Natural Sciences and Society

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 19. August 2014 - 1:18
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

Association for Baha'i Studies 38th Conference
Toronto, Canada, 7-10 August 2014

Natural Sciences and Society

Arthur Lyon Dahl Ph.D.
International Environment Forum (IEF)‏
Geneva, Switzerland

We have been asked in this panel to explore how new social and environmental concerns are affecting how science is practiced and understood at a societal level, including issues such as science and policy, citizen science and Indigenous Knowledge. There is only time for a brief review of the origins and shifts in worldview and methodology in the the natural sciences, with a focus on sustainability challenges, and an overview of the current breadth of conceptions and assumptions.

Globalization and sustainability

The context for this analysis is the rapid globalization of human society since the first telegraph message was sent in 1844. Globalization is the logical next step in human evolution, but economic globalization is driven by powerful governments and multinational businesses for their own benefit, social globalization is being strongly resisted, globalization of environmental problems threatens future sustainability, and globalization of information makes us aware of all these problems in a way that was not possible before.

Present unsustainability can be summarized as follows. The human population will grow to 9 billion by 2050, but the economy is not creating enough employment for all these people. One fifth of the population uses 80% of the planet's resources. Our material civilization built on the energy subsidy from cheap but diminishing fossil fuels is precipitating accelerating climate change that will increase natural disasters, displace hundreds of millions of people from coastal areas, create water shortages for two thirds of the world population, exterminate up to half of all species, and threaten our capacity to feed ourselves. Extremes of wealth and poverty are widening, aggravating social instability. The financial system is overextended with massive debt and volatile speculation and is vulnerable to collapse at any time. Our system of governance based on national sovereignty is failing to cope with all these threats to our future.

Trends and needs in natural sciences

If we trace the main trends in science, there is a strong tendency to increasing specialization. We have gone from the renaissance polymath (Leonardo da Vinci) through the gentleman naturalist of the 19th century (Darwin, von Humboldt), to the extreme specialists of today. This has been accompanied by increasing reductionism as we explore each fragment of the natural systems in biology, chemistry and physics in more and more detail. This has been made possible by a technological sophistication with giant instruments allowing is to observe the brain in action, read the genetic code, and create and measure subatomic particles. Such machines are rare and expensive, requiring large teams of researchers and multiple authors on scientific papers. Grantsmanship becomes important as scientist spend more and more time writing research proposals and competing for research funding. Careers, departments and whole universities are judged (and funded) based on their citation ratings in the most high profile journals. Success is determined more by the amount of money you bring into your department and the number of papers you publish rather than the innovation of your science. Peer review is the standard mechanism to ensure research quality, but it can just as easily enforce conformity with the dominant paradigms of the moment.

If we look at the emerging needs from natural sciences for research on the challenges of environmental, social and economic sustainability, we see something very different. Understanding the complexities of sustainability requires transdisciplinary approaches combining the natural and social sciences. Everything needs to be viewed from integrated complex systems perspectives. Many of the challenges and solutions will be found in the emergent properties of complex systems. To reduce the risks of disastrous mistakes, we must learn to identify and and avoid tipping points and sudden transformations in human and natural systems, which show non-linear system dynamics and chaotic states that are fundamentally unpredictable. These systems operate at, and need to be managed at, multiple levels of organization from the local to the global and beyond. There is also the challenge of linking science and policy, so that the results of growing scientific understanding can be translated in action. Science today is poorly structured to respond to these needs.

Systems modeling

One example of an integrated approach to human society at a planetary scale is the use of systems modeling on computers. The challenge is to have enough data at the right scale of generalization to capture the general behavior of the system without drowning in unnecessary detail. This was first attempted by a research group led by Dennis and Donella Meadows at MIT using the World3 model of human civilization. Their 1972 report to the Club of Rome, "The Limits to Growth" (Meadows et al. 1972), had a big impact but was quickly denounced by economists for threatening the growth paradigm, since its scenarios showed that business as usual without making a transition to sustainability would cause the collapse of civilization during the 21st century. They updated the report in 1992 for the Rio Earth Summit, titled "Beyond the Limits: Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable Future" (Meadows et al. 1992), and prepared a 30-year update in 2004 (Meadows et al. 2004), confirming the same conclusions. Donella Meadows, a great systems thinker (Meadows 1999) passed away shortly before the last report was published. Recently scientists have verified that the tendencies modeled forty years ago correspond closely to what has actually happened, with the only difference being that a smooth transition to sustainability no longer seems to be a realistic possibility (MacKenzie 2012). Based on 40 years' experience with the failure of society to respond to their warnings, one of the co-authors, Jorgen Randers, has published his predictions for the next 40 years, which assume that we shall always do too little, too late, and only succeed in postponing collapse until later in the century (Randers 2012).

Sustainability Science

Scientists themselves have awakened to the inability of their compartmentalized and fragmented field to respond to these global challenges, and called for fundamental changes. In 2001, the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the major global change research programs (IGBP, IHDP, WCRP) announced the launching of a new field of "Sustainability Science". This has been described as: “The cultivation, integration, and application of knowledge about Earth systems gained especially from the holistic and historical sciences (such as geology, ecology, climatology, oceanography) coordinated with knowledge about human interrelationships gained from the social sciences and humanities, in order to evaluate, mitigate, and minimize the consequences, regionally and worldwide, of human impacts on planetary systems and on societies across the globe and into the future – that is, in order that humans can be knowledgeable Earth stewards.” (Kieffer et al. 2003). "It must encompass different magnitudes of scales (of time, space, and function), multiple balances (dynamics), multiple actors (interests) and multiple failures (systemic faults)." (Reitan 2005) [quoted in Wikipedia]

Of course there have long been individual scientists who have taken a broad systems view integrating the natural and social science, such as Fritjof Capra, most recently in "The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision" (Capra and Luisi 2014), and my own "The Eco Principle: Ecology and Economics in Symbiosis" (Dahl 1996).

Ecological Economics

It is symptomatic of the problems we face that mainstream economics has systematically rejected the extensive work over many years to bring modern systems sciences into economics. Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen was considered the economist's economist until he published "The Entropy Law and the Economic Process" in 1971 (Georgescu-Roegen 1971), when he became an outcast in his own field. One of his students, Herman Daly, carried this work further with "Steady-State Economics" (1977); "For the Common Good", (1989, with theologian John B. Cobb, Jr.); "Beyond Growth" (1996); and "Ecological Economics and the Ecology of Economics" (1999) among others. The titles themselves show how threatening this work was to the neoclassical economic paradigm. An excellent recent synthesis from a business perspective is Eric D. Beinhocker's "The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics" (2006) which identifies the norms and values needed for a sustainable economic system and society. Other important recent work is Tim Jackson's "Prosperity Without Growth" (2009) and Martin A. Nowak, who undercuts the fixation with competition in "SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed" (2011). None of this seems to be taught to young economists today.

Tensions in science

It is not easy to be a scientist today in a world that demands scientific answers to so many pressing questions. Academic science in particular has often tried to stand aloof from the messy problems of the real world. This leaves scientists caught in a number of tensions between opposing processes. For example, science upholds the ideal of scientific neutrality, providing objective data without taking sides or even considering their implications for society. At the same time, any scientist conscious of the threats to our future can feel drawn into social engagement to alert the public and decision makers to the dangers. The focus on the highest quality of science through peer review and publication in prestigious journals creates barriers that exclude most citizen science and the wisdom that can come from indigenous knowledge. The pure science ideal of independent investigation of phenomena is often forced into compromise with priorities set by politicians, granting agencies and donors. The research goes where the money is. In addition, there is the division between public sector and academic research which should be in the public interest, versus corporate research for profit, illustrated by recent controversies over the publication only of positive results that support the efficacy of treatments being marketed. As mentioned above, discipline-based academic careers leave little room to venture beyond one's field, and adventures in multidisciplinarity are often looked down on or do not count for promotion. The elaborate structures, expensive facilities, and research grants of advanced country science make it very difficult for developing country science to compete, producing a brain drain of the best and brightest that leaves poorer countries even more disadvantaged in science.

There are even what might be called "Iron Curtains" in science today. These start with the barriers between disciplines. It is generally frowned on to publish outside your field of specialization. Each discipline has created its own arcane terminologies and specialized language only understood by the in-group. While this may facilitate communication within the field, it also serves to exclude those who have not been properly initiated. Peer review by the leaders in the field also serves to support the orthodoxy and exclude anything that may challenge the status quo. The barrier is even higher between the natural and social sciences, with a sense of superiority in the precise methods of the natural sciences, suspicion of the qualitative methods of the social sciences, and sometimes inappropriate attempts to imitate methodologies. The most extreme barrier is between science and religion, with something similar to immune rejection by science of any hint of religion. Religion is seen to be superstitious, untestable, subjective, and not an acceptable source or field of study. While science considers it unethical not to quote your sources, it also refuses to allow scripture to be quoted, insisting that the same idea should be sought in a proper academic publication. It is symptomatic that one of the major compilations by the United Nations of input from civil society to the post-2015 dialogue is titled "Breaking down the silos" (UNDP/UNEP 2013).

Science, at least in North America, is confronted by a powerful and well-funded anti-science movement, with an estimated US$1 billion per year spent on climate change denial alone (Brulle 2013). Behind this movement are vested interests such as the tobacco industry denying its implication in lung cancer, and the fossil fuel industry protecting the threat to its profits and subsidies from efforts at climate change mitigation. These find common cause with fundamentalist religious groups that deny the reality of biological evolution. These groups have access to excellent marketing, the dominant media, unlimited funding, and the latest psychological research on manipulating public opinion. They have no qualms about presenting falsehood as public information, using deliberate disinformation and distortion, cherry-picking data to support their conclusions, etc. They use front organizations that purport to be legitimate NGOs, and infiltrate the editorial boards of scientific journals to place papers supporting their stands. Their strategy is to seed doubt about the validity of the majority scientific consensus on their issues, presenting them as controversial when they are not among the great majority of experts, and to destroy confidence in science by implying that it is a process driven by the self-interest of scientists trying to build their careers.

Science for policy

One of the great challenges for science and technology is to search for solutions to the problems the world faces, and then to communicate the relevant information to decision-makers and the public so that science produces a real benefit. Some of the internal difficulties in science described above do not help. Nevertheless, many processes and structures have been put into place to translate the nebulous, sometimes uncertain and always evolving mass of facts and theories that is scientific knowledge into forms that are useful to governments and the general public.

Many governments have some kind of scientific advisory processes within the government, or in collaboration with their national academy of sciences. About 150 countries produce some kind of national State of the Environment or Sustainability reports (Dahl 2008). As environmental problems emerged as a global issue, the United Nations began to organize various kinds of assessment and reporting processes. For example, after the major oil spills of the late 1960s, the relevant UN agencies established the joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution (later Environmental Protection) in 1969, which produced State of the Marine Environment reports in 1982, 1990 and 2001. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has produced Global Environment Outlook reports in 1997, 2000, 2002, 2007, and 2012, plus various regional reports, as well as a Global Biodiversity Assessment in 1995. Other global scientific assessments have included the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005, Global International Waters Assessment 2006, and International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development 2008. For critical environmental issues requiring continuing observation, more permanent assessment processes involving thousands of government-nominated experts, starting with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) created in 1988 and producing massive reports giving the global scientific consensus in 1990, 1995, 2001, 2007 and 2013-2014. A similar Intergovernmental science-policy Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was established in 2013, and the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012 called for a UN Global Sustainable Development Report.

Tools are also needed to present scientific information in simple form to signal status and trends, and for this, science-derived sustainability indicators have been developed. Following on some scientific initiatives such as the Ecological Footprint, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development led a Work Programme on Indicators 1994-2006 producing three sets of indicators. Other initiatives have been the Environmental Vulnerability Index prepared by the South Pacific Applied Geosciences Commission in 2004, the Environmental Sustainability Index revised in 2005, and the Environmental Performance Index in 2008. Governments at the United Nations are now finalizing Sustainable Development Goals and Indicators for the post-2015 period. These efforts ensure that decision-makers have sufficient scientific information available if they want to be guided by it.

Limited political receptivity

The problem is that most political leaders live in a world in which scientific concerns are weighed against other interests that usually win out. Politics is driven by a very short-term perspective, usually the next election. There are powerful economic interests and lobbies that count far more than scientific advice. Corruption is a problem almost everywhere that short-circuits normal decision-making processes. On top of this most decision-makers show a lack of understanding of science, making it easy to put ideology before scientific rationality. Governments may censor science that goes against their political perspective, and in extreme cases may even pass legislation denying a scientific reality, as if they could legislate facts out of existence. Political leaders pay limited attention to science, and do not like science making them look bad. All this results in a lack of leadership and of the political will to take necessary but unpopular decisions. What is done is usually too little, too late.

As a result, even if the science is relatively clear, it has failed to solve the environmental problems facing us. The scientific reality usually cannot stand up to the political reality. Priority is given to economics and short-term thinking. There is a common assumption that technologies have always fixed our problems in the past and will certainly continue to do so in the future. On top of this, scientific understanding does not usually change behavior, whether it be smoking, eating unhealthy snacks, or driving too fast. Today among scientists, there is a grudging acknowledgment that something more is needed (but certainly not religion).

Alternative ways forward for science

When the way is blocked at the governmental level, it is necessary to find alternative paths forward. Public education and public mobilization can help with the right presentation of science. Science can even be used as a model and metaphor for the unity that is needed in human society. The validity of many spiritual principles can be illustrated through science. For example, a coral reef is complex ecosystem that builds communities like cities, illustrating unity in diversity, balance, symbiosis and cooperation, with emergent properties of efficiency and sustainability in a resource-poor environment. If a reef can do it, why not human society? Adequate science education in the schools can do a lot to reach the next generation, and science journalism plays an important role in informing the general public.

Most importantly, the whole attitude to science must evolve from a domain of knowledge only accessible to a few experts, to tools for reasoning and understanding that are accessible to everyone at their level of capacity. This means bringing science to the grassroots level. The public can easily participate in environmental monitoring and assessment, either as part of their own life and occupation (Dahl 1998), or through more organized citizen science, such as streamwatch to involve primary school children in water quality monitoring ( There are now efforts to acknowledge the importance of indigenous science and traditional knowledge of the environment (Johannes 1989; Dahl 1989) and UNESCO has had a whole programme on traditional knowledge ( Ultimately there should be local scientific institutions that can make science accessible to everyone.

This means creating a new paradigm for science. "Scientific and technological activity... must cease to be the patrimony of advantaged segments of society, and must be so organised as to permit people everywhere to participate in such activity on the basis of capacity.... [This] will require the establishment of viable centres of learning throughout the world, institutions that will enhance the capability of the world's peoples to participate in the generation and application of knowledge" (BIC 1995).

More broadly, the top-down imposition of science and technology that dominates the consumer society should be turned around. "...the majority of technological development is driven by market forces that do not reflect the basic needs of the world’s peoples. Furthermore, the emphasis on the transfer of technology without accompanying efforts to increase participation in the generation and application of knowledge can only serve to widen the gap between the rich and the poor — the ‘developers’ and the ‘users’ of technology. Developing the capacity for identifying technological need and for technological innovation and adaptation — in light of societal needs and environmental constraints — will be vital to social progress. The transformation of complex social realities will require the development of institutional capacity within local populations to create and apply knowledge in ways that address the specific needs of that population. This question of institutional capacity (e.g. the establishment of regional centers of research and training) constitutes a major challenge to sustainable development. If successfully met, however, the result will be to break the present unbalanced flow of knowledge in the world and dissociate development from ill-conceived processes of modernization. 'Modern' technologies will be characterized by an orientation towards addressing locally defined needs and by priorities that take into account both the material and moral prosperity of society as a whole" (BIC 2010).


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Last updated 13 May 2015