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The Environmental Consequences of Religious Scientism

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"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." --Albert Einstein

In my previous blog I introduced the problem of scientism -- the religious-like belief that science is necessarily the best or only valid approach to learning more about the physical world and solving applied problems. Here I address some of the comments to that blog by discussing the negative consequences of scientism in agriculture and environmental conservation. I conclude by offering a few "nonscientific" alternatives for situations in which a formal scientific methodology may not be the most appropriate and effective approach.

Scientism in Agriculture

More than 70 years ago, Sir Albert Howard foresaw many of the problems that would result from the over-zealous application of science to the vast biological and social complexities of agroecosystems. As summarized by Michael Pollan in "The Omnivore's Dilemma," Howard argued that ''the problem is that once science has reduced a complex phenomenon to a couple of variables, however important they may be, the natural tendency is to overlook everything else, to assume that what you can measure is all there is, or at least all that really matters.''

While many often cite the "miracle of modern food production" as a prime example of the indispensable benefits of a scientific approach, a more holistic analysis reveals the many unintended horrors that have accompanied the undeniably impressive accomplishments of science-based agriculture. For example, the same science that delivered ever-increasing agricultural yields has also delivered ever-increasing malnutrition, social inequities, population explosions and environmental disasters. Indeed, some scholars believe the invention of agriculture in general and the modern industrialized agricultural sciences in particular have been the ''worst mistake in the history of the human race.''

At present, a few multinational corporate giants control an ever-increasing majority of our food production and distribution systems. Often under the guise of ''scientific progress,'' these corporations continue to replace small, diversified, highly productive, ecologically sustainable, locally controlled, indigenous agricultural systems (developed in the absence of western science) with ever larger, genetically engineered monocultures that displace the local human community, require many calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food, and contaminate the land and water with synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Can ever-more sophisticated and powerful science get us out of this mess?

Scientism in Environmental Conservation

When I first started working as a research ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, I thought that my rigorous, "objective" data would ultimately help resolve issues such as how best to control noxious alien species and save endangered native species. But after repeatedly failing to help resolve anything with this science, I came to two conclusions: 1) The combination of the heterogeneity of nature and real-world human complexities of doing conservation often severely limit the practical relevance of conventional science (see my "Science-driven restoration: A square grid on a round earth?" paper for more on this) and 2) many conservation conflicts are in reality largely political disputes. The general difficulty of trying to use science to resolve political controversies was eloquently summarized in an article published, ironically enough, in American Scientist:

Scientific inquiry is inherently unsuitable for helping to resolve political disputes. Even when a disagreement seems to be amenable to technical analysis, the nature of science itself usually acts to inflame rather than quench the debate ... Science seeks to come to grips with the richness and complexity of nature through numerous disciplinary approaches, each of which gives factual, yet always incomplete, views of reality ... "More research" is often prescribed as the antidote, but new results quite often reveal previously unknown complexities, increasing the sense of uncertainty and highlighting the differences between competing perspectives. --Daniel Sarewitz

Yet, many well-intentioned people believe that ever-more science is the key to both improving our understanding of today's pressing environmental problems and designing effective solutions to solve them. Consequently, we continue to forge ahead with more research instead of, or even at the expense of, urgently needed conservation actions. To take just one notorious example, much of the hundreds of millions of dollars specifically earmarked for the restoration of Alaska's Prince William Sound following 1989's devastating oil spill was ultimately usurped by an ever-expanding scientific ''cottage industry'' while local concerns were pushed aside. Now I fear we are poised to repeat these mistakes in response to last year's BP oil spill.

Alternatives to a Science-Driven Approach

Even a cursory review of the history and development of any branch of science will reveal how quickly implicitly accepted "truths" may change over time. Thus one of the first things we can do to avoid the scientism trap is to simply acknowledge that our present scientific knowledge and methodologies are subjective and ephemeral products of our era and our culture. This can also help us avoid the arrogance and hubris that too often have characterized scientists and science-worshippers, and adopt a more humble, open-minded, inclusive disposition.

Here are two additional suggestions for alternative approaches that may in certain situations replace or at least complement a formal scientific methodology:

1. Consider the perspectives and methodologies of other cultures. Because the paradigm of western science is so pervasive in the United States, it is easy to forget that this approach is both a fairly recent historical development and that many other cultures have and continue to effectively learn about the world and solve their problems in "nonscientific" ways. For example, I believe that by viewing the issue of world hunger through the lens of local and indigenous peoples, the Food First Institute has developed a far better understanding of the causes of and solutions to this problem than conventional agricultural scientists and science-based organizations.

2. Value experiential knowledge and intuition. Scientism has led many of us to ignore or discount the kinds of more holistic knowledge, insights and practical skills that can develop from prolonged first-hand experience. For instance, I have found that some "uneducated" people who have spent their lives living and working on the land have developed an intuitive understanding of ecology and conservation that is far more nuanced and practically valuable than the more academic, scientific knowledge acquired by Ph.D. ecologists such as myself.

Despite my continuing love of science and conservation (I have spent most of my life studying, teaching and doing them), I have concluded that a more holistic, hybrid approach to environmental problems is often more effective than a more formal scientific methodology. I call this more informal paradigm "intelligent tinkering" after a famous phrase written by the pioneering ecologist, conservationist and environmental philosopher Aldo Leopold. Leopold similarly believed there was a large gap between the complexity of the "land organism" and the ability of conventional science by itself to comprehend this complexity. More than 70 years ago, he thus called for a "reversal of specialization" to counteract science's tendency to learn "more and more about less and less." He also urged his colleagues to follow his lead by ignoring the "senseless barrier between science and art" and directly incorporating their personal experiences, intuitions, aesthetics, emotions and other unscientific aspects into their work.

As I illustrate throughout my forthcoming book, this perspective of and approach to conservation in particular and applied environmental problems in general is at least as important and relevant today as it was during Leopold's time.

Around the Web

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