Hoptellectual: On the Distinct Privilege of Science in Society

In an article on political ecology, geographers Erick Swynegedouw and Nikolas Heyen radically outline how cities develop (Ed. Note: Sorry, you need to have a subscription to read it). Amongst their criticisms of social inequalities, particularly relating to environmental justice, lie some abject claims about the role of science in the modern world. They write, “For the first time since the beginning of modern science we are having to think morally about a relationship we have assumed was purely instrumental.” In other words: we must question the legitimacy of objective science when using its answers to solve complex problems.

This criticism is completely valid, however, there is also a good response to it: it depends on your level of analysis. Last week, I talked about T.F.H. Allen and his ecological ideas. For Allen, those ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. In a conversation with noted UW limnologist Steve Carpenter—the head of UW’s long-term ecological research project in beautiful Trout Lake—Carpenter stated very plainly that, “[Allen] changed the way we do science.”* What Allen asked of the scientific community, many years ago, is to explicitly define how they look at a certain question (level of analysis), and that we look at the quality of the information gathered rather than structure and objectivity. Science is no longer about finding an ultimate truth, but rather pulling together quality information to provide the most insight. As Allen is famous for saying, “there is no such thing as an observer free observation” (his emphasis, from a number of conversations), so why bother?

Swynegedouw and Heyen call objectivity into question, but in reality, a quality answer can be gleaned from quality information. Allen advocates that our totality of knowledge in science—epistemology—is an ongoing narrative, something the public hasn’t grasped yet. Social scientists have been doing this for years. They tell stories based on data, carefully outlining their methods and the thought process behind drawing certain conclusions. Allen recognized that this process could apply to science as well. Two very smart people will often come to very different conclusions when looking at the same data, and certain disciplines have difficulty obtaining high quality data. This does not mean their insights are disposable, but rather they can be used for different things. Again, modern scientists search not for ultimate truth, rather quality narratives.

Science is a much more plastic process than the public can acknowledge (see Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). Narrative-driven science can help close the gap between the public and science, and I can give one good climate-related example. Many climate skeptics posit that the temperature of the Earth has always wildly fluctuated and we’re merely in the midst of another fluctuation. Of course Earth’s temperatures have changed, however, statements like this ignore the totality of the scientific process, pirating “objective science” to support previously baseless accusation. A statement like this truly neglects the observer in the observation, emphasizes bad data over good data (a conversation for another time) and ultimately takes a reductionist stance on a rather holistic issue. The Earth does not have one singular history, and there’s no singular way of reading it. Instead, we have a story as old as time itself that satisfactorily explains why we’ve reached this certain place and time. To acknowledge anything less is to display no knowledge of the situation at hand, and to undermine the richness and complexity of the complete photograph.

This brings us to privilege and why science still deserves to inform big decisions in modern society. As Allen points out, this post-modern world doesn’t allow science to be objective. Instead, it requires science to take responsibility for the data it collects and ultimately take responsibility for the solutions it provides. Objective answers can solve small problems, but they can’t handle things like environmental justice in urban environments. Those problems require quality information and a scientist who is willing to be held responsible for assembling it.

*=Professor Carpenter was one of the nicest, smartest individuals I ever had the pleasure of talking to at UW. His office looks out on Lake Mendota, and he has earned the honor of working in such a beautiful place.

For more, again, read Allen’s piece of the place and privilege of science in the modern world.

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Filed under Hoptellectual

2 responses to “Hoptellectual: On the Distinct Privilege of Science in Society

  1. Eagerly awaiting Andrew Carpenter’s response to this post.

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