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Science, technology and human nature
An essay about the three driving forces of society
By Dr J Floor Anthoni (2001)
www.seafriends.org.nz/issues/probl/science.htm


the political mind-set The political mind-set of recent years, dominated by neo-classical freemarket ideology, has not helped science.
strengths & weaknesses
of scientists
Scientists are often not aware of their limitations and those imposed by the systems they have created themselves, or the confines placed upon them by society.
strengths & weaknesses 
of the public
Ironically, the public has strengths where scientists have weaknesses, and vice versa, suggesting that synergy between the two is bound to help both.
how science is affected
by brownlash
Where newfound facts suggest people alter their ways, first reaction is to either ignore it or oppose it vehemently. The brownlash is anti-science propaganda that could harm society and science, but that could also strengthen it. 
how to communicate
science
Scientists by nature of their specialisation, have isolated themselves from the public and society at large. Communication is necessary to allow the public to play their part and to make science benefit society. How to do it, is a form of art.

go to part1 (contents index) <=> go to part2 <=> go to part4
related pages
on this web site
New Ideas in Science: Dr. Thomas Gold analyses the herd instinct that leads to scientific consensus. (7p)
resource management: knowledge can be considered a resource, so how could it be managed? (22 p)
timetable of mankind: the most important discoveries affecting the course of history. (24 pages)
threats: a summary of the world's problems, arriving from many directions. (20 pages)
conservation: the principles and practice of conservation with emphasis on marine conservation. (large)
belief systems: a summary of the many beliefs, still active today, stifling rational thought. (23 pages)
sitemap: discover what the Seafriends web site is all about. (11p)

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Reader please note that the issues raised in this article, have been caricatured. So when it says that scientists can't do this or that, it should be read as most scientists... or in general, scientists .... Exceptions to a rule can always be found. The name Man is used to denote mankind. Also please note that this document is updated from time to time.

For suggestions and feedback, please e-mail the author. Read tips for printing for best results.
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--Seafriends home--sitemap-- Revised: 20010816,20020904,20021220,20051103,20070412,20070725,


The political mind-set


Democracy and dictatorshipSolutions, even discussions of our environmental or societal problems depend very much on the ruling political mind-set. What can be done in a democracy could be unthinkable in a communist block, and vice-versa. But even within Western democracies, the political mind-set sways sufficiently (usually from left to right), to be of considerable importance. In recent years, under the influence of neo-classical economists like Milton Friedman, democracies have swayed to a mind-set of

In the process, the democratic government structure has changed in important ways, as shown in the diagram. A democracy is about the public being in charge, and government with its bureaucracy being its servant. Nowadays, governments have become dictatorial, not serving the public but rather dictating to it. It has resulted in massive restructuring of businesses and the public sector, with few if any tangible benefits and many liabilities. New Zealand is a point in case, where nearly twenty years of reform (since 1984), backed by extensive national and international propaganda trumpeting Sustainable export-led growth , has resulted in exactly the opposite.

The freemarket mindset
The freemarket mindset has come with a few more attributes affecting, and indeed poisoning, rational thought. The assumptions listed below have been accepted widely as common wisdom, even though they are not at all based on any scientific evidence, and even proved wrong on many occasion!

A few years ago, university economists stood to lose their jobs, when questioning the above points, but on this web site, we like to call a spade a spade and subject all our actions to honest criticism. There is also a new movement (2001) criticising the assumptions of neo-classical economics, calling itself post-autistic economics. (L: auto= self; autism= complete self-absorption and unable to communicate with the outside world). See www.paercon.net.

When science funding is done according to the freemarket competitive mindset, the following undesirable situation is achieved (see also www.psa.org.nz):

"The whole thing about competition is not that you are seeking to achieve perfect markets . . . but an excess and unfair market share. We try to build barriers, be it through advertising or creating a brand. That's what business is about." - Hugh Fletcher, director Fletcher Challenge, 1984, New Zealand.
The upshot of this freemarket mind-set is that scientific institutions have been turned into profit-seeking businesses, guarding their successes jealously. Universities have been turned into BSc and MSc factories. So let's now focus our attention on what comes out of these universities, the scientists.

Strengths and weaknesses of scientists

Having looked critically at how science works in practice, let's now cast a critical look at its practitioners, the scientists. Please note that this is not a scientist-bashing exercise, but merely an attempt at objectively assessing the tools society has, to solve the problems facing us in the future. It also gives an indication why scientists may not be the right tool for some problems. Note that some of the items discussed here, have been touched upon already.

Positive and negative qualities of the scientist:

+ high level, thorough investigation: beyond any doubt, scientists backed by reputable institutions and adequate resources, do high quality work in the tradition of the objective scientific method.
+ international communication and peer review: scientists communicate across national boundaries, and their results are published and read internationally, assuring the widest exposure, to invite imitation or rebuttal.
+ scientists are intelligent: only intelligent people make headway as scientists. They are eager to learn throughout their lifetimes, and in the course of it, amass a vast store of ready knowledge.
- not enough scientists: it is a complaint heard most often by scientists themselves. (See next point)
- not enough money: if only we had enough money and scientists, all problems of the world could be solved. However, society is limited by how much it can afford to spend on science.
- expensive, high overheads: scientists are expensive. They have high overheads, use expensive equipment and materials, require overseas trips to stay abreast, and so on.
- slow progress: the thoroughness of the scientific method tolerates no shortcuts, but it also increases costs, while ignoring that sometimes an approximate answer is all that is needed. Businessmen and politicians often need an 80/20 solution, with 80% accuracy, yet for 20% of the cost, but this is not scientific.
- no local presence or knowledge: problems arise where people do things to nature. These are typically not the places where one finds scientists, hence their lack of local knowledge. Often scientists move into a community, focusing on the problem, while ignoring to use local knowledge. In doing so, they can miss important information, or misrepresent their findings.
- poor continuity: scientists change place and interest quite frequently, thus providing for poor continuity.
- can't act in uncertainty: scientists can't act in uncertainty. It is unscientific. Yet many environmental problems require us to do so.
- can't act on sudden environmental disasters: scientists need a justification for everything they do, for every expense. When a natural disaster strikes, they cannot rush in to investigate, because some budget will have to pay for them, and discretionary or disaster budgets are not usually available.
- can't blow whistles: scientists face high risks, sticking their necks out to blow whistles on the environment or their institutions, particularly where uncertainty remains. They could get ridiculed, lose grants and more. Usually they refrain from blowing whistles, or they form consensus groups, so that none can be singled out.
- should carve new paths but don't: for the same reasons as above, scientists run high risks (but also high rewards) when carving new paths. Peer review obstructs them further. Ridicule is their first reward.
- should doubt knowledge but believe: in the backs of their minds, scientists should doubt the knowledge they use. However, partly because of their education, and partly because they have to rely on the knowledge of others, they believe more than they should.
- scientists believe they are objective: but they have to make value judgements in selecting research topics, choice of research method, application of theory, and interpretation of facts and many more.
- competing for funds, rather than co-operating: in the modern world of contestable funding, scientists are pitched against one another, which makes it difficult for them to co-operate and to share their ideas.
- confidential results: when paid by industry, scientists are obliged to keep their results confidential in order not to undermine the commercial advantage so obtained. This goes straight against one of the most important principles of science, that of publishing results. Now that one government department 'purchases' research from another, even publicly paid-for research is held confidential. Most technological research results are not publicly available.
- user pays, user says: scientists are no longer to do free research, when they tender for grants or customers. It can also affect their impartiality, as has been shown with tobacco research and others.
- duplicating effort, not experiment: duplication of experiment is a worthy cause in science, since it may support or refute the work of others. As science becomes dearer, duplication of someone else's work becomes harder to justify. Where results are kept confidential, others need to duplicate the work, without duplicating experiment.
- have narrow field of expertise: scientists depend very much on the expertise of others to complete their thinking/opinion. Because science has become so involved, it is almost impossible to judge the work of others outside one's immediate area of interest. A multi-disciplinary approach is nowadays almost always needed.
- believe their computer models: scientists trust so much in their computer models that they can be excused for thinking that there's something wrong with nature, in explaining the differences  :)
- seldom say that they were wrong: scientists usually don't publish or stress where they were wrong, thus undermining their credibility, while leaving others in the belief that their proclamations are still valid.
- are unaccountable: unlike engineers, but like politicians, scientists are not held accountable for what they say, or for their advice. They are protected by the maxim that what they say is the best we know collectively, and thus they can not be blamed for being wrong.
- are impractical: by far, most scientists have never lived in the real world of commerce, business and working for a living. They have never learnt to be practical, like working with uncertainty and imperfection while minimising costs. Scientists seem to ignore the 80/20 rule where most of the result can be achieved with minimal effort.
- like sniping from the rearguard: scientists condemn a publication as 'grossly inaccurate' for a few trivial mistakes. They condemn as 'unproved', the things they haven't thought about or even looked at.
- writing in jargon: scientists write (necessarily) in subject-related jargon, but in doing so, also make bad use of English language, like writing in nouns and verbs, while underutilising adverbs and adjectives. They find it difficult to write for the layman.
The formidable perpetrators of environmental damage are technology and humans. So let's look at these two next.

Strengths and weaknesses of the public

One could rightfully ask what the public has to do with a discourse on science. Well, they pay for it and may demand results from it. They are the stakeholders, but not only that, they are also possible partners by helping to mitigate our problems, and they are the ultimate cause of environmental problems.

Like the scientist discussed above, the public has also qualities which deserve critical evaluation:

+ eyes everywhere: the public lives where the problems arise; indeed they may be the very cause of them.
+ local presence, local knowledge, historical knowledge: the local community has a wealth of traditional knowledge or 'anecdotal evidence'. They have often dealt with similar problems before. Sometimes they have developed a tradition of conservation in one kind or another.
+ good continuity: because the locals live where the problems are experienced, they provide good continuity, useful for scientific pursuits like monitoring.
+ cheap labour: whereas scientists are expensive, because of their high pay and overheads, the local community is often prepared to donate free time. They can help scientists after-hours or during their work.
+ untapped human resource: the public is largely an untapped resource for assisting scientists. When motivated, a large human resource can become available.
+ high diversity: among the public one finds a high diversity of talents, like educators, artists, writers, publishers, cinematographers, photographers, engineers and so on. These talents can be used in many different ways.
+ quick response: because many people work near the place where they live, they can respond quickly. Because they are free, no special budgets have to be assigned before coming into action.
+ co-operating and sharing, not competing: the public does not have an interest in the science of a case but in its solution. So they are not likely to compete with one another. Yet, conflicting interests may exist in the use of resources by stakeholders.
+ have an interest: the public has an active interest in the outcome of solutions to problems, and are often highly motivated.
+ can act in uncertainty: people are used to acting in uncertainty, simply by applying common sense. Businesses are used to manage in uncertainty, and to make decisions. Remember that random decisions are still right half the time.
+ can blow whistles: although the public has a stake in the solution of their problems, people can take political action and blow whistles much more easily than scientists.
- do low level investigation:  a serious handicap of using the public is that it can do only low-level research.
- need much education and hand holding: a great deal of education has to be done to reach adequate levels of knowledge and to maintain these.
- easily believe in myths and superstition: not being trained to think scientifically, the public can be fickle in its retention of knowledge and interpretation of events. It can be very susceptible to anti-propaganda and bad influences.
As one can see from their list of strengths and weaknesses, it may not be surprising that the public and scientists complement one another very well, reason for suggesting that they should learn to work together where possible. Where our scientific resource is already overloaded, the public may bring welcome relief by being able to contribute, even though the work may need to be done in small amounts by many contributors.

Seafriends has recognised this synergy, and this web site is testimony to the above philosophy. By providing the necessary education, it is hoped that the public can, of their own accord contribute to saving our environment and solving our problems, even without working directly alongside scientists.


How science is affected by brownlash

Brown-lash is a word coined by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, presumably composed from blackmail and backlash, but not quite either (brown). It describes the anti-conservation, anti-science propaganda espoused deliberately by those who fear they have much to lose by changing their habits - politicians, businesses, global corporations and so on.
Being funded by business, and often operating under deceptive names like The Alliance for Environment and Resources, these people are well resourced and dangerous to common sense. It is true that scientists have often overreacted, forcing doubtful expensive solutions on business, eroding their bottom line, and brownlash can partly be explained as a reaction redressing the balance. In this respect, scientists and greenies have only themselves to blame. We can learn from the brownlash arguments.

The arguments toted by the brownlash movement offer opposing viewpoints, which are essentially these:

As one can see, the arguments used to discredit the environmental movement are rather simplistic and can be rebutted quite easily. So why do they have such effect? The factors listed below, serve to remind us that they could have been working in favour of the truth, in favour of the environment. It also shows how society has been depriving itself of good information.


As one can see, the brownlash movement is just one of the orchestrated movements of which there are many in society, using the well-known techniques of propaganda and division. So how could society improve the quality of information necessary to reach well-founded, often painful decisions for our common future? Here are some suggestions.

These rules do not apply only to scientists, but also to anyone keen to uphold the truth, and keen to make others aware of the plight of the planet.

Ehrlich, Paul R and Anne H (1996): Betrayal of Science & Reason; how anti-environmental rhetoric threatens our future. Shearwater Books.
Brown, J A C: Techniques of persuasion, from propaganda to brainwashing. 1963. Penguin Books.


How to communicate science

The situation the media have manoeuvred themselves in, may be deplorable, but their business is still to bring news. If only the scientific message could be brought as if it were essential news, the public could be better informed.

How to deal with the media:


go to part1 (contents index) <=> go to part2 <=> go to part4
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