Have you noticed the wild flowers are becoming scarcer every year? It may be that their wise men have told them to depart till man becomes more human.
~ Okakura Kakuzō (1906) The Book of Tea
Nature doesn’t depend on Technology. There is not a single natural process or ecosystem that needs artificial technology to function or exist. But much of human society does rely on technology. It is surprising how much ‘artificial’ technologies are increasingly seen to be central to scientific research, by both scientists and non-scientists. This view is particularly mystifying in ecological science, which is arguably the least technological of the sciences.
In a 2010 critical review of using GPS telemetry in field biology/ecology research, Hebblewhite & Haydon ask “what insights into ecology and conservation has all this extra technology really provided us with?” The disadvantages they list outnumber the advantages and they reckon the strongest advantage is being able to collect data that aren’t biased by the human observer’s ability or presence – things like nocturnal animal behaviour, or migratory patterns. Fair enough…but we did collect information like that before the advent of technology. It just required much more patience, and therefore time, than we think we have now. It also often relied on traditional knowledge gathered from indigenous people or past civilisations, most of whom were much more connected to Nature than we are now.
Observational studies, once the heroine of the natural sciences, are now considered very much out of fashion in some circles. Sometimes, the ‘latest technology’ part of new research gets more coverage or credence (or funding) than the real applications, or implications, of the study. Which is ironic considering that decisions based on research data influence communities and environments far beyond the reach of technology. Much of the Majority World doesn’t have access to ‘new’ technology and many non-western cultures still place more importance on face-to-face communication than they do on emails.
Are these changing attitudes to research merely a reflection of the technological society we live in? Or maybe it comes from Academia’s (and the Media’s) prioritisation of “novel” research? Often, developing or using a ‘new’ technology in the study is the easiest way to meet the ‘novelty’ criterion.
But Göran Arnqvist recently argued that because very little in science is truly novel, creating a system that prioritises novelty simply promotes “poor scientific practice”. Scientific research is meant to replicate, build on, and relate to, the previous knowledge and research on that topic. By demanding “novelty” to get published, and talked about, potential authors may feel more pressured to inflate the importance of their findings, or skirt around the edges of the existing literature.
- In taking this approach to research, are we unwittingly widening the gap between Science and the public’s understanding of (and trust in) scientific research?
Retractions of published studies have increased tenfold since the start of the 21st century, although it’s unclear why – are scientists more honest now, or are more ‘flawed’ studies being published in hast, to tick the novelty box? ‘Mistakes’ happen in Science – even experienced scientists make errors of judgement in experiment, observation, analysis or communication, and (hopefully) they, or someone else, will subsequently try and improve on this. It’s been happening for centuries and this is what Science is all about. But ‘mistakes’ are now made more visible, and more accountable, to the non-scientific public through the reach of the collective Media.
At the same time scientific literacy has declined and general misunderstanding, mistrust and disrespect for the scientific profession has increased. Students in the US are more aware of Marlboro and Disneyland now than they were in 1980, but less knowledgeable on science, geography or history. In Australia, a recent science literacy survey found that 27% (of 1515 people) thought that early humans were alive at the same time as dinosaurs.
We are often told that addressing public engagement and literacy in science is pointless. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. But what if the problem wasn’t that a lot of people just didn’t really care about Science? What if they did care, but they had a misconception about Science based on the world they lived in? What if they had never learnt that Science was much more than lab coats, technology and the Big Bang Theory?
As Carol Kaesuk Yoon puts it so eloquently, our Umwelt (our sense or perception of the world around us) has changed. For thousands of years, our Umwelt was driven by our intimate connection to the natural world that we lived in. Now, it is defined by our existence “as consumers in a landscape of merchandise”. We can take ‘merchandise’ to mean not just “purchasable items”, but also the metaphorical merchandise (images, texts, software, ideas) that we receive from our technological society.
But Science is explained by Nature, not Manufacture. So if we are more connected to Manufacture than to Nature, how can we understand Science?
Let’s face it. We love Nature. Secretly, we are all desperate for a “long term relationship” with her. We can’t survive without her. Addressing scientific literacy and engaging with the “non-scientific public” is more than just embracing the latest technologies. It’s about getting Science back together with Nature, and teaching the next generation to keep up with the ‘old’ too.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere,
They’re in each other all along.
© Manu Saunders 2013