Questioning Science

By Isobel Whitcomb '17
Environmental Columnist

As we begin to acknowledge as a society the damage we have inflicted on our environment, one question stands at the center of our understanding of environmental challenges such as global warming: to what extent must we change in response to these challenges? Responses to this question range from the individual (drive less, use less electricity, be a conscious consumer) to the whole economy (invest in green energy, divest from fossil fuels). However, without deep inquiry into the origins of the way we treat the environment, these responses are akin to mowing down weeds while leaving their roots in the ground. We need to begin to discuss the ways in which the founding principles of modern Western science contribute to the environmental situation in which we find ourselves today.

Environmentalism needs to begin with a critical discussion of science because science shapes not only our understanding of how the natural environment works, but also our understanding of how we, as humans, relate to the natural environment. An inability to question science renders us incapable of changing our attitudes about the natural environment. Inherent in progress is the ability to question our most basic assumptions, and in a society that holds scientific thought as unquestionable and near-sacred, these assumptions include science.

But isn’t it science that tells us that global warming exists, that produces green technology, that urges us to change our ways as a society? After all, isn’t science what is going to save us from this mess? Yes and no. I am a scientist, and I believe in the value of a firm understanding of our natural environment as much as the next person. However, many scientists do not have a realistic understanding of the ways in which “western” science (the methods produced in Europe during the Enlightenment) is tied to society and culture. We believe so firmly in the inherent objectivity of our science, that we believe it is possible to completely extricate it from our deep seated values. However, an analysis of the history of Western science reveals that science is inherently tied to values of environmental utilitarianism, human-centrism and patriarchy.

Sir Francis Bacon was a 16th century philosopher and scientist who is widely considered one of the founding fathers of science. Because he was hugely influential among other enlightenment era scientists, his ideas still are at the heart of the way we conduct science today. In one piece of writing connecting modern science to the fall from the Garden of Eden, Bacon argued that the temptation of Eve caused the human race to lose its “dominion over creation.” Only by “digging further and further into the mine of natural knowledge” could man recover his lost dominion over the universe and force its “narrow limits [...] to their promised bounds.”  While science has grown more secular over time, the dominant paradigm within modern science maintains that man has the right to exploit any resources available to him in the name of knowledge. Although modern western science has unquestionably granted many benefits to modern western society, its utilitarian approach to nature has also inflicted damage upon society through pollution and depletion of nonrenewable resources. Bacon’s writing reveals that environmental destructivism is at the heart of western science.

What do we do with this knowledge about the values inherent western science? I do not advocate simply rejecting the knowledge produced by science or becoming skeptical of such natural phenomenon as global warming or evolution. However, I do suggest asking yourself these questions: What are the founding principles of western science? What are the implications of objectivity within science? Is science culturally “western” and if so, can we build a multicultural science? Critical thought is at the heart of a liberal arts education, and must involve questioning the institution which we question least: science.