BioScience has just published the latest installment of “Scientists’ Warnings“. There have been two previous such Warnings, the latest organised by the same authors in 2017. Quite a few scientists have signed this Warning. I chose not to, although I had signed the previous one in 2017.
I have been hackled, by a colleague from the Economics department, why I don’t rush to present and justify my research activities to the public. Parttaking in societal deliberations about climate change is one such “outreach”. He implied that it is “irresponsible” to work in an ivory tower (although it may actually be more an ivory basement). Reading the repeated Scientists’ Warning, I got a better feeling for why I disagree, and why I didn’t sign this time round. And it has nothing to do with whether I agree, as a private person, with the statement (for the record: I do).
In Neal Stephenson’s book Anathem, scientist are separated from the rest of the world and live in cloisters. They work in different casts, if you like, differentiated by how often they have contact with the outer, secular world: every year, every ten years, every century and every millennium. In between, they receive no mail, no books, no information from the world outside (apart from hearing planes flying over and from discussions with their brothers and sisters in the other casts, who are forbidden to touch any topic topical and current in these conservations). As a result, the “uniarians” discuss and work on issues of near-term, almost immediate nature, while in the extreme the millennarians take the long view.
The explosion of human population size and the resulting devastation that we human inflict on ourselves and the plant (climate change, deforestation, desertification, water pollution, you name it) poses a challenge to those ecologists who sympathise with a 100- or 1000-year view of their research. I sometimes half-jokingly refer to science as that bit of research that is still true in 500 years. That over 11,000 scientists signed the last Warning is perceived as a very strong statement by the “general public” (or so my non-scientific friends tell me). The strength comes from the fact that scientists, by and large, are perceived as impartial, rational and as taking the long view.
I decided not to sign the latest Scientists’ Warning, because my long (or at least mid-term) view is currently extremely clouded. The cacophony of current affairs, media outbursts, scientific and funding rush to Climate Change and (loss of) Biodiversity pushes past reflexion, arguments and understanding. I perceive an increasing proportion of the work in my field to be tainted by advocacy and short-termism. I cringe at oversimplified podium statements of do-gooders of my own discipline, at newspaper interviews and podcasts, for example describing building dams as “destroying biodiversity” because several hectars of riparian forest are lost. (Here the term “biodiversity” is used as synonymous with “nature” or “wild stuff”, not in any of its already too vague actual meanings.) Asked something “simple”, such as “How can we decrease chemical contamination of our environment?”, stuff that we teach in the Bachelor programme, I drop my gaze and stare at my shoes: this is not the right question; this is about moral judgement, about societal values, about political attitude. But these are “short-term views”, and, in my above definition, not science. (The scientific answer is obvious, even to the layperson asking.)
So, for the time being, as a scientist I pull out of street marches, petitions, twitter tirades (well, that was easy) and public calls for “them” to do “something” against climate change and and insect decline. My (private, but science-infused) longer-term view identifies overpopulation, slack in social norms and socially encouraged egotism (“Get rich or die trying”) as underlying problems. As a scientist, I am not qualified to comment on this.