Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What do we think as individuals about an issue? How is possible to build an opinion that satisfy us? What can we do about it?

Some questions emerged when I was reading about the polemic experiment LOHAFEX, a cooperation between the National Institute of Oceanography, India and the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Germany. The idea of the experiment was to fertilize a stable offshore area of the Southern Ocean with iron sulphate to induce a phytoplankton bloom. The given reason for the experiment was to understand the role of iron in our oceans, especially in relation to the role of ocean fertilization in removing atmospheric carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Opponents including conservation groups, some scientific organizations and some governmental agencies consider this experiment unnecessary, dangerous (ocean acidification, pollution...) and partially motivated by the potential commercial use of this technology in large scale. The researchers denied this, alleging that they oppose large scale fertilization in the oceans, that the experiment does not cause any damage to the environment, that the results will bring invaluable information for the scientific community and the mayor motivation was the necessity of filling knowledge gaps.

The problem was that it was difficult for me to build an opinion based on the information found. For me the reasons for the experiment were more or less valid since the role of anything that may affect the global warming should be studied. Also interesting for me was the idea that carbon dioxide sequestered in waters deeper that 3000m could remain there for centuries before re-entering the atmosphere (only few months in shallower waters). How can we ensure that the outcomes of the experiment will not be used for anything possible such as large scale commercial fertilizations? What happen after those centuries? Why should we postpone the problem to future generations? Is this only a palliative? Are we really solving the causes? Are we as individuals powerful enough to influence something big?

Unable to think further in the experiment as a scientist and feeling uncomfortable about this, the thought arose in my mind that having the facts is not sufficient, science by itself is not enough to transform things in a positive way, positive for the majority and positive for the environment. We have to find in our selves our core values and relate them to science. The way we handle our environment, the way we are treating our seas, in that way we are treating ourselves and the future. To be successful as individuals in addressing conservation issues and sustainable management, we need a long term intrinsic motivation powered by our set of core values and our search for knowledge. As Mohandas Gandhi said “we have to be those changes we want to see in the world”...


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  2. There are so many points raised in this post, where to start.
    Whilst some will oppose this method of research, others will still welcome it, and not just companies wishing to use this in aquaculture and other industries which could benefit. The inherent dangers of causing a bloom which could become toxic and cause the death of a large number of other organisms is not something that should be taken lightly, and I would hope that this had been assessed before the experiment had taken place. Not having read about it and only having heard of it briefly before, I cannot comment on the actual experimental method etc.

    As to whether individuals can make a difference, of course they can, there have been dozens of examples throughout history and even in the present day. By what people buy in the shops, the consumer controls what companies produce, the hold they have over a large area of industry is surprising.

    You said yourself that this was an experiment. Therefore it is not as though it is being carried out on a huge scale as it would be if it was part of an industry. This was a single experiment from what has been said, and the effect of it will be looked at, I assume, and from that a result found.

    I think you have leapt ahead of yourself a little.

  3. A very interesting post....Id like to comment on the issues you raised in the later part of the paper on our individual ability to engage as sceintists on issues concerning marine sustainability.

    In a recent article in EOS, Oct 2008 Vol 89 (52), 'Affecting public policy: What is a scientist to do?, a postdoctoral fellow discussed his placement as a scientist in government and the role of science in devleoping public policy. As the discusses, scientsits, like everyone else, are affected by public policy, and have an interest, if not a special role, in ensuring the best policies are enacted.

    The article spent some time exploring what the role of the scientist should be - either an impartial expert supplying the 'facts' or an activist advocating for a particular position. The article felt that the positions were mutually exlcusive - you couldn't be both. However, both positions, are relevant in formualting policy and enacting 'change'. One one hand maintaining the neutrality of science is important to provide reliable information and it shouldn't 'take sides'. On the other hand scientists are people too, with opinions and values, and these do influence the way we think, engage and work. With access to tools and informaiton the public does not have, scientists should also speak up about important issues where change is needed...just look at climate change or fisheries for example.

    So...which one are you?

  4. As a practitioner I know that my opinions will be taken seriously by stakeholders if I know my facts and am seen to be impartial - i.e. being even-handed and not supporting opinions that do not have a good evidence base. Some NGOs that I have dealt with have defined campaign objectives and they will either use or ignore evidence to suit their campaign - and even manipulate the evidence to support their objective. However, many NGOs have found that this approach leads them to become discredited amongst policy formers (even if it makes good headlines)and so discredits all their activities. The best solution for scientists is to support positions consistent with the evidence and not to jump on band-wagons before a thorough evaluation of the facts and theories. The public have a right to expect this measured evidence based approach from scientists. I try not to have opinions on things I have not studied.

  5. I'd be curious to know what your approach would be when there is uncertainty in the science, but decisions need to be made. This could be data based uncertainty, process uncertainty or just simple ignorance! Would you endorse the precautionary approach as a scientist?

    Also, what if the scientist has the 'facts' but there is a huge inertia in the system against change, or there is a cultural bias against change? Should he or she become involved as an 'activist' - I guess an example would the Pauly's work on overfishing, Hansen (from NASA) work on climate change or even Lovelock on Gaia. I guess, what Im trying to say is that being an activist doesn't necessarily mean being an NGO..but this does stray from science into politics. Im just wondering where the line is...or even if there is a line!

  6. Re Kenny's post, I'd be interested to know if you think we should only express our opinions if we are sure they will be taken seriously? Couldn't this form of self-censorship inhibit the expression of ideas or opinions which, although they may not be taken seriously or have hard evidence to back them up, may be the intuitive seeds of what may later blossom into innovative (and evidence-based)ways forward?

  7. Re the last paragraph of Jessica's original post, I think you're touching on an issue discussed by Robert Hay in his article "Becoming Ecosynchronous, Part 1. The Root Causes of Our Unsustainable Way of Life" (2005. Sustainable Development 13:311-325) where he advocates going beyond purely technological (and thereby arguably, by extension, factual scientific) approaches to the environmental and social crisis facing us by bringing "the personal dimension back into our initiatives" through actively couching technology and science in an awareness of the psychological and philosophical roots of our problems. Hay speaks of delving into the values and ethics underlying decisions to get at these root causes.

    Often dismissed as concepts that are far too amorphous to be useful in the logical world of science, could values be, as you suggest, something that we need to integrate more into the scientific world? If so, this begs the question - where do we find values? I think your suggestion that we have to find our core values within ourselves is correct. It echoes Alistair McIntosh's description (in his book Rekindling Community) of true values as "a discovery....inner qualities that emerge only as we live up to becoming increasingly honest to life". As McIntosh points out, true values, coming from within, force people to face up to and own their values.

    Finding these values therefore requires an exploration of self, leading to greater self-awareness (and self-acceptance). In fact, finding these values calls for an exploration that goes in completely the opposite direction to scientific research which is always outwardly directed. It would make sense then that what you feel is missing can be found via a search in the opposite direction - inwards. The fruits of both avenues of research do not exclude each other - quite the opposite, they complement and enrich each other.

    While authors such as Jentoft have called for the integration of research from the disciplines of psychology, education and sociology with science, I think this that this is a step in the right direction but it does not go far enough as it is more "outward" research (albeit into inward processes) which is still too far removed from ourselves to provide what is missing and necessary. Jung pointed to this when he wrote, in 1969, that the modern person “needs to return, not to Nature in the manner of Rousseau, but to his own nature. His task is to find the natural man again. Instead of this, there is nothing he likes better than systems and methods by which he can repress the natural man who is everywhere at cross purposes with him”.

    (continued in next post due to excessive length of comment!)

  8. (continued from previous post)

    A year later (1970), Jung observed: “everything possible has been done for the outside world: science has been refined to an almost unimaginable extent, technical achievement has reached an almost uncanny degree of perfection. But what of man who is expected to administer all these blessings in a reasonable way? He has simply been taken for granted.” Almost 40 years on, science has been refined to an extent that would have been entirely unimaginable in 1970. But what of our own personal understanding of the human psyche? Or to put it in a more optimistic way – if “outward” research has yielded the unimaginable fruits that we have today, what could be the fruits of inward exploration?

    To draw again from Jung: “one should never forget that science is simply a matter of intellect and that the intellect is only one among several fundamental psychic functions and therefore does not suffice to give a complete picture of the world. For this another function – feeling – is needed too. Feeling often arrives at convictions that are different from those of the intellect, and we cannot always prove that the convictions of feeling are necessarily inferior.”

    All of the above is not to say that no conservation/sustainable management issues can be solved by science alone. It all depends on the issue. Schumacher distinguishes between convergent and divergent problems, saying that the former can be solved by logic and method, whereas the latter, formed out of tensions between competing perspectives can only be resolved by more non-rational methods such as wisdom, love, compassion, understanding and empathy.

    Drawing on the non-rational cannot come from the outside, it must come from within, but to find such non-rational tools, the "within" territory must first be explored, and not just by researchers, but by each individual, if we are to create the "long term intrinsic motivation powered by our set of core values and our search for knowledge" that you describe. So in a very long-winded way, what I wanted to say is that I agree whole-heartedly with what you’re getting at Jessica. And although I have already quoted extensively from Jung (sourced from a 2001 article by Yunt on “Jung’s contribution to an Ecological Psychology) I cannot resist one final quotation (from 1959):

    “Can we not understand that all the outward tinkerings and improvements do not touch man’s inner nature, and that everything ultimately depends upon whether the man who wields the science and the technics is capable of responsibility or not?”

  9. In reply to the above post and with the notion that as scientists we should look inwards for our motivation. Especially when studying the natural environment, it seems obvious to me that our motivation and inspiration should come wholly or at least mostly from nature itself.

    When considering management issues in particular, i believe that values-based motivation is counterproductive. When trying to reduce the anthropogenic footprint, personal values which are themselves derived from our culture and upbringing can cloud or judgement. With public opinion weighing heavy on funding, we cannot afford the kind of confusion that arises from conflict of interest between what rational science tells us is the right thing to do for the environment and what we personally believe is right for the environment.

  10. I would agree that emotions-based motivation can be counterproductive. I would however, draw a distinction between (i) emotions which are transitory and can completely cloud judgement, (ii) gut feelings/intuition which, when working hand in hand with rationality and logic, can provide an extremely powerful combination, and (iii) values, which operate outside the judgement box, and which are universal truths rather than fleeting, clouding emotions.

    Thinking/rationality is necessarily judgemental (as Shakespeare said in Hamlet: "Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so"). Wise judgements are those that are illuminated (not clouded) by values.