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.