We are not a science-based society

The western world, at least, thinks of itself as a post-Enlightenment world, a world freed from superstition and empowered by reason. People generally believe that modern nations are no longer the slaves and dupes of myth— humanity has long moved beyond the groundless fears, falsehoods and unscientific beliefs that distorted reality and shaped the lives of earlier cultures.

Nowhere has this belief been more strongly entrenched than in our universities. Higher education is nominally all about the development of intellect, reason and our capacity for critical thinking. Academic research, particularly in the biophysical sciences, is among the most formal expressions of the organized rational mind. And there is no scarcity of evidence that sheer reason, critical analysis and formal experimental methods have produced spectacular results across the academic spectrum. Modern societies have made enormous progress against racism and gender bias and for universal human rights; medical science has improved the quality of life and prolonged the lives of billions; technoindustrial society, with its prodigious output of consumer goods is both product and proof of humanity’s scientific mastery of the material world. But for all the achievements of modernity, it is time that we acknowledged an increasingly evident paradox. This may well be the age of science, but this fact has not prevented us from being as myth-bound as any preceding culture.

This paradox is understandable if one appreciates the adaptive advantage that might accrue to myth-making. Consider Colin Grant’s enlightened perception of Myths We Live By not as superstitious lore or fairy tales for the childishly gullible, but rather as socially constructed comprehensive visions “that give shape and direction to life.” Indeed, mythmaking in various forms—think ‘political ideology,’ ‘disciplinary paradigm,’ ‘religious doctrine’—is a universal property of human societies and plays a vital role in every culture including our own. The assertion that ours is a mythfree culture may actually be one of our most important cultural myths!

Myth and the policy process

“Not truth, but error has always been the chief factor in the evolution of nations… The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduce them. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.” Gustave Le Bon

Academic researchers are trained to believe that better data and analyses lead to better environmental decisionmaking. Most grant applications in any area of public policy relevance are at least partially justified on grounds that the results of the proposed study will improve policy development. This seems a reasonable assumption and one that the public can readily appreciate. How often have we heard that the government cannot act yet on some critical ecological problem (biodiversity loss, fisheries collapse, climate change, etc.) because of insufficient data and the need for more research?

Unfortunately, politics is among those domains of human activity least beholden to sound academic research.

First, politics—indeed, social relations of all kinds—is about power, ambition, social status, and personal prestige. Thus, while politicians will readily adopt research that supports their beliefs, many show little affinity for results that challenge their political survival. Indeed, they will readily abandon science that speaks to the long-term public interest, giving way to powerful special interests if to do so helps ensure re-election. Being the best-studied fishery on the planet was not sufficient to save the North Atlantic cod from economically-driven collapse; Alberta’s money machine in the oil-sands and the power of the oil and gas industry have so far made the province invincible to policies to reduce greenhouse gases or protect the land and waters of the boreal region.

Second, politics is ideological and, like other mythic constructs, a political ideology can be a rather ungainly concoction of fact and values, assumptions and illusions. It often gains credence only after frequent repetition and ritualistic affirmation. But while people may come to believe profoundly in a particular political position, ardent belief alone cannot true that position with reality. In these circumstances, we would do well to recall Henry Kissinger’s dictum that “It is not a matter of what is true that counts, but a matter of what is perceived to be true.” In other words, policy action is often propelled more by myth than science.

Contemporary history provides evidence enough for this assertion.  U.S. President George W. Bush is a neoconservative—environmental sceptic, champion of the corporate sector and devotee of economic growth (and also Christian fundamentalist). After less than two months in office, the new President Bush announced that he would abandon a campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide from coal-burning power plants, the US’s largest source of carbon dioxide. He subsequently pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, the first binding international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, the Bush administration has waged a virtual war on the environment by reversing ecologically progressive legislation and enabling industries to log national forests, divert water, and pollute the atmosphere, soils and waterways, even in national parks. He would permit drilling for petroleum in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge; at one point, his administration joined the automobile industry in a lawsuit against California, challenging the state’s authority to set emission standards tougher than those of the federal government.

Governments often take policy decisions that are against their own long-term interest or the interests of their constituents, even though viable alternatives are available and known to the decision-makers.

No one should be surprised that President Bush’s environmental policies have reflected his political philosophy, favouring so-called free enterprise and the economy at the expense of all other values. We should all be disturbed, however, that U.S. science itself is being forced to conform to the same ideological mould. On 14 September 2004, a New York Times editorial charged that “The Bush administration has from time to time found it convenient to distort science to serve political ends. The result is a purposeful confusion of scientific protocols in which ‘sound science’ becomes whatever the administration says it is… this is a tactic to override basic environmental protections in favor of industry.”

Perhaps the most egregious and best-known example was revealed by Dr. James E. Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and among the world’s leading researchers on climate change. In 2005 and 2006, Hansen asserted in the New York Times and the Washington Post that, following orders from the Bush administration, NASA administrators were trying to influence his public statements about the causes of climate change. He claimed that the government was restricting whom he could talk to and editing what he could say. According to Hansen, politicians were rewriting the science: “In my more than three decades in the government, I’ve never witnessed such restrictions on the ability of scientists to communicate with the public.”

U.S. scientists are beginning to fight back. In midFebruary 2008, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) convened a panel in Boston to issue a statement asking Congress to protect scientific integrity. The UCS called on Congress to ensure that the next president does not censor, suppress and falsify important environmental and health research as it claims the Bush Administration has done. Spokesperson Susan Wood, a former director of women’s research at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration insisted that “The next president and Congress must cultivate an environment where reliable scientific advice flows freely.”

Canadians can hardly feel smug about the freedom of government scientists on this side of the border. Indeed, Ottawa seems to be reading from the same manual on environmental governance as the Bush administration. Certainly it asserts notoriously tight central control over information flow and the policy process to ensure minimal interference with corporate interests and the economy. In early February 2008, the national media reported that Environment Canada had for some weeks been formally “muzzling” its scientists. Apparently, all media inquiries must now be routed through Ottawa, where media relations personnel work with scientific staff to ensure that that responses conform to “approved lines.” The reports claim that the policy is blocking effective communication and infuriating the scientists. Gregory Jack, acting Director of Environment Canada’s ministerial and executive services, explains that “there is no change in access in terms of scientists being able to talk.” It’s just that they have to respond in a “quick accurate way that is consistent across Canada.” One is left to assume that “accuracy” and “consistency” in this context are determined by conformity with the pre-approved party lines. It is hardly reassuring when Jack asserts that the policy is designed to bring his department in line with other federal departments. Does Harper’s conservative ideology now prevail over solid research and other alternative perspectives right across government in Canada?

Politicians’ defence of ideology and the status quo against the harsh barbs of reality can have tragic consequences. In The March of Folly, U.S. historian Barbara Tuchman documents how governments, as long as there have been governments, often take policy decisions that are against their own long-term interest or the interests of their constituents, even though viable alternatives are available and known to the decision-makers. Millions have died and whole societies have collapsed as a result. Tuchman argues that sheer “wooden-headedness, the source of self deception… plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions [i.e., ideology] while ignoring any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.” To paraphrase the New York Times, in such circumstances sound science becomes whatever the ruling faction says it is. What constitutes ‘sound science’ is further complicated at the global level by the clashing ideologies of various national governments and the rising influence of self-interested corporate lobbying efforts over governments of all stripes. The result ranges from profound policy error by many countries in such domains as bio-fuels, to quasi-paralysis in others including climate change. In this light, consider the closing words of Sweden’s Tällberg Forum 2007, a hardnosed assessment of the international situation respecting climate change and the global policy transition necessary to achieve sustainability: “Do we know what to do? Probably yes. Will we do it? Probably not.”

The human nature of cognition

Contemporary research in neuroscience and human cognition provides important insights into the power of ideology and, coincidentally, society’s limited progress on the ecological sustainability file. It seems that neurological development is a highly integrated process that is partly genetic (nature) and partly social (nurture). The human brain and all its macro-potentials are genetically fixed but individual experience determines much of the micro-structure.

A fundamental finding of cognitive science is that during early life and maturation, sensory, social and cultural experiences contribute to shaping the individual’s brain structures and synaptic circuitry. Effective socio-environmental influences range from physical contact, through observed social behaviour, to elements of abstract political ideology. The critical point is that, once entrenched, an individual’s neural structures alter his/her subsequent experiences and perceptions. As Yale psychiatry professor Bruce Wexler explains in Brain and Culture, people tend to seek and create experiences that reinforce their pre-established circuitry and to select information from their environment that most closely matches these structures. Conversely, when faced with information that does not agree with their internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret or forget that information.

The new science also suggests that human neural plasticity diminishes with age. (Actually, folk wisdom got there first: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”) There is no penalty for this in a stable environment; indeed, in relatively unvarying circumstances behavioural conservatism may even be rewarded. However, once an individual’s neural structures are well-engrained, significant changes in either the socio-cultural or biophysical environment pose a major adaptive challenge. To re-establish psychological consonance between programmed perceptions and new environmental realities requires that people engage wilfully in the restructuring of their own neural pathways and psychological states. Even when one accepts that such ‘reprogramming’ is necessary, the process can be lengthy, difficult and unpredictable.

This emerging understanding of cognitive development provides an explanation for ideological intransigence even as the ecological crisis unfolds. Human reasoning power is compromised when new data conflict with critical elements of an individual’s established personality, identity, social status or paradigmatic expectations. This helps explain why both politicians and ordinary people may readily accept science that reinforces existing policy and life-styles but reject data and analysis that requires altering course (think ‘climate change’). The latter tendency will be compounded if the leader must remain loyal to vested interests and political allies to ensure his/her own political survival. In short, ignoring or misusing science in environmental policy is all but inevitable—short-term limbic and brain-stem defences are not easily swayed by long-term logic, rational assessments, or moral and ethical arguments. Little wonder that forty years on, most symptoms of the gathering global ecological crisis are steadily worsening.

Epilogue—sustainability and higher education

“…[the depletion and pollution of the planet] is not the work of ignorant people. Rather it is largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs and PhDs” (David Orr).

Environmental educator David Orr asserts that higher education presently contributes to the destruction of the planet because it both embodies the growth-oriented techno-social paradigm and helps to reproduce it. Certainly the modern curriculum, particularly in the applied and social sciences still mainly reflects a set of (often unstated) core values that serve to set humanity against nature and ultimately against itself. Consider the following suspects: anthropocentrism, humansas-masters-of-nature (or the feminists’ extension, the dominance of white males over women, children, other races, and nature) atomism, reductionism, mechanism, materialism and utilitarianism. These are the values that underpin contemporary techno-industrial society with its emphasis on material wealth and economic growth through competitive market mechanics and techno-efficiency. Society’s emphasis on monetary value ensures that the majority of research funds goes to those disciplines that produce patentable goods and licensable services privileged by the marketplace. Disciplines and knowledge that have less commodity value—but possibly higher contemporary survival value— struggle to stay afloat. Some universities even seem to see their role more in terms of producing employable ‘products’ for the increasingly competitive global economy than in creating better, more intellectually aware world citizens. Perhaps Orr has a point that higher education currently impedes sustainable development.

The lesson for education is obvious. Schools, colleges and universities should be engaged in a deliberate process of reinventing themselves and, in the process, helping to reinvent society. If our prevailing cultural myth has become maladaptive, we should be engaged in constructing another, one whose derivative political philosophies will better map to biophysical reality. Physiologist Jared Diamond’s Collapse shows that societies that avoid the environmental abyss are culturally nimble societies, those that discard failing core values and radically transform themselves for survival. The outstanding question is: In today’s strife-torn world, will cooperative intelligence and enlightened self-interest be able to create the behavioural templates necessary for sustainability and override the darker shades in the spectrum of human behaviour that would frustrate the effort?

We’ll never know unless we let the paradigmatic revolution begin. AM

William Rees is a professor in the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia, a member of the Royal Society of Canada, and an internationally recognized scholar of human ecology and ecological economics