Science is Dead!

 In Climate Change
Photo by Nathalie Monecke

Throughout human history, people have made statements reflecting the Zeitgeist of the times. Indeed, we can trace the rise and fall of civilisations, and the ebb and flow of ideas and beliefs, by analysing what people have said at particular points in time. One statement that caused quite a stir in the nineteenth century was Nietzsche’s proclamation that ‘God is dead!’ Nietzsche did not mean that the omnipotent Christian God had passed away; rather, he was commenting on the fact that God could no longer be relied upon to provide meaning in a rather unruly world; that job was largely up to us – the so-called ‘clever beasts’ who invented knowing.

One assumes that Nietzsche was searching for truth and objectivity and he was not on his own in this regard. Whilst he was using his metaphysical lens to give some meaning to the world, scientists turned to the physical and life sciences. The main difference between Nietzsche and the scientists was that he was prepared to speak out and to make some pretty definitive statements whereas many of the scientists were silent. Despite the fact that they had knowledge, they did not feel it was their role to comment on societal ills.

This situation continues today. Scientists who have knowledge that could save us – at least prevent humans from destroying the biophysical systems that make life on Earth possible – are valuing their impartiality and objectivity above the needs of society and nature. Scientific objectivity depends on scientists being observers of events and not commentators on events. I believe this is a major problem. Whether or not you agree with Nietzsche’s declaration is not important; the fact is, he was prepared to speak out in a way that forced people to think about their place in the universe and I believe scientists must do the same.

Unless scientists can become activists, and not mere observers, then I fear that ‘science is dead!’ I believe that unless something quite radical changes in the way scientists engage with society, then science is at risk of becoming irrelevant. Whilst we invest a huge amount of time and energy in understanding the way things work, including Earth, we seem incapable of turning this knowledge into action that could solve some of the world’s most intractable problems. I think some of the blame for this lies with scientists and their observer status, resulting in a lack of willingness to inject a sense of urgency into debates around issues such as climate change and other global environmental threats. Of course, we must also overcome apathy and greed that is found within the public and private sectors, but that’s another story.

Before the scientists throw up their arms in horror at my heretical statements and rail against my arrogance and stupidity, let me qualify what I mean. I believe that science which does not lead to an end point, i.e. science without a purpose that benefits society, is ‘dead’. It is no longer relevant in a world where industrial civilisation is facing collapse.

Let me explain what I mean by ‘mere observation’. I have been at a number of scientific meetings over the last few months where scientists have spoken, without passion, about the state of our world. I have sat and listened to monotone voices describe issues such as climate change; ocean acidification; biodiversity loss; pollution of the skies, waterways and oceans; soil erosion; unchecked urbanisation and population growth. In nearly all cases there has been no rallying cry for action – just description based on observation.

Having said that, Sir John Beddington, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, did find the courage to speak out about the threats facing the world. A few years ago he used rousing language to describe a ‘Perfect Storm’ facing humanity – a situation where, in 2030:

  • The world’s population will have risen from 6bn to 8bn – a 33% rise;
  • Demand for food will have increased by 50%;
  • Demand for water will have increased by at least 30%; and
  • Demand for energy will have increased by 50%.

Based on these predictions, the future does look somewhat bleak. Never before, has society needed the knowledge of scientists more than it does today.

This is particularly true in light of some of the statements that the IPCC has issued following the release of its most recent report. The report warns that the impacts of global warming are likely to be “severe, pervasive and irreversible” suggesting that we need to do something about the threat. Interestingly, according to the BBC, the report’s Chair Dr. Chris Field, is “worried that an apocalyptic tone will frighten politicians so much that they’ll abandon the Earth to its fate.” I would argue to the contrary, and suggest that politicians, the business community and the public alike may actually breathe a sigh of relief that they finally have something tangible to work with. Up until relatively recently all we have had from the scientific community were fairly bland warnings about the possible impacts of climate change. Thanks to this latest report, we finally have some definitive statements that may encourage people to change their behaviour. I would argue that the problem to date is that warnings about climate change have been voiced by those that many people do not really trust – politicians, NGOs with a political agenda, and individuals with an axe to grind. We need scientists to tell us what is going on but many are still unwilling to speak out. Why?

When I asked the scientists who describe the environmental catastrophes facing the world why, if they have some idea of what the future could look like, they are not on the streets protesting, they told me that their role is to observe, not to campaign. Now, forgive me for being blunt but I think this is morally reprehensible and a bit of a cop out. Society needs passionate scientists who are prepared to shout their findings at a lackadaisical government, public and corporate sector and, in so doing, support change. If people with knowledge are not prepared to speak out then what hope have we? The meek will not inherit the Earth but will be compliant in its destruction – of course, merely as observers!

The time for observation is over. Scientists who ‘understand’ the way Earth works have a moral obligation to speak out and, in so doing, help society change aspects of collective human behaviour that could see the demise of many species that share this fragile planet. If scientists do not speak out, then future generations will hold some of them accountable for being complicit in the destruction of nature. I am not suggesting that scientists cut corners or lie, nor that they use their research findings in ways that will call into question their integrity. What I am saying is that scientists have a moral responsibility to help society deal with problems it is creating.

Let us be thankful to those scientists who have spoken out and continue to do so. Without Stephen Schneider and James Hansen the public would still be wondering if climate change was really a threat. Without Vandana Shiva we would have been hoodwinked into believing that genetically modified organisms were the answer to world hunger. Without Rachel Carson we would have been waking to ‘silent springs’. Without E. O. Wilson we would probably never have realised how dependent we are on nature.

Is it not time for the meek to change the world?

Mike Edwards

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