I’m on very shaky ground with this topic. It’s not my specialism, its controversial and the definitions and debates shift all the time. But it’s important and interesting so I’m going to have a go. There’s been a lot of chat lately about the value of both culture and science. One bit of chat is this week’s daily dose of Melvyn Bragg, examining The Value of Culture. He covered the science/arts divide this morning with Simon Schaffer and others. The other bit of chat was Tom Chivers in the Telegraph on ‘Knowing about science is not a trivial pursuit’.
Let’s start here: Tom Chivers argues that you should be ashamed not to know scientific facts, but he conflates scientific knowledge with scientific progress. He says “Scientific progress is keeping you alive: we literally wouldn’t be able to feed the world if it weren’t for the 1960s Green Revolution in agricultural science.” For him this is ‘literally’ a scientific fact, but it is highly contentious. For example, Vandana Shiva cites research to say that diverse permaculture is much more efficient. Or, some might argue that the world would not be so overpopulated and stressed if our food production system wasn’t so artificial.
Whenever science is promoted over other domains such as philosophy or art, the examples given to demonstrate its value are usually more about technology fuelling the growth economy than they are about the value of enquiry. In the same way, those in the cultural sector tend to advocate culture’s value to politicians with evidence that it grows the economy.
Because I’m Green I’m regularly accused of being anti-science. Being anti-science is the most often cited reason by my network that they won’t support Greens. I love discovering about the world, I love knowledge and I think the scientific method is utterly essential. However, I don’t love the aggressive tactics of the pro-science camp. Professor Brian Cox regularly calls people ‘nobbers’ who are interested in the paranormal or alternative medicine, which I find an offensive term. I can tolerate rudeness though. Worse is when those who promote evidence and thoughtfulness fail to examine evidence or think. Failures to think seem to occur most often when there is undue influence of industrial lobbyists.
As Sunny Hundal said here, in relation to an attack on the Green Party for Jenny Jones’ support of an anti-GM food protest, “The divide is not between ‘pro-science’ and ‘anti-science’ political parties at all. Rather, politicians and parties will always side with science when it suits their constituency or aligns with their interests.”
Peter Melchett, in this article, exposes the ‘sins against science’ of the pro-GM lobby. I’m not going to repeat them all here as you should read his article. He says “This characterisation of those opposed to GM as being anti-science has always ignored the fact that the NGOs concerned, like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association, are staunch supporters of science, have scientists working for them, and run campaigns to combat problems which were only identifiable through scientific investigation, like the depletion of the ozone layer and climate change. People opposed to GM, including farmers and environmentalists, often have professional or scientific qualifications, and are well versed in the scientific disciplines that affect agriculture. This has not stopped supporters of GM crops dismissing all of these people as irrational, emotional, anti-science zealots.”
A while ago, I tweeted a tentative question: what if all study could be called science, to embrace the arts and humanities? I meant that science could be seen as enquiry into everything, using metaphorical and emotional methods as well as logical. Nobody agreed with me and some greatly disagreed, saying that the arts and humanities could only be protected by being distinct from science. I wasn’t making a polemical point but was posing a naive question to try to grasp at my own thoughts. I’m not sure that merging everything into a mush is a good idea and I wasn’t suggesting that. Bruno Latour’s proposal of modes of existence could be a helpful route. He explains how we’ve separated domains of study or work as if they are discrete worlds, in tandem with our separation from nature. Instead he proposes that different domains such as law, ecology or science are different modes of existence, distinguishable but very intimately connected.
Those who defend arts, humanity and spirituality against taint by science are reacting in such a way because science has become so tainted by its over-association with exploitative and ecocidal technology. Felipe Fernandes-Armesto in his book Civilisations writes “History is a humane pursuit, rather than a ‘scientific’ one, in the conventional sense, because the past is not present to our senses: we can only know other people’s impressions and perceptions of it.” Thus, science is empirical enquiry, based on what can be observed materially. But he goes on to say “Yet people are part of the awesome continuum of nature and you cannot encounter them except in the tangle of their environments and the nature of the ecosystems of which they form part.” For me, this tangle is just as much about science, if not more, than the establishment of firm evidence.
Richard Feynman in this animation explains why he, as a scientist, can appreciate the beauty of a flower as much as, if not more than, an artist can. Tom Chivers uses this example to suggest that those who don’t know all the science behind a flower only see it as a “pretty little ornament”. But who is to say that the artist seeing beauty isn’t unravelling complex thoughts about the historical associations or formal aesthetics of the flower, amongst many possibilities? Beauty in an artist’s eyes is not just ornamental. I think Feynman in promoting science is describing what a good artist does, either in looking at the world or remaking it. Artists enquire into the many levels and dimensions of the world, which is what Feynman does with the flower. Scientists don’t always do that in their studies – when they’re not open-ended or ecological enough in their enquiries. The same with artists.
What I’m getting at is that the missing link in all these debates is ecology. This lack renders the debates less meaningful and polarised than they could be. I suspect that if an ecological epistemology was more rooted in our discourses there would be less antagonism between ‘the two cultures’. Indeed, there would not be two cultures but a range of diverse specialists collaborating, using both creativity and enquiry, both empathy and objectivity, to solve problems.