October 23, 2017

Scientific myopia

The only sensible reaction to the Blueprint for Survival and the Limits to Growth is that their conclusions are obvious—painfully obvious. Anyone with average intelligence must realise that the world’s population cannot increase indefinitely, that one cannot produce an infinite amount of food from a finite amount of land, that there must be a limit to the availability of fuel and mineral resources, and that we cannot expect the delicate fabric of our environment to go on absorbing ever increasing quantities of toxic wastes. In other words, present trends simply cannot be maintained, and unfortunately these trends are part and parcel of progress to which our entire society is geared.

From these considerations, it is surely not unreasonable to conclude that “progress”, as we conceive it, is not the right goal for society, and that it must rapidly be harnessed to a different goal—one that is achievable without totally destroying the ecosphere of which we are an inextricable part.

Why is it then that erudite and influential people like John Maddox, Barry Commoner and Kenneth Mellanby, refuse to face these obvious facts? Why have most scientists been so slow in accepting them? Why is it also that they have failed so dismally to predict the sort of problems that it should have been quite evident we would have to face, if our society were allowed to proceed for so long in so lunatic a direction at such breakneck speed?

This is all the more puzzling when we consider that the only possible goal of science is to organise information so as to predict change in the world around us.

How then can we explain it? Perhaps scientists are just plain ignorant. This sounds unreasonable, as it is precisely the extent of their learning that is supposed to differentiate them from ordinary people. Nevertheless it is conceivable that they might have the wrong sort of learning, and, as it happens, the more one looks into it the more plausible does this hypothesis appear.

The World, after all, or more precisely, the ecosphere, developed as a single process, which explains why its parts are so closely interrelated, yet science which purports to predict its behaviour is divided up into a host of watertight compartments. How can the expert, if his knowledge is confined to a single one of these compartments, hope to understand what is happening to the ecosphere as a whole? How can he even understand what is happening to things in his own compartment since these are constantly being influenced by things occurring in other compartments about which he knows nothing? All he can predict are those changes occurring in the totally artificial conditions of his laboratory from which extraneous factors—mainly those about which he knows nothing at all—are methodically excluded.

One is not being facetious in affirming that the expert is totally unqualified to predict the behaviour of complex systems. His training is precisely the opposite to that which would enable him to do so. Interdisciplinary research is meant to get round this problem—but is such a thing really possible? Can any research be undertaken in common by people versed in disciplines that have developed in isolation from each other, and which make use of terminologies that are largely unrelated?

Yet there is another explanation. Man, it has been said, is not so much a rational animal as a rationalising one.

In other words his conclusions are reached subconsciously and are unrelated to the explanations he offers to justify them—which are basically those that provide the most self-flattering explanation. The mechanism is well described by Vance Packard in “The Hidden Persuaders”. A perfect example of rationalisation is the behaviour of the unsuccessful tribal rain-maker. In trying to explain his failure, he will not incriminate the basic principles of rain-making. These are a priori truths, an essential part of his tribe’s cultural heritage. Failure will be blamed on some technicality, such as the presence of someone who has violated a taboo. Professors Commoner and Mellanby are doing very much the same thing. They realise that our society is running into terrible trouble, but rather than attribute this to the obvious fact that it is moving in the wrong direction, they prefer to incriminate various technicalities: bad planning, not enough pollution control, people using detergents instead of soap, etc. To face realities would mean accepting that the basic values underlying our industrial society are wrong, and that it is their application that is causing all the trouble. This for various psychological reasons they are incapable of doing any more than the rainmaker can question the underlying values of his tribe’s cultural pattern.

Another reason for the failure of modern science is its attachment to empiricist philosophy. The latter teaches that the world behaves in accordance with our perception of it, and that knowledge can only be built up by observation and induction. As a result, scientific enterprise involves accumulating data rather than making deductions from basic principles—which people did when rationalist philosophy held sway. This leads to the custom of carrying out endless dull and repetitive experiments, with little effort to make use of the results to establish general principles, for which, if the deductive method is frowned upon, there is no requirement in any case.

When an attempt is made at interpreting data, the method used is usually very naive. It consists mainly in establishing one-way cause-and-effect relationships on the basis of empirical correlations between situations observed to have occurred together in a particular sequence. Theory is rarely resorted to, to explain these correlations. What is more, these situations usually constitute a pathetically small spatio-temporal sample. When the detractors of A Blueprint for Survival and the Limits to Growth assert that there is no evidence for the social and ecological calamities that threaten us, they are simply implying that they have not so far occurred—in fact, so far so good!

If most scientists have not only failed to predict the problems we are now facing but also refuse to interpret them correctly, it is partly out of human weakness, but also because modern scientific method simply does not provide a means for so doing.

The development of a new methodology for science, one that will permit the interpretation and prediction of change in complex systems is one of today’s most urgent requirements.


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