when disillusionment hits us, telling us that science is largely just the addition of turrets to a very well founded understanding already constructed? – If it’s not a lack of turrets that is causing the world’s problems, what then is it? And what is science, in that context?

One answer is that science is simply part of learning some aspects of truth (those knowable via science, i.e. possibly just a small fraction of truth at large). So when there is nothing new to say, I suggest we simply go back to the truth, at a foundational level, rather than building more turrets. Large patches have more patches than small ones, for example – it’s still true, and it’s extremely useful to know at a time when we’re losing species dozens of times faster than in prehistoric times. The Global North is exploiting the Global South – also still true, and also still useful to know. Climate catastrophe is on its way – still true, too, and useful to hear. These truths are unexciting to scientists, they tell us nothing new. But they matter.

As scientists, we communicate an understanding of the world, in various formats. Along with other people who speak to large audiences – such as artists, teachers, politicians or clergymen – we thus have the opportunity to share truth. The importance of a given truth, I’d argue, is not measured by how new it is, but how necessary it is to be heard, at a given time.

And so … when there’s nothing fundamentally new to say, I suggest we simply accept that this is how it is. And we can simply repeat those aspects of scientific truth that are most urgently needed at the time. Is that still science then, when we’re not primarily putting ourselves at the service of novelty? Perhaps to some it’s not. But at least it’s useful. Perhaps it can be more fruitful to state simple truths a million times over instead of going along with the illusion that more turrets of truth are needed before we can actually transform our world.

14 thoughts on “Back to the truth: when there’s nothing new to say

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on how little we are probably still in need of knowing more facts in order to act. I understand sustainability science as a field in which we generate knowledge about how to act wisely, facing that our decreasing range of options limits the number of trials we may run in the future. For this, we ask how to share our understandings and how to respect and navigate that humans have different goals, different values and different types of knowledges. Thus, for me, science is evolving our capabilites to adapt through knowledge.

    • Thanks … indeed, science at its best can be precisely what you said. Science at its worst negates other understandings and worldviews, even within science… so perhaps a good question — given your comment — is what we can each do to ensure science is at its best!

      • … and as the word suggests, as researchers we are also re-searching ways to improve – sometimes the knowledge isn´t new, but a new combination of a technique or an information may, eventually, lever changes in society. Moreover, the knowledge in itself is worthless without the brokers that disseminate these findings, and use it to create something different. As Malcolm Gladwell cites in his book “The Tipping Point”, it matters who conveys the knowledge and how – the same information can be perceived completely different according to the setting and the sender of that information. Being conscious of these accompanying conditions might also help us to use to strive for meaningful re-search.

  2. Thanks for this thought-provoking post!

    I think it is a bit too simplistic to say that science is just “adding turrets to a very well founded understanding”.

    First, there are some big ecological questions that still remain largely unanswered, or that have very complex answers. Examples: What drives variation of biodiversity across spatial scales? How will climate change affect biodiversity? What are the actual extinction rates (I disagree with the notion that we already know that very well)? How does habitat replacement (as opposed to loss) affect biodiversity? How do biodiversity-ecosystem services (BEF) relationships work out over large global scales? How much natural variation in community composition is due to environment vs stochastic processes? These are not just turrets, these are the foundations.

    Second, history teaches us that even firmly established paradigms can fall apart. Take the example of Copernican revolution — before Copernicus everyone took it absolutely for granted that the Earth is the center of the universe. There are countless examples like this, countless downfalls of firmly established beliefs and paradigms that just seemed plain obvious. I think that this is another reason for not taking current science for granted, and to have scientists who constantly examine and question the foundations.

    Finally, I would be careful with stating that “science at its worst negates other understandings and worldviews”, as you write in your comment. Things like criticism, falsification, and skepticism actually make science good. Some understandings and worldviews are simply wrong (e.g. the understanding that Earth is at the center of the universe), and need to be negated, if such negation is based on reason and evidence.

    But I do agree that for some big problems we already have enough science to act with confidence. I just wouldn’t generalize this notion to everything. Some big problems are still unsolved.

    • Thanks Petr… I agree in particular with your point 3 — some stuff is simply “wrong” and thus ought to be challenged. And I also agree with point 2, that paradigm change is possible and in fact, quite possibly necessary in many domains. So to the extent that science helps us with this, yes, it’s very good, and I agree with you. I agree a little less on point 1 — but of course what are the most important questions is also a bit subjective. And ultimately it’s good that we’re not all working on the same questions … that would be boring as well as useless! Thanks for your engagement with this post!

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  5. Great post! I think about this question in two ways. First, making changes against inertia and vested interests takes time and a great weight of evidence. Two papers are better than one, three are better than two. Partly this is inherent in the progress of science itself – paradigms are rarely shifted by a single discovery, they’re shifted by an accumulation of evidence.

    Second, I’m not upset that my job doesn’t develop new science that could save the lives of children stricken by cancer. That’s not my field – it’s better that I focus my attention on the awful reality of biodiversity conservation, and let someone else worry about cancer research. Similarly, my job as a conservation research scientist isn’t to translate scientific findings into policy, nor to undertake those actions on the ground. We’re all cogs in a machine that’s much larger than us. Other roles fall to other people, and deciding when and how to act isn’t necessarily the limited job I have been allotted.

    • Thanks Michael, I appreciate your thoughts on this! I agree with you that a certain level of “professional humility” is in order … not everyone can or should do everything. Doing “our” bit well, however, is really important, because nobody else will do it! Plus, of course, linking with others is also useful … cheers! — Joern

    • “Other roles fall to other people, and deciding when and how to act isn’t necessarily the limited job I have been allotted.”

      I pretty strongly disagree with the abstract notion of “it falls to other people to actually do the changes necessary.” For one thing, it is not clear that such “other people” exist in sufficient quantities (e.g. the under-emphasis of “translational research”, a challenge taken up by the Luc Hoffman Institute amongst others: https://luchoffmanninstitute.org/about/). It is my feeling that many conservation biologists assume into existence sufficient “other people,” and don’t ask themselves whether (a) there are truly enough such “others”, and (b) if there aren’t, whether their values or beliefs should compel them to act to join/become such an “other”. After all, it seems to me that if deliberation or research indicated that the outcomes we want to see in the world can’t or won’t be accomplished without more direct involvement from more of us–researchers included/especially–then being a reasonable scientist should compel us to follow the implications of such research or deliberation and change our roles accordingly. Now, it is possible that such research or deliberation might *not* point to a need for more scientists to shift their roles, but I would like more of us to be asking the question and earnestly searching to answer it.

      There is also plenty of specific analysis & evidence around the most effective ways for science to “become” (or inform) policy; Paul Cairney is tops on this in my opinion (see “The Main Argument” here: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/ebpm/).

      Lastly, I strongly agree with Nelson & Vucetich’s analysis of the larger question of being an “advocate” (which one may or may not see as distinct from taking on new/different roles as scientists): ““All citizens have a moral obligation to actively promote in their society that which they are justified in thinking is right or good and to actively oppose that which they are justified in thinking is wrong or bad. Consequently every scientist has an obligation to be a just and transparently honest advocate. . . When scientists reject advocacy as a principle, they reject a fundamental aspect of their citizenship. Rejecting one’s responsibility as a citizen is unethical” (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/24444052_On_Advocacy_by_Environmental_Scientists_What_Whether_Why_and_How).

      To be clear, I’m not critiquing just to critique. I earnestly believe that the type of specialization that some scientists advocate for is untenable in terms of aligning with our professed goals and beliefs and with other ethical imperatives. I think we have to challenge ourselves to move from our established/comfortable/assumed roles and take on new ones; nothing less than shifting our lifestyles in multiple and not always comfortable or agreeable ways, which is what many of us maintain will be necessary for numerous other people on earth in order to improve the chances at conserving biodiversity and improving human well-being. Cutting our consumption and travel other personal-private choices is one thing; but just as our politicians, our workers in extractive industry, our farmers, and more are going to have to make more significant changes to their lifestyles (and beliefs) in order to make progress, I believe we need to consider just as serious challenges to our ideas of how science “works” and how change may (or may not) happen.

    • That said, there is much to agree with too! More papers are better than fewer–that is in fact one key part of many policy/societal-change processes–which points again to an importance for caring less about “novelty” per se in science & science publications! If our goal is to build up good evidence, non-novel papers are (arguably) better, or at least as good, when they strengthen the evidence. The replication crisis/debate has really brought into relief how poor our current models are at encouraging replication, yet we hold it up as a key element of the scientific process. Rather than having to jump through hoops to show novelty when one merely repeats another study, we should accept the importance of close replications, and correspondingly accept papers that conduct such replications.

      And reflexive humility is, always, deeply important.

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