Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D


The Gadfly Bytes -- March, 1998

The Inaugural Gadfly Editorial

Why be Reasonable?

By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside
www.igc.org/gadfly // gadfly@igc.org


Reason is universal because no attempted challenge
to its results can avoid appealing to reason in the end.

Thomas Nagel


In the struggle to preserve the natural environment, are science and reason the problem or the solution?

This is a strange question to be coming from a philosopher! As strange as a preacher questioning the value of virtue, or a judge doubting the value of justice. And while our convictions are foursquare on the side of science and reason, we have devoted altogether too much time and energy during four years of the past decade, attempting to defend science and reason from disparagement by a strange crop of undergraduates, and more than a few faculty colleagues. (I say "disparagement," since one can not present a "case against reason" without, paradoxically, attempting to employ reason).

Colleagues from beyond the small "environmental / liberal-arts college" that we recently served reported similar attacks, and one need only read and listen to the popular media to encounter still more evidence of the public's flight from "reality principles." In fact, radical subjectivism and relativism have invaded "the house of intellect," and even philosophical discourse, in the guise of "post-modernism" and "deconstructive analysis."

"Well, its about time!" -- a few of my recent students and colleagues would retort: "just look at the mess that science has made of our natural world!" (Thus failing to make the elementary distinction between science and technology). Then they continue with echoes of the romantic poets of the past century, reminding us that "reason can not speak to the heart," that "inspiration is beyond the cold reach of analysis" -- and that, quoting Wordsworth, "we murder to dissect.'" (All true -- and all irrelevant). Besides, they insist, science does not give us answers, only endless disputes -- "for every PhD, there is an equal and opposite PhD," and "yesterday's dogma is refuted by today's science, just as today's dogma awaits a similar fate tomorrow." So eventually we come to that mocking question that we all have heard: "who's to say?" There is no question that I would rather hear in my Philosophy classes, if posed as an opening to reasoned inquiry. It is the gateway to epistemology. But more and more that question, "who's to say?" is tossed out as a "thought-stopper" by students who, like Pontius Pilate, will not pause for a reply.

Should environmentalists take comfort in this dismissal of science and this resurgence of irrationalism? I think not. Science and reason are discomforting precisely because they have been carefully devised to allow nature to speak to us and to divulge its secrets, quite independently of what we would prefer to hear. Once we realize this, and we thus become willing to accept unpleasant but validated truths in place of comforting myths, we are far better prepared to recognize, address, and perchance solve, the myriad of problems presented to us by a complex civilization and a threatened natural estate. It is true that technology, applied without reasonable foresight or moral constraint, has brought us to our current environmental peril. But organized, cumulative and institutional reason - which is to say, science - is our best way out. Attuning ourselves to reality can be a tough assignment, but after all is said and done, it is the only reality we have!

Those who insist that science is more the problem than the solution should be reminded that the environmental movement of the past three decades had its origin in the life sciences. It was science that sounded the warning of peril to our planet. And the founding fathers and mothers of that movement were, for the most part, scientists: Barry Commoner, Garrett Hardin, Paul Ehrlich, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson.

Today environmental education and reform are under assault by the valedictorian practitioners of the black arts of public relations, funded by the inexhaustible resources of international commerce. All that the opposing environmentalists have on their side is the sweet voice of reason, and the compelling evidence of science. It just may be enough, but only if we utilize these resources wisely. Accordingly, the despoilers of the Earth, whose lives and fortunes are invested in ruinous "business as usual," must observe with unconstrained delight the flight from reason, the disparagement of science, and the embrace of new-age kookery that is at large among so many environmental activists and even some educators.

This will be the essential message of The Online Gadfly. Some of our accumulated thoughts on this issue may be found in the included papers, and even more directly under the page "No Mo Po Mo."

Three important books on the issue of the assault on science and reason have recently appeared, and are highly recommended: Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Random House, 1995), and Paul and Anne Ehrlich's Betrayal of Science and Reason (Island Press, 1996). Both are cited in this web-site under "Reflections on Science..." The third book is Thomas Nagel's The Last Word (Oxford, 1997).  We close with these words by this wise philosopher:

"Reason ... can serve as a court of appeal not only against the received opinions and habits of our community but also against the peculiarities of our personal perspective. It is something each individual can find within himself, but at the same time it has universal authority. Reason provides, mysteriously, a way of distancing oneself from common opinion and received practices... Whoever appeals to reason purports to discover a source of authority within himself that is not merely personal, or societal, but universal - and that should also persuade others who are willing to listen to it." (Thomas Nagel, The Last Word, pp 2-3).


Copyright, 1998, by Ernest Partridge

See also our "Is Science Just Another Dogma?" (July, 2002)




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 .