Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Classical Guitar:
"The Other Profession






Ernest Partridge
The Online Gadfly


Soon after I launched The Sporadic Gadfly at Northland College in February, 1996, a colleague (who will remain nameless) submitted an article in which he argued quite eloquently that science "has a lot to answer for," both for the environmental and lethal destruction that it has wrought, and for its hubris -- failing to appreciate, with Hamlet, that "there are more things... under heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

My response follows:


Like [my colleague], I also turn to the Bard for my text, and propose that "the fault ... lies not with our Science, but with ourselves."

To put the matter bluntly, science has nothing whatever to "answer for." Moreover, science does not "duck" or even "define itself" [as charged]. Scientists do all these things, along with technologists, generals, admirals, and most significantly, their corporate and political sponsors. And they have much to "answer for." (Yeah, I know: this sounds like "guns don't kill people -- people kill people. In point of fact, people with guns kill people who otherwise might have survived. So guns should be regulated, respected, restricted, and used only by those who understand them. The same applies to science).

Science, as a methodology and a fund of organized knowledge, is not a moral agent, and thus can not "answer for" anything. But science is also an institution, and thus subject to the nonscientific yet value-laden influences of other institutions such as commerce and politics. But these are external forces acting upon science, and the evil uses to which science is put are the responsibilities of these extra-scientific institutions. I addition, scientists and technologists have the moral responsibility to withhold their services to these institutions, when they perceive that their talents are being put to evil ends. However, that moral perception can not totally originate in, much less be validated by, the body of their science. Those scientists who believe otherwise, do not understand the workings of science. If the structure and methodology of science necessarily lead to this misconception, then one is right to condemn science. However, I am not convinced.

When B. F. Skinner investigated operant conditioning in rats and pigeons, he gathered important data about animal behavior. But when he claimed that human beings differ only degree and not in kind from his laboratory animals, he was expressing an ideology that extended far beyond the reach of empirical verification. Those who attempt to install a "value-neutral policy science" on the measurement of "preferences" as expressed in the market place, fail to appreciate that they are offering, not a "science," but rather an ideology, resting upon a scaffold of unacknowledged and thus unexamined ethical presuppositions. (See our "20th Century Alchemy.")  As for the materialism and mechanism that reappeared in the 17th century, in Descartes, and Hobbes and others (but which long precedes modern science, notably in Democritus and Epicurus) -- that philosophy (not science) has been effectively undone by the field theories and quantum mechanics of modern physics.

No doubt, scientists all too often rush in where scientific inference fears to tread. But the appropriate response to inadequate science is better science; the treatment for arrogant science, is humble science -- and in a sense, humility is a "virtue" written into the very structure of science. (Cf. Karl Popper, who teaches us that scientific proof is "the failure to disconfirm," and David Hume who insists upon "falsifiability in principle" as a condition of empirical meaning). The best of scientific investigators side with Hamlet, not Horatio: their conviction that there is "more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of" in their science, drives them on to find just a little bit of that "more." If you wish to talk to someone who knows all the answers, don't ask a scientist -- ask Rush Limbaugh.

And for a proper appreciation of the limitations of science, and the autonomy of moral judgment from scientific fact, this (non-medical) doctor prescribes a good dose of the Philosophy of Science. From that discipline, one is likely to learn that, by the rules of the scientific enterprise, science will not, because it can not, suffice to give us moral direction. Even so, scientific information can be an invaluable ingredient of moral intelligence.

And so, I quite agree with our eloquent colleague: those who misperceive and abuse science, need a dose of strong medicine. But in the heat of our indignation, let's take care not to toss out the medicine.


Of Science, Policy, and Environmental Responsibility

Several years ago, at a conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I heard a professor of engineering proclaim, "if you can't measure it, then it isn't knowledge."

I replied, "you poor soul. If you believe this, it means that you have never known love."

It is just the sort of thoughtless dogmatism that I heard that day has given science a bad name, and which turns sensitive young minds away from science. And that's a pity.

The fact is, of course, that there is much to know outside of science. Indeed the word "know" is itself inadequate: better to say that there is much to experience, to feel, to wonder at, to aspire to, to imagine, and to value, as well as "know," both outside of and within science.

There is, perhaps, a significant temperamental division among two groups of scientists: in the first group are those scientists (and uninformed admirers of science including many economists and engineers) who look at the "near side" of science and are enthralled by what we know. In the second are those that look to the far side of the frontiers of science and are humbled by what they do not know. And it is the second group that is most likely to extend that frontier.

To think of science as a structure assembled out of quantified, brick-like facts, is to be blind to the soul and wonder of science -- the adventure of ideas, the joy of discovery, the creative vision of theoretical insight. This is the "science" that the late Carl Sagan wrote about with such exuberance.

A knowledge of science enriches the lives, even of nonscientists. But few will suggest that science should be, or even can be, all of a life. To be fully human, we must know and understand, and scientific method is our best guide in this dimension of life. But to be fully human, we must also feel, and judge, and then we must act.

Deliberative collective action, which we call "policy," is informed by facts and guided by values. And the kind of environmental policies that will best secure our tenure on the earth must run on two legs: values and facts. It makes no more sense to ask which is more important in policy deliberations, than it is to ask a runner which of his legs is more important, his right or his left. And the best source of facts yet devised is science -- a claim that is demonstrably true.

Yet many of the students that I encountered at Northland College (and far less at the University of California) are captivated by  a naive romanticism (unrivaled in my previous professional experience) that is touching and in some senses even admirable.  Colleagues from around the country confirm this observation.  These students love nature, they trust their feelings and impulses, they identify with the animals, and they distrust artifice. So far, so good. But among a few students, that distrust extends to artistic creation and to intellect. And these students, though sweet and gentle, are nonetheless quite disconcerting. For their romanticism also has a less admirable quality: dogmatism. Thus they react vehemently, if inarticulately, to my critical analyses of astrology and psychic phenomena. Asserting that all beliefs are "equally true," they shrink from the critical examination of ideas which is the very "point" of a philosophy class. "Who's to say?," they shrug, or they angrily retort "what right do you have to question my ideas?" -- as they proceed to shut down their minds. (See "Yes, Virginia, There is a Real World," elsewhere in this website).

Such attitudes, I fear, threaten to "deconstruct" the spine of intellectual rigor and curiosity that is the soul of higher education, and arguably our best guide out of the historical trap into which our unwise technical cleverness has led us.

To those students who would save the earth on the strength of their enthusiasm and without the aid of science, I pose this question: Who brought the environmental crisis to national attention at the first Earth Day -- and who continues to do so today? It was and is the scientists such as Aldo Leopold, Paul Ehrlich, Garrett Hardin, Rachel Carson, Norman Myers and E. O. Wilson. Moreover, environmental poets and essayists such as Gary Snyder, Edward Abbey and Robinson Jeffers were all scientifically informed.

The opposition -- the despoilers of the Earth -- have money, influence and valedictorian public relations skills. In fact, they have every advantage save one: demonstrable truth. That is all that the defenders of the earth have -- and yet it may be enough. And science is the one institution best designed to yield the truth, when that truth compels with evidence and cogent argument. Thus it would be the utmost folly for the defenders of the earth to abandon their best weapon in a rush of thoughtless romanticism. mixed with a misbegotten indignation over the abuses of technology.

Copyright, 1996 and 2001, by Ernest Partridge

A Postscript by Carl Sagan

From The Demon-Haunted World,  (Random House, 1995):      

In American polls in the early 1990s, two-thirds of all adults had no idea what the "information superhighway" was; 42 percent didn't know where Japan is; and 38 percent were ignorant of the term "holocaust." But the proportion was in the high 90s who had heard of the Menendes, Bobbitt, and O. J. Simpson criminal cases; 99 percent had heard that the singer Michael Jackson had allegedly sexually molested a boy. The US may be the best-entertained nation on Earth, but a steep price is being paid. (376)

... Astrology, which has been with us for four thousand years or more, today seems more popular than ever. At least a quarter of all Americans, according to opinion polls, "believe" in astrology. A third think Sun-sign astrology is "scientific." The fractions of schoolchildren believing in astrology rose from 40 percent to 59 percent between 1978 and 1984. There are perhaps ten times more astrologers than astronomers in the United States... (303-4).

Does it all matter? 

I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time -- when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudo-science and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance... The plain lesson is that study and learning -- not just of science, but of anything -- are avoidable, even undesirable.

We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements -- transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting -- profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture if ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces. (25-6).


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .