Reflections on Science & Alternative Facts: Part 1 of 3
A consensus among scientists is no longer accepted as proof of the existence of fact or reality. Public acceptance of “alternative facts” is not limited to the political arena. Many sustainable agriculture advocates are firm believers in the science of human-caused climate change but are ardent skeptics of the science of human-controlled genetic engineering. The scientific consensus appears to be that humanity should take action to mitigate climate change but should do nothing to impede the development and diffusion of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Admittedly, some scientists reject both propositions. Regardless, scientific consensus is no longer accepted as the final determinant or arbitrator of fact or reality.
Several logical reasons account for the growing public skepticism of science. First, with diminished government funding for objective scientific inquiry, public institutions have turned to the private sector for additional funding and political support for their research. Modest contributions to public institutions by private corporations can often leverage much larger allocations of public funding to support the corporate research agenda. In addition, large corporation use their political power to influence public funding of research agendas of public institutions. Allocations of research funds are affected also by the ability of public institutions to benefit economically from research leading to patents, copyrights, or commercial application. Publicly funded research on projects supporting genetic engineering provides a prime example of economic influence on what was once accepted as objective, scientific inquiry.
Regardless of any conscious intent, public research invariably is affected by current and future prospects for future funding for specific researchable questions. For example, if no public funding is available for objective research concerning the long-run effects of GMOs on human health, the research quite simply is never done. In addition, most scientists, public and private, are funded to answer specific, narrow questions. For example, few scientists are funded to question the long run effects of genetic patenting on the structure of agriculture or corporate control of the global food system. Public health scientists and agricultural economists who might address such questions face many of the same corporate influence as geneticists. Research regarding the negative impacts of GMOs are left largely to the rural sociologists and cultural anthropologists, who receive little funding or respect from fellow scientists for their work.
I was a member of the academic community for 30-years. As a result, I am inclined to “follow the money” in assigning credibility or skepticism to scientific consensus. I see genetic engineering as simply the latest technology designed to facilitate the extraction of economic wealth from the land and the people who farm it. I have little confidence in “scientific facts” that support the corporate agenda of relentless economic exploitation of the earth’s natural and human resources. I have far more confidence in the “alternative facts” that point out the lack of research on public health risks or other potential negative economic and social impacts of genetic engineering. The alternative facts in this case are not really in conflict; they are simply alternative perspectives of scientific reality. Scientists who question the sustainability of genetic engineering face significant professional and economic risks—so most don’t do it. Instead, they attempt to discredit the scientists who raise questions about their advocacy. So, the appearance of alternative facts persists.
On the question of climate change, I give more credibility to the scientists who question the sustainability of continued reliance on fossil energy. Most believers are atmospheric scientists who have nothing to gain or lose economically. Most deniers, or climate change skeptics, are associated financially with the fossil fuel industry, regardless of whether they were skeptical before or became skeptics after their affiliation. In this case, the alternative facts are more a result of “cherry picking” studies or data sets that conflict with the scientific consensus. Their goal is to create skepticism rather than advocate for more relevant research. It’s difficult to deny satellite images of melting polar ice caps, rising ocean levels, and the concurrent massive release of fossil carbon from the crust of the earth. Regardless, “following the money” is still a useful guide in deciding on scientific credibility.
The existence of these and other “alternative facts” is a reflection of the nature of the important questions currently confronting humanity. The greatest advances in science thus far have been in astronomy, geology, physics, and chemistry—particularly in engineering, electronics, and inorganic chemistry. In these “hard sciences,” it’s relatively easy to isolate causes and effects and to manipulate nature to create the desired effects. Most of the scientific achievements apparent our so-called modern way of life are a consequence of the discoveries in the “nonliving” world. Some scientists include biology among the hard sciences, but living organisms are far more complex than non-living mechanisms. It’s far more difficult to isolate causes and effects or to manipulate living systems without creating unintended consequences. Problems in these areas are sometimes called “wicked problems,” not because they are evil but because they are difficult. This is a fundamental problem of genetic engineering. Living organism are being engineered as if they were inanimate mechanisms—with a virtual certainty of unintended consequences.
The most important questions confronting human society today fall in the realm of the “soft sciences”—human ecology, sociology, economics, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and ethics. Humans are thoughtful, intentional, responsive beings. The “thinking world” is even more complex and unpredictable than the non-human living world. Today’s scientific methods are simply incapable to determining “the facts” needed to answer the most critical questions confronting humanity. Global climate change, ecological degradation, dying oceans, desertification, persistent hunger, social injustice, economic inequity, resource wars, radical fundamentalism, and terrorism are all question beyond answering using today’s accepted scientific methods. Far too many scientists are being distracted from the real work of science to help develop the same kinds of technologies that created these problems. Scientists instead need to be exploring new approaches to science that are capable of providing information and knowledge that might be helpful in solving these problems.
Scientists need to use their thinking ability to rethink science to fit today’s problems rather than try to fit today’s problems into a science developed for the non-living, non-thinking world. In addressing today’s problems, I believe scientists need to think of reality as potentials to be explored rather than facts to be determined. The more important questions relate not only to “what is” but also “what could be.” An understanding of “reality as potential” also can help separate alternative facts from outright lies. This will be the subject of Part 2 of my Reflections on Science and Alternative Facts.