Monday, April 09, 2018

March for (Not Just Any) Science

Earth From Space, collage, Alyce Santoro, 2017

When the public sector is at the service of the private sector, the economic interests of the few are bound to trump the needs of the many. In places throughout the world – regardless of political framework – Earth’s inherent elements have been utilized by humans[1] in ways that are gravely shortsighted.

Indeed, it is now amply evident that practices that have prevailed around the globe for eons have caused cumulative harm, putting at risk the continued viability of all life on Earth. While it could be argued that many humans are complicit by (wildly varying) degrees, dependence on current systems is often by carefully orchestrated design; continued concentration of wealth and power depends upon it.

While we can speculate on the extent to which figures throughout history have been aware of the damage they were wreaking, specific examples of full awareness can now be easily sited. Of one thing we can be certain: on the path to domination, awareness, however acute, could always been justified away through dehumanization and abstraction of those and that which require oppression, exploitation, and extraction.

Given overwhelming current data, it is impossible for anyone acting today to not know.

#ExxonKnew #ShellKnew #AlexanderVonHumboltKnew #BuckminsterFullerKnew #RachelCarsonKnew #TrumpKnows, #EverybodyKnows

“…we can make all of humanity successful through science's world-engulfing industrial evolution provided that we are not so foolish as to continue to exhaust in a split second of astronomical history the orderly energy savings of billions of years' energy conservation aboard our Spaceship Earth. These energy savings have been put into our Spaceship's life-regeneration-guaranteeing bank account for use only in self-starter functions.” – Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, 1968

“The most alarming of all man's assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible. In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world – the very nature of its life.” – Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962

“By felling the trees which cover the tops and sides of mountains, men in all climates seem to bring upon future generations two calamities at once; want of fuel and a scarcity of water.” — Alexander von Humboldt, Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America: During the Years 1799-1804

In the interest of keeping the wheels of progress greased, theses voices and those of many others who espoused similar sentiments have been meticulously avoided, shunned, and marginalized.

Not knowing is no longer a valid excuse (if it ever was).

Coal mining, alternating current, fast food, commercial airline travel, plastics, factory farming, nuclear power, the atomic bomb, the internal combustion engine, vaccines, antibiotics, Agent Orange, hydraulic fracturing, petrochemical agriculture, weapons systems, rockets to Mars. Are these technologies good, evil…or some of each? While we may at least be able to agree that scientists (people with specialized expertise, interests, and expectations) used science (a system designed to remove bias to the greatest extent possible) to create these technologies, science cannot tell us whether its products are ultimately constructive or harmful or how, when, and whether to use them. Science and its revered “objective” method do not contain ethical components. It is the people practicing science who are now, and who have always been, responsible for determining what research questions are appropriate and worthy of exploration. What is considered conscionable may change over time. The debate about what forms of research are moral and just must be an earnest, ongoing, and inclusive one.

There is not now and there has never been any legitimate question as to whether science as a tool for gathering knowledge is necessary and important. In light of recent data (produced by science) and our growing awareness of the direness of current circumstances, science as an instrument can and will be vital in crafting solutions to problems that science itself, when wielded with a lack of emphasis on possible consequences, had a hand in creating.

Said another way: if we are using science to further our “progress”, and our definition of progress is problematic, science as a vehicle is bound to deliver us to an undesirable destination (case in point: Earth’s biosphere circa 2018).

As we gather to march for science, this can be an opportunity to become clear on our collective definition of progress and unified in our vision of the kind of science (humanitarian, ecologically sound, and just? Or devoted to profit over people and planet?) we are marching for.

Whether and when “science” is revered or reviled and by whom has everything to do with that entity’s interests (self or otherwise). If those interests are primarily economic, then any science that hinders financial gain (i.e.: anthropogenic greenhouse warming; sea level rise; water, soil, and air contamination by toxic effluent, etc.) will be vigorously opposed. At the same time, any science that furthers the entity’s agenda (i.e.: fracking, offshore drilling, weapons development, etc.) will be embraced, promoted…and well-funded.

In the case of the current administration and its advocates: it is not science per se that is being attacked; rather, these groups seek to quell any challenge to the top-down social and economic paradigms upon which their radically self-serving agendas depend. 

As scientists, we can take into consideration the impact of our efforts, and ask ourselves to what extent our skills and resources are being devoted to humane outcomes. We can, like Buckminster Fuller, imagine what an anticipatory design science would look like.

As concerned citizens and advocates, we can be discerning about the kinds of science we defend.

Richard Levins, geneticist/ecologist and prominent member of Science for the People, suggested the following rule of thumb, “…all theories are wrong which promote, justify, or tolerate injustice. The wrongness may be in the data, its interpretation, or application, but if we search for that wrongness, we will also be led to truth.”

May our shared love for science and the world it examines lead us to truth.

[1] The Anthropocene is being proposed by some scientists and philosophers as a term to define the current geological epoch. While the word accurately identifies humans as profound influencers of our planet’s biogeophysical systems, it must be constantly stressed that not all humans are equally complicit.