Stirling on Science and Skepticism

Andy Stirling is Research Director for SPRU and co-directs the ESRC STEPS Centre at the University of Sussex. He has served on a number of science advisory bodies.

This quote is relevant to recent discussion between David Beebe and me here. It’s always a great discovery when others agree with you and they are also 20 x more articulate (plus have social legitimacy)! The entire post is well worth reading for its discussion of the science biz.

[T]he basic aspirational principles of science offer the best means to challenge the ubiquitously human distorting pressures of self-serving privilege, hubris, prejudice and power. Among these principles are exactly the scepticism and tolerance against which Beddington is railing (ironically) so emotionally! Of course, scientific practices like peer review, open publication and acknowledgement of uncertainty all help reinforce the positive impacts of these underlying qualities. But, in the real world, any rational observer has to note that these practices are themselves imperfect. Although rarely achieved, it is inspirational ideals of universal, communitarian scepticism—guided by progressive principles of reasoned argument, integrity, pluralism, openness and, of course, empirical experiment—that best embody the great civilising potential of science itself. As the motto of none other than the Royal Society loosely enjoins (also sometimes somewhat ironically) “take nothing on authority”. In this colourful instance of straight talking then, John Beddington is himself coming uncomfortably close to a particularly unsettling form of unscientific—even (in a deep sense) anti-scientific—’double speak’.

Anyone who really values the progressive civilising potential of science should argue (in a qualified way as here) against Beddington’s intemperate call for “complete intolerance” of scepticism. It is the social and human realities shared by politicians, non-government organisations, journalists and scientists themselves, that make tolerance of scepticism so important. The priorities pursued in scientific research and the directions taken by technology are all as fundamentally political as other areas of policy. No matter how uncomfortable and messy the resulting debates may sometimes become, we should never be cowed by any special interest—including that of scientific institutions—away from debating these issues in open, rational, democratic ways. To allow this to happen would be to undermine science itself in the most profound sense. It is the upholding of an often imperfect pursuit of scepticism and tolerance that offer the best way to respect and promote science. Such a position is, indeed, much more in keeping with the otherwise-exemplary work of John Beddington himself.

2 thoughts on “Stirling on Science and Skepticism”

  1. You might want to ask Andy to read the exchange after becoming familiarized with the issues, and see if he agrees with the points you’re defending Sharon — or for that matter agrees that my points are appropriate to be comparing to Beddington’s stance of “complete intolerance”. I find the comparison lacking.

    Better yet, you may want to ask DellaSala to make his arguments himself, though Doug’s points (thank you again!) at the end of the discussion certainly rang true in defense of DellaSala’s point of not having saved enough habitat, and how not enough habitat exacerbates competition between species vying for survival in limited habitat.

    As I understand your argument, in the aftermath of largescale deforestation of PNW oldgrowth habitat which led to the listing of the spotted owl, that you question whether “the “ecosystem” is “unraveling” from a change from one species to another.”

    Your argument, partly based in meta-ethical relativism, is suggesting the decision of whether to save the spotted owl should be based upon personal preference or cultural values; that we simply abandon the Endangered Species Act (ESA); and hand the problem back to the same land managers and dysfunctional agency which created the problem in the first place.

    I don’t think that’s such a good idea, and would reiterate:

    1)You and the AP reporter missed some key points, such as oldgrowth structure and function (which the spotted owl has been adapted to) cannot logically be expected to return to former health in a mere 20 years. There are also many other listed threatened, endangered, plant and animal species in the PNW to point to, further indicating the ecosystem, unsurprisingly, is unraveling.

    2)The democratic process of translating widely-held societal values and sound biological precepts led to bipartisan legislative efforts to reflect those values, which were passed by Congress, and signed into law to guide the agency to prevent species extinctions.

    3)Under political pressure to get the cut out, the agency clearly violated those laws,(which I have referred to elsewhere on this blog as tantamount to agency “monkeywrenching”), there was no personal or professional accountability for those violations, and both ecosystem integrity and democracy were ultimately subverted.

    As DellaSala stated, this is about much more than the spotted owl.

    At the center of this issue is preserving biological diversity as a function of ecosystem health.”How to proceed from here?” My point is, just because democracy and ecosystem integrity were deliberately subverted and there was no accountability doesn’t mean we should abandon foundational laws, democracy, and ecosystem integrity.

    Again, I’m familiar with, and highly value the process of skeptical inquiry, relativism, and questioning in peer review. The points raised still have to be successfully defended though Sharon.

  2. Spare us the ancient history lesson, David. NO ONE is proposing to go back to “cornfield forestry”. It is also clear that you don’t understand the present-day complexities and risks to the spotted owls. It is the nesting habitat that is most critical, and the current state of spotted owl nesting habitat is very sad. Owls use a wide variety of habitats for hunting purposes, so that is not an issue. They, like other species, like “edge effect”.

    These is no “cut” anymore. Sure, there are targets but, clearcutting has little to do with timber targets. The last clearcut I helped to install was in 1989, and all those trees were bug-infested (of course, we left snags!).

    See what I mean about people never trusting the Forest Service, claiming potential “corruption”, Sharon? Again, the mere fear of POTENTIAL “corruption” is driving the push for more rigid standards that may, or may not fit a specific piece of ground. Some will never even give the Forest Service a chance to even EARN trust. You work for the Agency, you are automatically tainted, in their minds.


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