More on Advocacy & Bias: Action Ecology

My previous post talked a bit about issues in advocacy in science.  Besides the resources I offered there (including an excellent piece by Nelson & Vucetich), this recently came out summarizing a symposium I co-organized for the 2011 Ecological Society of America Annual Meetings: Revolutionary Ecology: Defining and Conducting Stewardship and Action as Ecologists and Global Citizens. The summary is a good one, and includes this important point from my colleague Jennifer Blesh Gardner, my collaborator and presenting author for the symposium’s opening presentation: “Gardner adds to this discussion by pointing out that not engaging in advocacy is not similar to being neutral and that “in fact, by not engaging, an ecologist can actually be supporting the policy that is bad.”” That is, as the late historian Howard Zinn said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Being neutral in a system moving in the wrong direction is to tacitly or even in the end directly support such a system.

It’s also interesting to point out that some of our greatest scientists were arguably “advocates” in ways that would be unacceptable today. My mentor John Vandermeer brings up Darwin’s dedication to abolitionism in his Distinguished University Professorship Lecture as well as in his new(ish) blog, where he reviews a recent book, Darwin’s Sacred Cause:

[Darwin’s] stature as a “pure” man of science, a devoté of blindly following where the evidence leads, has changed for me, and no doubt this is part of the intended message of the authors…

The message for today is evident. It is not that science is or should be independent of one’s moral compass. Indeed, the drive to make the scientific endeavor “pure,” which is to say independent of political considerations, is as much a pointless exercise today as it was in the mid eighteenth century. Agassiz’s “science” told him that slavery was nature’s way as much as Darwin’s “science” told him the opposite. While one could never argue that Darwin in the end actually caused abolition in the US, his coupling of his personal passion with his moral compass seems to have had the dual effect of popularizing perhaps the most important scientific theory of all time, but may have indeed contributed to the demise of the foolish genetic determinism arguments of the proslavery crowd.

Desmond and Moore present an enormous amount of evidence in support of this thesis. Their interpretation in the end is complex and nuanced and in the end not precisely the normative interpretation I have, but I suspect they would not disagree at any rate. To simply argue, as they do, that abolitionism was a passion of Darwin is completely evident from the evidence they present. To argue further that it was a main (perhaps the main) impetus for his persistence in pursuit of his theory is also clear from the evidence. But the underlying interplay between his passion for natural history and his desire to merge his passion with his moral compass is a further interpretation that I believe gains support in the evidence presented in the book. More important, it is the message that I believe is the more important one for today’s community of professional biologists.

To perhaps oversimplify John’s (and Desmond & Moore‘s) point, how can we assert that good science and advocacy are inimical when the evidence seems to show that one of the greatest scientists of all time, Charles Darwin, was rather unabashedly and deliberately a social advocate? And indeed, his social advocacy drove and informed his work in no small part–indeed, John goes so far as to say it was “a main (perhaps the main) impetus for his persistence in pursuit of his theory.”

Something that has been interesting to me has been to watch this sort of “whitewashing” of neutrality, or perhaps I should say, its reification and naturalization as an inherent and eternal part of science. It’s not just that it characterizes modern attitudes about science, but there has been a drive to enshrine it as a defining and eternal characteristic of science (We are now and always have been at war with Advocacy). The fact that many great scientists have been quite political, politically active, and indeed even (horror of horrors) blended their research and advocacy is simply Memory Holed. This is a fascinating phenomenon which I’d like to come back to (in all my spare time), but besides Darwin, other notables “guilty” of such lack of neutrality include pivotal geneticist, and Marxist, JBS Haldane, Fabian socialist, foundational ecologist and originator of the “ecosystem concept” Arthur Tansley, famous, seminal “law of the minimum” chemist and later staunch critic of “high modern”, intensive farming Justus von Liebig, and many more (we may, for example, include many foundational economists, such as Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo, as well of course as Karl Marx, as people whose research and advocacy overlapped, though such examples are too easily dismissed as being part of the “natural” travails of social or “soft” science).

One may argue that perhaps such notables as those above were notable in part because they were able to “rise above” their advocacy and achieve greatness despite themselves, but to even make that argument we’d have to commonly acknowledge that great scientists have also been political. This is not presently done. It also is an argument amenable to analysis, and therefore, notionally falsifiable–that is to say, saying so would be pure assertion without further evidence, but evidence could be amassed and evaluated. (And I doubt, but haven’t proof, that the evidence would falsify the general claim that science by “neutral” scientists is systematically of higher quality than science by explicitly non-neutral ones.) But considering the central role advocacy seemed to play in Darwin’s so-called Sacred Cause, the “rise above” theory would seem problematic at best.

At base, though, my argument does not entirely rely on such examples. I prefer to think of it in the terms introduced to me by excellent critical geographer and acquaintance Ryan Galt, specifically, “phronesis”:

phronesis – knowledge regarding action on things that are good or bad for humankind. This kind of knowledge is ethical, involves “deliberation about values with reference to praxis,” and is based on practical value-rationality (Flyvbjerg 2001: 57). The point of departure of Aristotlean phronesis is based on three key questions: Where are we going? Is this desirable? What should be done? Flyvbjerg, drawing on Foucault, has added a fourth key question, one that is especially relevant in unequal societies: Who gains and who loses, and by which mechanisms of power? […]

In many discussions of knowledge where more than one kind of knowledge is identified, Aristotle’s first two types are commonly discussed with the implication that these are the only kinds of knowledge that exist (see, for example, Agrawal 1995). Tellingly, in modern English we have words derived from the first two virtues — epistemic and epistemology from episteme, and technology and technical from techne — but phronesis has no modern counterpart. Knowledge from both episteme and techne are needed to pursue instrumental rationality, which has come to dominate modern civilization (see discussion of Habermas below). Our educational systems generally devalue everything but epistemic knowledge (or know-what), because, according to the assumptions embedded in empiricism and positivism, it is the highest form of knowledge. Aristotle and others maintain that for informed action to be taken, we must combine these three types of knowledge. Indeed, Aristotle argued that phronesis was the highest intellectual virtue, “for the possession of the single virtue of prudence [phronesis] will carry with it the possession of them all [all the intellectual virtues]” (Aristotle 1976, cited in Flyvbjerg 1993). This means we as individuals and societies are impoverished if we engage in either/or thinking about these kinds of knowledge, and can be enriched if we use inclusive both/and thinking as emphasized by feminist scholars.

Ryan’s explication of all this is worth reading at length.

So, that’s what I think on the subject. Though I’d be happy to hear ways that I might be wrong…?

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This entry was posted in Bias, Darwin's Sacred Cause, Follow-ups, John Vandermeer, Philosophy of Science, Phronesis, Science and Technology Studies (STS), Socioecological systems, What "is" is. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to More on Advocacy & Bias: Action Ecology

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  2. Pingback: Could not have said it better… | AgroEcoPeople

  3. Pingback: MJC’s Comment on AAAS Blog’s “The intersection of science and public policy” | AgroEcoPeople

  4. Pingback: Ethical requirements for advocacy by scientists | AgroEcoPeople

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