Of bad science and bad SCIENCE: the angry farmer meets the angry chef

The plaudits seem to be piling up for Bad Science and the Truth about Healthy Eating1 by Anthony Warner, better known as ‘The Angry Chef’ for his foul-mouthed assaults on the pseudoscientific pretensions of the alternative health and diet industry. Well, my advocacy for alternative farming has never really been strongly grounded in nutritional considerations, and to be honest I find a lot of the book a pretty convincing takedown of some of the wilder shores of contemporary food faddism. So perhaps I’d be best off focusing on other things. But there are things that trouble me about Mr Angry’s line of argument, which bear on the general themes of this blog, so I’m going to conclude my recent series of critical book reviews with a look at his opus. Because you see, for someone who’s so angry about bad science, there’s a remarkable quantity of bad science in the book. The reason, I think, is because Mr A is less interested in science than in SCIENCE, and the result of this is…bad.

I’ll explain the difference between lowercase science and uppercase SCIENCE towards the end of this essay. But first I want to home in on the chapter of Mr Angry’s book in which he most reveals his penchant for bad science – Chapter 7 in Part II of the book called “When science goes wrong”, which focuses on the Paleo diet.

The Paleo diet idea in brief is that human diets changed radically after the widespread global adoption of agriculture starting around 10,000 years ago. This involved the substitution of energy dense foods based on cereals (and, later, also sugar) for the less carb-heavy fare to which our species and its antecedents had previously been accustomed. According to Paleo diet proponents, the high-energy input and low-exercise output regimen of modern life is associated with many of the chronic diseases of later life that plague us today, because a mere 10,000 years or less of agricultural lifeways has been insufficient for full evolutionary adaptation. There are numerous additional complexities to the Paleo diet idea which are set out in Loren Cordain’s eponymous book2, but that, I think, will have to suffice as a thumbnail sketch.

Trying to sort the chaff from the grain in Mr Angry’s attempted refutation of the Paleo hypothesis, if that’s not an inappropriate metaphor, I hope it’s fair to summarise it by way of the following six points:

  1. The Paleo hypothesis misunderstands evolution, since it assumes that evolution creates “one perfect being at a single point in time and then chug[s] along unaltered as the world changes around it”3. The truth is that “evolution doesn’t stop” – which Mr A supports with reference to the post-agricultural emergence of lactose tolerance.
  1. There were many different Palaeolithic peoples who ate widely different diets, so it’s impossible to determine what ‘the’ Paleo diet should be.
  1. Palaeolithic peoples did, in fact, consume carbohydrates.
  1. The Paleo hypothesis is sexist: its contemporary proponents tend to be men, and their “hypothesised Palaeolithic lifestyle” involving relatively high levels of meat consumption is “likely to appeal to a certain retrograde misogyny – the muscular male hunter bravely wrestling bears, while the women tend the children and pick a few berries”.
  1. The Paleo hypothesis romanticises the Palaeolithic period, a point that Mr Angry makes by various characterisations of it such as this: “As a species, we did all of our evolving in the golden age, when men were men and women wore bikinis made of mammoth fur”.
  1. The Paleo hypothesis involves a dangerous refusal of expert knowledge, because despite the fact that there’s a grain of truth to some of it and that it has a few academic advocates “in accepting the misunderstanding of science that underlies it there is a real danger of abandoning the tenets of reason. Once you reject the voices of real experts in favour of charismatic advocates with a prettier story, you leave yourself open to packs of pseudoscience wolves.”

What to make of all this? First, I’d draw a distinction between points 1-3, which are at least potentially good scientific objections to the Paleo hypothesis, and points 4-6 which are bad scientific objections – in fact, they’re not ‘scientific’ at all. Points 4 and 5 are ad hominem criticisms of contemporary people who espouse the Paleo hypothesis. I have no idea if they’re well-grounded and I don’t really care, because to use the kind of language favoured by Mr A himself, if it’s true that pre-agricultural diets are better for human health then, scientifically speaking, it doesn’t matter a flying f*** what views people espousing such diets take on matters of gender or history.

Point 6 is not so much an unscientific objection to the Paleo hypothesis as an anti-scientific one. For, as Mr A is at pains to emphasise throughout his text, the modus operandi of science, the whole reason for its spectacular success, is that it doesn’t satisfy itself with the ‘expert’ opinions of people in authority, but relentlessly questions received wisdom. For sure, if you want to take an intellectual shortcut on a scientific matter you’re probably better off asking for the opinions of someone who has some relevant scientific qualifications than those of someone who doesn’t. But science proceeds by way of empirical hypothesis-testing, not expert opinion-making, and the glory of it is that ultimately it stands or falls irrespective of anybody’s opinions. The criticisms voiced by the experts Mr Angry cites seem to take aim more generically at the idea of ‘a Paleo diet’ rather than any specific hypothesis underlying it. In any case, his contention that the Paleo hypothesis is rejected by all the experts apart from “a few academic advocates to give it some validity” is rather tendentious. There seems to be a reasonable body of writing in peer-reviewed journals that is broadly supportive4.

So I think we can reject points 4-6 as bad scientific objections to the Paleo hypothesis. Kind of weird to find such bad science in a book critiquing bad science, huh? Well, I think Mr A has his reasons, and I’ll come on to that soon.

But first let’s look more closely at the possibly more plausible points 1-3. Mr Angry is on firm ground in arguing that evolution doesn’t create perfect creatures at particular points in time and then stops. That certainly would be a misunderstanding of evolution. But, so far as I can discern, it’s not what proponents of the Paleo hypothesis actually think. Mr A doesn’t provide any references to support his characterisation of the evolutionary theory behind the Paleo hypothesis, which strikes me as intellectually sloppy. I think I’m detecting the sweet, dry aroma of straw, shaped into human form.

I’ll come back to evolutionary theory in a moment but, just to pick up on points 2 and 3, here is where we may be getting somewhere. If it turns out that Palaeolithic diets were typically as rich in carbohydrates as contemporary ones (and perhaps more to the point, as rich in simple carbohydrates) then that really would throw a spanner into the Paleo hypothesis. Here, Mr A does cite a paper, which argues that starchy foods were important in the pre-agricultural diet5. But so far as I can tell it doesn’t argue that carbohydrates or simple carbohydrates formed as significant a proportion of the diet as they do today – indeed, other research papers suggest the opposite6. Mr A himself mentions that among adults in the contemporary UK 12.1% of their dietary energy comes from added sugar, and for 11-18 year olds the figure is what he calls a “a genuinely shocking” 15.6%. It’s clearly true that Palaeolithic diets were quite varied and that Palaeolithic people would have sought out sources of carbohydrate when they could. But how many of them regularly consumed sucrose or simple carbohydrates more generally at the kind of levels reported by Mr A for the contemporary UK? My guess would be few, if any. And if that’s so, then there’s surely a prima facie case for the plausibility of the Paleo hypothesis.

Let me now briefly try to reconstruct the rudiments of a plausible Paleo diet hypothesis which is robust to the kind of objections raised by Mr Angry. First, I don’t think it’s scientifically controversial to say that there are widely consumed foodstuffs today that have potentially anti-nutritional or morbid properties as well as nutritional ones – soy, rape (canola), wheat and sugar spring to mind. There are ways of trying to minimise these properties – plant-breeding, preparation methods and dietary diversity among them. But I think it’s plausible to suggest that consumption of the crops I’ve mentioned – all huge global commodity crops – is likely to be higher than in pre-agricultural diets7.

Second, let us consider the nature of disease and exposure to risk factors associated with it. In some cases, diseases and disease-causing agents are experienced as binaries: you either have malaria or you don’t, you were either exposed to asbestos or you weren’t. But in many cases exposure is a continuous variable – for example, high blood pressure is associated with various health problems, but blood pressure is distributed continuously within populations. The point at which we define someone as suffering from the disease of hypertension is essentially arbitrary8. I hypothesise that the same may be true for the negative effects of foodstuffs like sucrose and gluten. Some people are highly susceptible and may display various morbid symptoms at low exposures, while others will be utterly impervious. The rest of us will be strung out along the continuum between these two poles. We won’t, for example, experience morbid symptoms simply by eating a few slices of bread, but if we eat a lot of bread over many years it’s possible that some of us eventually will experience morbid symptoms as a result. So, for example, the notion criticised by Mr Angry that no amount of sugar consumption is safe may be overly alarmist, but isn’t necessarily without scientific foundation. And one of the findings of preventive medicine is that population health is improved more radically if exposure to the risk factor is reduced by a little bit across the whole population than by a lot only among those most susceptible to it9. So even if in some cases (like coeliac disease, for example) there’s a genetic aetiology which isn’t simply distributed continuously, there may still be a case for taking a ‘less is better’ approach.

Third, let us consider the nature of evolution. Organisms, including humans, are born with characteristics substantially inherited from their parents which have usually developed over the evolutionary long haul because they conferred adaptive abilities to cope with the kind of environments the species in question experienced. Often, the kind of environment an organism experiences is similar to that experienced by its parents and ancestors, but sometimes environments change. In these circumstances, stronger selective pressures act upon the inherent variability within the species, favouring those organisms with characteristics that are better suited to the new environment. But, in the short-run at least, natural selection is a blunt instrument, acting only upon relative reproductive success. Therefore, if an organism experiences an environmental change that reduces its adaptive fitness in the post-reproductive phase of its life the selective effect will be slighter (though not, as discussed on this blog a while back, zero). And even in the case of stronger selective pressures, it can take a long time for natural selection to ‘catch up’ with the environmental change by progressively eliminating less adaptive characteristics in the population.

Fourth, let us consider the nature of the historical human diet. I’d hypothesise that it’s evolutionarily adaptive for humans to like and favour nutrient-rich foods such as sugar and other carbohydrates, fat, meat and other protein-heavy food. But in the hunter-gatherer situations that have typified the greatest proportion of our species and its antecedents’ time on earth, these foods were usually relatively hard to come by10. Mr Angry states with appropriate caution that we don’t really know in detail what our Palaeolithic forebears ate, and – as I’ve mentioned – he cites a research paper that suggests carbohydrate was an important part of our diet before agriculture, but doesn’t suggest how important. He also states that “even the evil grains were widely consumed for much of [the Palaeolithic period]”. This time he provides no supportive evidence for this statement, but there are research papers that suggest otherwise11.

One other little notion I’d like to throw into the mix here is the finding that rates of diabetes in societies consuming modern ‘western’ diets seem to be much higher than those of hunter-gatherer societies and others following ‘ancestral’ diets, but rates among people who’ve switched from an ‘ancestral’ diet to a modern western one may be higher still12.

OK, let me try to parlay all that into the Angry Farmer’s own personal Paleo hypothesis, which goes something like this: most ancestral human populations were adapted to diets lower in gluten-containing wheat, sugar and other simple carbohydrates than is typical of the modern western diet. Exposure to higher levels of these foodstuffs in the contemporary western diet is causally associated with various chronic diseases of later life such as diabetes and heart disease. Evolution hasn’t ‘stopped’ with the invention of agriculture – there is likely to be a selective effect favouring people who are less susceptible to such chronic diseases. But the effect is likely to be relatively weak and has not yet had time to eliminate the negative consequences of a cereal and carbohydrate-rich diet. Therefore, to reduce the risk of these disease outcomes it may be prudent for people to reduce their carbohydrate and wheat consumption. Lactose tolerance is another post-agricultural evolutionary adaptation – and one where the selective effect is likely to be stronger than in the case of gluten or carbohydrate tolerance because it confers the ability for whole populations to exploit new pastoralist niches that would be harder to occupy for lactose intolerant people. The weaker selective effect of post-reproductive chronic illness is inoperative in this case. Lactose tolerance is, however, just about the only clearly identified post-agricultural dietary adaptation. As Katharine Milton argues, “We know of few specific genetic adaptations to diet in our species”13. And even lactose tolerance isn’t that widespread across the human species.

Of course, I haven’t proved the Paleo hypothesis here. But I like to think I’ve established that it has a basic scientific plausibility that’s robust to Mr Angry’s objections. Note that it doesn’t depend on any notion that the Palaeolithic was some kind of ‘golden age’, or on a view that evolution creates one perfect being at a single point in time which is then impervious to change. It may turn out to be empirically wrong. But, for his part, Mr Angry furnishes no evidence to suggest that it is.

So why does he go to such lengths to ridicule it, employing such exemplarily bad science along the way? I think it’s because he’s less interested in critiquing bad science per se than in purveying a broader cultural argument. The milder form of this argument is that we shouldn’t get too hung up on our food choices or use them as status symbols. The essential message is: everything in moderation, enjoy life as you go, inject a bit of rationality into your thought and don’t point the finger of blame too much at yourself or other people. My feeling is that humans aren’t that good at rationality and incline quite naturally to symbolic thought, especially with culturally powerful things like food, and to games of status and blame. So I think Mr A has quite a battle on his hands to realise his vision – maybe that’s why he’s so angry. Sir, the angry farmer feels your pain. As a supporter of various lost causes myself, I’m not inclined to be too critical of this mild form of the argument, which strikes me as quite sensible.

But as the book wears on, the argument turns into something much more strident, totalising and, ultimately, pretty weird. Here are a few quotations:

“It is not enough to tackle dietary myths in isolation, attacking each one with competing evidence-based messages. In order to sell sensible, truthful messages, scientific truth itself needs to be made into an idea that sticks”

“To question science is to ignore everything it has done for man, to overlook the astounding progress of the last few hundred years”

“Processed convenience food has set women free, and every time we criticize convenience choices, we are showing our desire to drag women’s bodies and minds away from the workplace and back into the kitchen”

“I will always decry anyone who makes wild insinuations” …. “every society that has ever existed would eagerly swap their lives with someone living in the developed world today”

Here, ‘science’ as a form of rational, critical inquiry is turning into something else – a cultural or ideological proposition that contemporary ‘developed’ society is uniquely desirable and liberatory as a result of the inherent truthfulness of its science, which is now reconfigured in the argument as a unified repository of the good, something that must not be criticised for fear of falling into error. In other words, ‘science’ in this strand of Mr Angry’s presentation has assumed the mantle of religion or the revealed truth of God’s word. My shorthand term for this way of thinking about science is an uppercase SCIENCE, and it has precious little to do with science as a form of critical inquiry. Others refer to it as the ideology of scientism.

And this is all eerily familiar, no? The vaunting of contemporary ‘developed’ society against the inferiority of all other human societies. The religious style of elevating a particular truth claim – SCIENCE – over the putatively inferior, superstitious and relativist claims of its critics. The invocation of an oppressed category of people – in Mr Angry’s case, usually women – as uniquely liberated by the superior qualities of the culture in question, thereby positioning its critics as pariahs, in this case as misogynists. Oh, we’ve been here before – whether it’s diet, golden rice, nuclear power, urbanisation, ‘scientific agriculture’, or simply ‘progress’, the ideology of ecomodernism spreads its slimy tentacles ever wider. It always stakes a claim to speak up for the oppressed, for decency, and for progress, and against false idols like romanticism and relativism. And it’s always struck me as essentially religious in form – never more clearly than in Mr Angry’s exposition. Consider his comment:

“Poor dietary choices do not occur when people are driven by hedonistic pleasure, they occur when people eat without thought, and that will never happen if we engage with and truly love the food we eat”.

To me, this counter-Puritanism looks indistinguishable from the kind of unscientific mumbo-jumbo that Mr Angry spends so much time trying to debunk in his book. You could just as easily, and just as incorrectly, say that you’ll never get lung cancer if you smoke for hedonistic pleasure and truly love the tobacco you puff. As in Raj Patel’s fine book Stuffed and Starved, I think the truth is that we’ve ‘scientifically’ engineered our way to a global diet in which too many people get too much ‘feast food’ (typically the poorer people in the richer countries) and too many people get too little food at all (typically the poorer people in the poorer countries).

Ah well, I like to think I’ve written enough about ecomodernism in the past and have acquired a sufficiently like-minded and discerning readership on this blog not to labour the point of what, to use one of Mr A’s own favoured words, utter dumbfuckery his claims about hedonistic eating or the trans-historical desirability of contemporary ‘developed’ society are. So I’d just like to conclude with a few further thoughts about ‘science’.

At one point in his book, Mr Angry quotes from a speech by John F. Kennedy about the US moon programme in which the president said “space science, like nuclear science and all technology has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man”. And yet there is no sense of this same ambivalence, of cultural contradictions and trade-offs, of paths closed off as new ones open up, in his own thinking about science, which he’s content to describe simply as “the greatest force for progress that there has ever been”. Well, off the top of my head, here are five great anti-‘progressive’ forces in the contemporary world which have all emerged as a result of the progress of science:

  • anthropogenic climate change
  • thermonuclear weapons
  • accelerated biodiversity loss
  • eutrophication of rivers and oceans
  • loss of antibiotic efficacy through prophylactic agricultural use

My guess is that all of them have the potential to imperil human lives at a level orders of magnitude beyond that caused by Gwyneth Paltrow’s half-arsed dietary advice or the Gerson therapy and other dodgy ideas of the kind excoriated by Mr Angry, precisely because of the efficacy of the scientific method in combination with the vastly transformative nature of the capitalist economy. And if one had to choose the single greatest threat to humanity in contemporary society caused by the refusal to heed scientific opinion, it would surely have to be climate change, something that Mr Angry doesn’t mention once. And, seriously, which science-denier is the greater threat – Ms. Paltrow or JFK’s unsurpassably idiotic successor in current occupation of the White House? Ah well, I suppose just because we face major existential threats as a result of our science, there’s no reason to avoid writing books about the minor existential threats we face as a result of our non-science. But I don’t think these should be built up into a closed ideological defence of SCIENCE as an ideology of modernity and inherent progress. Despite the rather toxic debate we’ve got into recently concerning the status of experts in the wake of Michael Gove and Charlie Gard, this doesn’t seem a great historical moment to be extolling scientific progress, the cult of the expert and ‘development’ as virtues. In fact, I think books like Mr Angry’s are part of the problem. Which makes me kind of…angry.

Notes

  1. The Angry Chef. 2017. Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating. OneWorld.
  1. Cordain, Loren. 2002. The Paleo Diet. John Wiley & Sons.
  1. The Angry Chef, op cit. I read the book on an e-reader and regrettably I have no idea how to give page references.
  1. eg. Kuipers, Remko et al. 2012. A multidisciplinary reconstruction of Palaeolithic nutrition that holds promise for the prevention and treatment of diseases of civilisation. Nutrition Research Reviews 25: 96-129; Lieberman, Leslie. 2003. Dietary, evolutionary and modernizing influences on the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes. Annual Review of Nutrition 23: 345-77; Lindeberg, Staffan. 2012. Paleolithic diets as a model for prevention and treatment of western disease. American Journal of Human Biology 24: 110-5; Milton, Katharine. 2000. Hunter-gatherer diets – a different perspective. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 71, 3: 665-7.
  1. Hardy, Karen et al. 2015. The importance of dietary carbohydrate in human evolution. The Quarterly Review of Biology. 90, 3: 251-68.
  1. Milton, op cit.
  1. Savard, Manon et al. The role of wild grasses in subsistence and sedentism. World Archaeology 38, 2: 179-96.
  1. Rose, Geoffrey. 1993. The Strategy of Preventive Medicine. Oxford University Press.
  1. Ibid.
  1. Milton, op cit.
  1. Savard et al, op cit.
  1. Zimmet, Paul. 1992. Challenges in diabetes epidemiology – from west to the rest. Diabetes Care 15, 2: 232-52.
  1. Milton, op cit.

69 thoughts on “Of bad science and bad SCIENCE: the angry farmer meets the angry chef

  1. Chris, you were doing great until the very last paragraph, where you undermined your whole article with the revelation that CAPITALISM is actually the problem, not SCIENCE!

    If only we had more SCIENCE, we could finally topple CAPITALISM, and then we would be free to consume and not work and settle Mars and also entire other galaxies with our Blessed Human Spawn!

    But seriously, speaking as a fan of your writing in this area, please don’t feel the need to withhold for fear of being boring to your regular readers. A nice articulate tirade is a lovely way to spend a Sunday morning.

  2. The two things that will stay with me from my former interest in the Paleo subject are the changes I can feel and measure once I stick to a few of its basic rules (like now), and Toby Hemenway’s way of telling the story of grain production as a principal enabler of hierarchy in human societies.

  3. I think you might be giving him too much intellectual credit. A dark fact about the human psyche is that being angry can be secretly enjoyable. And the swearier the better – it indicates your sheer earnest desire to simply make-the-world-a-better-place. No need to look any further … or indeed to feed what amounts to functional trolling.

  4. In ‘Paleo’ days where would they have got large quantities of carbohydrate from in a pre farming era?

    • John: wild yams, wild grains, wild rice… but likely used a lot of it for beer brewing… 🙂

      The reason I eat low on the grain tree is that starches make ya fat… and clog up the gut. Cut out pasta entirely… all it is is dried starch. I had to laugh about the Angry guy’s comment about women being liberated by processed foods. Ugh. Would you feel liberated if you had a servant to tie your shoelaces, and never learned how?

      Chris, made a quick comment earlier and it disappeared. Maybe into the spam folder?

  5. I really appreciate this review – saves me the time I might have wasted looking through the book myself. But still there are a couple of your arguments I want to have a poke at.

    My feeling is that humans aren’t that good at rationality and incline quite naturally to symbolic thought, especially with culturally powerful things like food, and to games of status and blame.

    Compared to whom?? Are orangs, chimps, or bonobos so outrageously rational as to make us ‘not that good’ by comparison? I’ll not argue the inclination to symbolic thought and games of status. Defaulting to easier paths (particularly in times of plenty) seems natural. Necessity being the mother of invention, and invention seeming to require a dose of rationality, our being ‘not that good’ seems mute. We’ve thus far been good enough. Where I sense you’re headed is that we may not be good enough (or up the coming challenge(s) ) where cataclysmic change may be in store. And I find that a reasonable position to stake out. But it doesn’t appear to be a justified attack on past performance.

    Well, off the top of my head, here are five great anti-‘progressive’ forces in the contemporary world which have all emerged as a result of the progress of science:
    1 anthropogenic climate change
    2 thermonuclear weapons
    3 accelerated biodiversity loss
    4 eutrophication of rivers and oceans
    5 loss of antibiotic efficacy through prophylactic agricultural use

    I’ll pass on #1 – not because I stand beside you in agreement, but that I suspect our difference of opinion on the matter is too small to warrant space.

    Also passing on #2 – this time though I imagine we are indeed on precisely the same space.

    #3 – My argument here would be to suggest that biodiversity loss would be MORE accelerated, not less, if it weren’t for scientific effort. Higher yielding domesticates, nutrition research, food preservation techniques… these all offer a means for saving or sparing habitat that would otherwise be overrun in the efforts to feed our population. Now if you wish to suggest that the current population size is a result of the progress of science – then I’d turn toward Jevons, or Malthus (or even Darwin) for support.

    #4 Eutrophication is not a human invention. Massive landscape modification has taken place on such a grand scale as to render our meager mess something of a sideshow. Not trying to excuse our folly on this front. We could well make our living space much friendlier and hospitable. But scientific progress is not wholly to blame, and there are examples where scientific efforts make inroads in alleviating the problem. Indeed, scientific progress should get some credit for bringing the matter to our collective attention in the first place.

    #5 Antibiotic efficacy – at least in the use you have set forth – is itself a result of scientific progress. Scientific progress has provided us the benefit, it has alerted us of the problem(s) of misuse, and is in the process of finding solutions to these problems (which I’d argue have more to do with behavioral abuse of technology than with actual scientific progress per se).

    So if these quibbles make me sound like Stewart Brand or others of that ilk – I apologize. Whether science gets spelled in all caps or not, it should only be asked to shoulder that portion of a supposed abuse that might result from its originally intended application. Unintended consequences – particularly those following on from abusive human applications of new technologies – should be accounted in the proper column on the spreadsheet.

    • Interesting, Clem. An elegant point about rationality. I am with you on that. I won’t quibble about the others, but I think Chris is right about #3. Science (all of it), seems to me fully in the service of the Cult of MORE. And in ag it’s always greater yields! Greater yields yield more people. And whatever you may say about “habitat saving or sparing” — it ain’t really happening, overall, as long as we keep cranking out humans the way we are.

      Say 12 billion and shudder. (Not because there is not enough food for them. But because there is… )

      • But is it science that is “cranking out humans”?? This is the crux of my point. Science may be enabling – but it isn’t the cause. Indeed the levels of suffering experienced by ourselves and our co-travelers might be far more significant were it not for the rational efforts of some.

        • If it were not for science, we would not have the numbers we have. Green revolution and all that. Huge surpluses funneled into areas that used to have modest population growth, while modern medicine moves in to massively cut the death rate. Oops?!

          Face it, Clem, there is a certain irresponsibility built into science. Science is value free! … so scientists can go build nuclear weapons, for example, and still sleep at night. Or go to Africa and cut the infant mortality rate down to very little and take no responsibility for the environmental destruction or famine that comes later.

          Nothing is value free if life and survival matters.

          • Martin, I like it your post, but I would say that when people speak of science they mean all of them together. And I think it’s valid to think of science in such a way — as it would be valid for you to question the speaker which aspect he or she was focusing on.

            Another thing that irks me about science in its current form is that the quest for rational understanding often slides into presuming that anything else is bogus, more or less, and that other ways of knowing are quackery.

  6. Your list of five potential existential disasters (from climate change to antibiotic resistance) prompts me to suggest that the answer to the Fermi Paradox (where are all the other intelligent species in the galaxy?) may well be that a species that evolves to have enough intelligence to practice science may be heading toward extinction. A strong case could be made, on the basis of human history, that too much intelligence is not adaptive to an environment such as the surface of the earth.

    To my chagrin, after making such a speculation (I am sure that there are many prior similar assertions), I have to confess that I love science. I think it is the method that best allows us to understand the natural world and make predictions about it. Reading about scientific discoveries still thrills me. I worked most of my adult life in energy engineering and renewable energy research. All that time I assumed (hoped) that people would use science to see the dangers and limits ahead and prepare for a less corrosive and environmentally abusive civilization. Silly me.

    It’s just a shame that we humans haven’t been able to control our tendency to use the power of science to advance the horrific human behavior noted in your “anti-progressive” list. Perhaps after a few repeated die-backs, if we do survive them, we will somehow learn how to control ourselves or evolve to become a new, less science capable species that is not a danger to itself or the planet.

    • You think stupid people are less dangerous? Mmm… I think stupidity is pretty high risk… even though, I admit, without science it has less of a reach. I am with Clem in that science does help us a great deal, and sometimes it’s able to catch itself and fix what was botched through limited understanding previously. I’d keep the science, grow more wisdom, and apply restraint where restraint is due.

      • keep the science, grow more wisdom, and apply restraint where restraint is due

        Of course that would be the preferable course, but there are unfortunately too many examples illustrating why those options are rarely taken. Chris has just pointed out only a few of them.

        There are many more, from using our medical advances to reduce the our death rate without simultaneously reducing our birth rate to undertaking the development of nuclear power without developing an ironclad ability to control nuclear waste products for millennia.

        If pressed, one could probably come up with dozens of uses of science that lead to very serious problems without any consideration of using science to prevent them from happening in the first place. Reckless use of scientific knowledge is far too common; wisdom and restraint are far too rare.

        I agree that science is not an intrinsic evil, it is just that there are other aspects of human motivation and behavior that keep us from having enough wisdom and restraint to use our scientific abilities safely. Those aspects of our behavior co-evolved with our intelligence, so they once had adaptive value. There is no one to blame, but now we are stuck with them and our scientific skills make them very dangerous.

        • True. But you know what just came to me? The whole science/scientism split does not work. All it does is get science off the hook. It’s all one package, and science needs to clean house…

        • One more thought, Joe. It is not about humans. Humans managed to build restraints into the tribal way of living — restraints against psychopathic behaviors, restraints against over-harvesting in the form of tabus, and many other traditions. This was all gradually destroyed when the Big Men took over. So I can easily argue that restraint coevolved along with other cultural aspects of human societies, and worked for the vast majority of our time as a species. That makes me think the reason we don’t have it anymore lies elsewhere.

          • I think it can be difficult to weigh the difference between the effects of constraints, whether environmental or human, and human self-restraint on our behavior. I agree that people have developed ways to restrain and moderate their behaviour, but I think that most people would agree that it has been past environmental constraint that has been most powerful in stabilizing and limiting human influence on earth’s ecosystem. From hunting-gathering to peasant farming, it was nature that limited the amount of food available, not any human restraint about gathering it in.

            And no matter what their scientific knowledge or how humans behaved, there was a limit to the amount of damage people could do if most energy came from muscle, firewood or sails and all food depended on indigenous soil fertility. Human population went from a few thousand breeding pairs during the last ice age to 500 million total population in 1650. There were areas of the planet that were significantly impacted by humanity in 1650, but I think most people would be delighted if we had a relatively ‘pristine’ 1650-era ecosystem now.

            Then came fossil fuels and the industrial revolution to throw off any apparent environmental constraints on our energy and material throughput. Now the population is 7.4 billion and the earth is suffering. People didn’t change to become less restrained between pre-industrial 1650 and now. They just became far less constrained.

            We are now anticipating the return of massive environmental and resource constraints on human activity and population, all because of our prior and ongoing lack of prudence and restraint in using a huge stock of old carbon. But perhaps neither human temperament nor science have ever been the main problem; after all, we did pretty well with them for thousands of years. Perhaps we were just cursed by the discovery of fossil fuels and all the excesses that discovery allowed, including worrying more about the provenance of the calories we ingest than whether our next meal will have enough of them.

          • Very interesting comment Joe, which I’d like to reply to…but it’ll have to wait for a day or so. But do please keep on posting, folks – very interesting discussion. I’m hoping we may hear from Clem again if he hasn’t been put off by the chorus of science-sceptics…and from Ruben on capitalism among other things…

    • “…the answer to the Fermi Paradox (where are all the other intelligent species in the galaxy?) may well be that a species that evolves to have enough intelligence to practice science may be heading toward extinction.”

      Many, perhaps most, might be on the path to extinction, but, then again, perhaps some alien civilizations successfully navigate the bottleneck into which we’re headed and emerge with the wisdom and know-how to find an ecologically sustainable balance. Maybe even most do. Who’s to say? Even if humans don’t, perhaps we’re just an outlier, an exception to the norm? This is a topic that David Grinspoon deals with an in depth (and quite eloquently) in his book Earth in Human Hands. As he suggests in an interview at space.com, “there is no future in this thoughtless, cancerous expansion of material energy use. That’s a dead end. So why would an advanced civilization value that?” One possible answer, then, to the Fermi Paradox is, to quote Grinspoon again, “is that they’re all over the place, but they’re not obviously detectable in ways that we imagine they would be.”

      • Or perhaps, since relativity weapons are impossible to defend against, they are all hunkered down, desperately hiding their existence from all other galactic civilizations to reduce their chances of being obliterated. See The Killing Star by Pellegrino and Zebrowski for details.

        But I think better evidence for the evolutionary futility of human-level sapience is the fact that we seem to be the first species on our planet to develop such a thing. If it had strong adaptive power, one would think that our world would be littered with the remains of numerous prior industrial civilizations created by other intelligent species that came before us. It may be that the “fraction of life-bearing planets where intelligence develops” term in the Drake equation may be so minuscule as to approach zero.

        It seems that devoting significant metabolic resources to a large brain/body ratio is likely to be an evolutionary one-off, perhaps never to be repeated. But if it is repeated, we will have certainly left a lot of long lived stuff behind (like titanium heat exchangers) to be discovered with amazement. I can only hope that successor intelligent species manage our world better than we have. Gaia can take only so much abuse.

        • “If it had strong adaptive power, one would think that our world would be littered with the remains of numerous prior industrial civilizations created by other intelligent species that came before us.”

          Would it? The evolution of intelligent life might or might not be common in the universe, but I would think that the speed at which it develops would be highly contingent on a variety of complex factors. Without other life-bearing planets to use as yardsticks, who’s to say whether or not it would be reasonable for us to reach the conclusion that we’re some sort of “evolutionary one-off.” Maybe other planets are littered with the remains of multiple, independently arising industrial civilizations. In the absence of this or that global near-extinction event, perhaps that would have happened here on Earth as well. Or perhaps that’s our future?

  7. Fascinating discussion going on here. Makes me wonder if, alongside SCUENCE, we need to keep our eyes on an atheistic, rational version: science as a completely apolitical force, neutral on its own and only made villainous by us corrupting humans. Ironically, I think it’s a political move to insist that science is apolitical – it says something about the kind of worldview the speaker’s trying to justify. Not sure what kind of worldview though, just a thought which I haven’t yet properly thought through…

  8. Science as a human endeavor should likely take a philosophical beating from time to time. Lessons learned by our forebears at the end of bayonet, lance, or other technological marvel meant for harm are lessons not soon lost to the individual or perhaps their immediate network. But reading about, or talking about, these matters is not the same as experiencing them first hand. Hard won lessons lose their sting over time in the absence of recurring teaching.

    Missing a meal is not the same as being truly hungry or suffering malnutrition.

    Martin’s short blog post discussing the four meanings of science (see above) is a quick read worth a couple minutes.

    Vera’s point about neutrality in science seems worthy on first inspection, but how often does anything resulting from human action come to fruition without some sort of bias (or following its release as invention, discovery, or technology is it not perceived by another as being biased, corrupted, or even evil).

    Like Joe Clarkson I’m fascinated by our ability to invent, discover, and build. I am similarly dismayed by the tangential abilities to corrupt and bend an otherwise peaceful and potentially beneficial tool to a bad end. But value is in the eye of the beholder. And if we are to avail ourselves of labor saving, life saving, world appreciating knowledge and artifacts then we should step forward and simultaneously avail ourselves of the discipline to employ such knowledge and tools for better outcomes.

    Ruben treats this latter issue – our behavior in the face of modern marvels – pretty well. If you’ve not tracked down his thoughts on the matter I’d suggest they’re worth a peak. [but don’t tell him I said this, he needn’t get too puffed over it 🙂 ]

  9. Thanks for the interesting responses. I see the Angry Chef himself is promising a response on Twitter, so something to look forward to there…

    I’ll pick up on just a few of the points that have been made in a moment, but I just want to say that I don’t really want to get into a ‘what has science ever done for us?’ kind of debate. It’s just that if we want to weigh up the contribution of science to human happiness I think we need more of the ambivalence of a JFK and less of the monochrome cheerleading of a Mr Angry.

    Anyway, regarding Clem’s various interesting points. On rationality, yes I suppose there was an implicit comparison in my comment. I wasn’t thinking of animals, but actually that’s an interesting question. Humans seem to be capable of more sophisticated rational thought than animals, but we’re also capable of more sophisticated non-rational thought. Are we more ‘rational’ than animals overall? I’m not so sure we are. But nor am I sure that I want to get into a big debate about it. Perhaps the comparison I had in mind was that we’re less rational than we think we are, which is Daniel Kahneman’s point in his book that both the Angry Chef and I admire. Or possibly that we’re incapable of being as rational as those who’d like to build our social worlds on rationality would like us to be in order for those worlds to work as they’d like them to. Or, indeed as Clem says, not rational enough to sort out the mess we’re in.

    Regarding Clem’s objections to my list of scientific horrors, I’m not greatly persuaded. #1 and #2 are probably the big ones, on which we seem to be broadly in agreement? On #3, yes there are ways science can help reduce biodiversity loss, but the reason we’re in such a mess in the first place is essentially because of (fossil fuel-powered) heavy machinery which works because of our scientific understanding. On #4, perhaps I should have been clearer in my language – yes, eutrophication isn’t a human invention as such, but Vaclav Smil suggests for example that more than half of the soluble nitrogenous compounds in the world are anthropogenic. And that (together with the problems of mined phosphate, and mined heavy metals) is creating huge problems…again, we confront an ambiguity: in trying to address one problem, our technologies create another one. On #5, I’m aware of course that antibiotics have been a generally positive achievement of science, but also in some respects a negative one…and one that we’re rapidly undermining by foolishly applying it to the search for cheap, abundant meat. More scientific ambiguity.

    Martin’s four senses of the term ‘science’ are a useful clarification, I think. And perhaps it’s fair enough to hive off the ‘bad’ applications of science to senses #3 & #4, thus exempting science in senses #1 & #2 from this opprobrium. But if we do so, then I think we also have to hive off the ‘good’ applications to senses #3 & #4. So it then becomes hard to argue that science is in any sense intrinsically ‘good’, which is basically what Mr Angry claims, despite making the occasional nod to the kind of objections that people have raised here. Like Joe and others here, I love science as a way of seeking to understand the world. I just don’t think people should make inflated socio-cultural and effectively religious claims about its ‘goodness’. I think maybe Vera & Andrew have a point that the claim to value neutrality is part of the problem. Though non-scientific claims to truth and value neutrality are also problematic.

    Martin’s mention in his post of the Sokal affair brings the memories flooding back – I was teaching in a sociology department at the time. Happy days. Perhaps I’d best not get drawn into debating the Sokal affair, but I very much agree with Vera that one of the problems with SCIENCE rather than science is that it prompts folks to think that anything which isn’t science is bogus.

    Much to agree with in Joe’s comments, though quasi-Malthusian that I am, I’m not sure I’d agree that it’s a bad idea to reduce death rates without attending to birth rates…a whole other topic in itself, but my punt is that preventable mortality/morbidity doesn’t greatly add to the transgression of planetary boundaries. The problem, as Ruben (I think…) says, is, in a nutshell, capitalism…

    Yep, agree with Michael on the connections between grain & hierarchy. Traced in part in my article in ‘The Land’…and my upcoming history of the world…

    Interesting discussion on alien intelligence, but I have nothing to add. Space does my head in…

    Vera, sorry your comment went missing – I can’t find it at this end.

  10. “It is not enough to tackle dietary myths in isolation, attacking each one with competing evidence-based messages. In order to sell sensible, truthful messages, scientific truth itself needs to be made into an idea that sticks”

    “To question science is to ignore everything it has done for man, to overlook the astounding progress of the last few hundred years”

    Crikey – those are some glaringly proto-authoritarian comments right there. Prime examples of nonsensical Scientism.

    Thanks for this balanced post, Chris. As ever, I think you’re overwhelmingly correct.

    I have just one concern, which I raise very tentatively, as my own reading into this isn’t strong enough. Philosophy of science is a minefield, but I do think there are interesting discussions to be had around the real distinctions between science and Science (or SCIENCE, as you put it). You mention that “science proceeds by way of empirical hypothesis-testing, not expert opinion-making”, but has this ever really been the case? This is a huge area for discussion but Feyerabend famously (I’m paraphrasing) would have said ‘no, science has only ever advanced through a patchwork of empiricism, sophistry, posturing, bullying and much more’. And that was even in the case in foundational instances of supposed empiricist advances, such as in the case of Galileo. I think this is worth keeping in mind. He also questioned whether an entity such as ‘science’ could even be said to exist, and let alone a coherent, self-enclosed entity which is based solely on empiricism. I think here of John Dupré and Nancy Cartright, for example, coupled with the various theoretical/non-empirical ‘advances’ made in physics and mathematics, which are normally classed as ‘sciences’. Rather than a unified project, I’m increasingly trying to see science pluralistically, through a Pragmatist lens, as a more-or-less useful set of practices, and a mode of coping in the world. Helps to keep things modest, I find. But, as I say, still searching down this road.

    • Interesting points. Not sure how far I’m personally willing to go down the Feyerabend line, but I agree that it’s a less coherent and empirically-driven project than is often supposed. I like the idea of seeing it pluralistically, and in terms of practice. Mind you, theories of practice raise a whole other set of issues…

    • Tom said:
      I’m increasingly trying to see science pluralistically, through a Pragmatist lens, as a more-or-less useful set of practices, and a mode of coping in the world.

      I’m also inclined to see it (that is in sense #1, an endeavour to gain an understanding of the world, regardless of it’s usefulness), as one form of “the contemplation of nature” – an intinsically satisfying and worthwile project, for those who like that kind of thing.

      [Blog comments are really not the best medium for this sort of discussion are they? The above paragraph could easily be expanded to book length]

  11. I want to push back a bit on the excuses made for science.

    They all smack a bit too much of “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

    The fact is death by firearm is an emergent property of people + firearm. If you remove either, you end up with a different outcome.

    The National Rifle Association likes to say that if guns are banned, the same amount of murders will happen, just with knives, or hammers, or cars, or poison.

    This is clearly false, as is proven by comparing homicide statistics between countries, as well as within countries before and after changes to gun regulations.

    There are other great examples in the literature. One town studied had two bridges about five minutes walk apart. One bridge was frequently used to suicide. When they shut that bridge, people did not simply walk to the other bridge—in fact suicides were prevented.

    All of which to say… the consequences of science are an emergent property of science + people. So Chris, I was actually joking when I blamed capitalism; I don’t think—in fact it is easily historically shown—that simply smashing capitalism will cure the ills of science. The emergent outcomes of science + people + capitalism are different that science + people + not capitalism, but there are huge undesirable outcomes in either situation.

    Martin’s post about the Four Meanings of Science is very useful. However, our Modern, Western, Descartian approach inclines us to think we can simply engineer all problems away. All we need to do is fix the bad scientists, or fix the bad media or whatever, just fix one or two of the four and then all will be swell again.

    I don’t think that is possible, now or ever. The Four Meanings are the chambers of the same heart, and one will never be able to be cut out leaving the other three still beating.

    Sure, we can and should strategize to reduce negative impacts, but we will never reach zero.

    There is an inability to allow that science may be flawed. I am not sure where this fear comes from, and I have spent quite some time thinking about it.

    We are not a great species at tolerating complexity anyway, preferring nice clear binaries, but in the Modern West, it is blasphemy to question science.

    Our favourite Ecomodernist actually said to me that no effect existed until it had been proven by science—belying the fact that all the creatures of the land and sea had managed to not float off the planet before the articulation of the Law of Gravity.

    Naturally he would be quick to admit this error, but I think this example clearly shows the default setting for a loud section of The Cult of Science.

    Now, having laid that foundation, and despite his kind words about my writing, I would like to return to the wholesome sport of Quibbling With Clem.

    Well, off the top of my head, here are five great anti-‘progressive’ forces in the contemporary world which have all emerged as a result of the progress of science:
    1 anthropogenic climate change
    2 thermonuclear weapons
    3 accelerated biodiversity loss
    4 eutrophication of rivers and oceans
    5 loss of antibiotic efficacy through prophylactic agricultural use

    #3 – My argument here would be to suggest that biodiversity loss would be MORE accelerated, not less, if it weren’t for scientific effort. Higher yielding domesticates, nutrition research, food preservation techniques… these all offer a means for saving or sparing habitat that would otherwise be overrun in the efforts to feed our population. Now if you wish to suggest that the current population size is a result of the progress of science – then I’d turn toward Jevons, or Malthus (or even Darwin) for support.

    #4 Eutrophication is not a human invention. Massive landscape modification has taken place on such a grand scale as to render our meager mess something of a sideshow. Not trying to excuse our folly on this front. We could well make our living space much friendlier and hospitable. But scientific progress is not wholly to blame, and there are examples where scientific efforts make inroads in alleviating the problem. Indeed, scientific progress should get some credit for bringing the matter to our collective attention in the first place.

    #5 Antibiotic efficacy – at least in the use you have set forth – is itself a result of scientific progress. Scientific progress has provided us the benefit, it has alerted us of the problem(s) of misuse, and is in the process of finding solutions to these problems (which I’d argue have more to do with behavioral abuse of technology than with actual scientific progress per se).

    Starting with the last:

    #5 Antibiotic efficacy…”has more to do with behavioral abuse of technology than with actual scientific progress per se.”

    My point on emergent properties deals with “behavioural abuse of technology”. You cannot have technology without behavioural abuse. Human technology does not exist without humans, which means it does not exist without behaviour, which means there will be abuse. You can argue that, but this is the real world here, so you would need examples of technologies that have never been abused, let alone a massive variety of technologies that have never been abused.

    Abuse is one of the chambers of the heart.

    #3—biodiversity loss

    As far as us needing science to reverse our impact on the ecosphere, you are making precisely Phillips’ Ecomodernist argument.

    But the massive jump in human population after significant exploitation of fossil fuels is well established.

    The second chart from this page shows human population could easily still be on a trend line to barely reach one billion by 2100. The emergent property of fossil fuel science + humans + capitalism doubled, redoubled and redoubled our population at a breakneck pace.

    It is hard to imagine a credible argument that we would have caused such an impoverishment of biodiversity as we have were we still muddling along at 750 million souls on the planet. Yes, we have a history of eating all the large and slow animals once we arrive in a new ecosystem, but Return On Investment dictates we will almost never eat all the little birds or the various spiders or the many species of newt. To accomplish that sort of catastrophe, we need fossil fuel. The mass of biodiversity loss is simply the unintended consequences of a science more powerful than we can manage.
    World Population Growth

    #4 “Eutrophication is not a human invention…Not trying to excuse our folly on this front. We could well make our living space much friendlier and hospitable. But scientific progress is not wholly to blame, and there are examples where scientific efforts make inroads in alleviating the problem. Indeed, scientific progress should get some credit for bringing the matter to our collective attention in the first place.”

    I think you are derailing the conversation here in exactly the way we are discussing—with no willingness to allow the criticism of science.

    I am sure you don’t see it that way, since after all you say you are not trying to excuse our folly…before you continue to try to do just that.

    “…scientific progress is not wholly to blame…scientific efforts make inroads…scientific progress should get some credit”

    Chris never said eutrophication was a human invention. Yes, eutrophication exists in nature. But all science does is exploit the “inventions” or laws of nature, so why would it matter? Yes, guns don’t pull their own triggers, but without guns, many dead people would be walking around today.

    Massive dead zones that would not otherwise exist in our oceans are caused by agricultural chemical runoff, and these chemicals were developed by scientists, using science.

    Having destroyed vast areas of an ecosystem, we should give science a pass for subsequently identifying the crime it has committed? And more of a pass for then bringing a mop and bucket to clean up a bit of the blood?

    This is sadly the default defence of science.

    And don’t get me wrong, I love science. I was going to study either genetics or theatre—through no fault of my own I ended up with a sculpture degree.

    But one of the chambers of the scientific heart keeps beating that “We can do anything. We must do More.”
    “More.”
    “More.”

    And like clockwork the apologists come out.

    “It is not the fault of science, it is the fault of government. Or business.”

    “Yes, we built a highway through the middle of your city, but it is the jaywalker’s fault when they get hit by a car.”

    “We refuse to regulate firearms, but it is the fault of rotten apples when somebody is shot.”

    “Our product does not cause obesity. If consumers were not disgusting slovenly beasts they would have willpower and would not consume our product. We are just giving them what they want.”

    The defence of science in this manner is just as immoral and factually incorrect as blaming victims in other circumstances.

    So, you and I have gone around this before. Now that we can do anything we must do less. There is no excuse for giving toddlers matches. Science should be constrained to the level we have the capacity to manage. That line is quickly regressing back somewhere around pointy stick.

    I am grateful for the generosity of thought and word you bring to this comment section, and which you have even brought to my occasional ramblings, so I apologize if I come off too harshly—my desire is not to damage the relationships here.

    But as you note, the power of science needs constraint. I think for that to happen, we must stop blindly—or even tokenly—defending it. Until we can accurately describe the symptoms we cannot begin to deal with the illness.

    • Mr Ruben Anderson,
      Victoria, British Columbia

      My Dearest Ruben,
      In receipt of your latest treatise on the vast and seeming uncountable ways in which science has mistreated man and the planet I am overwhelmed and without any worthy reply. I stand before you and all mankind, guilty as charged of the crime of being a science apologist. My only defense, meager and unacceptable as it may be, is that I’ve spent a lifetime studying plants and genetics so as to better afford our own and our more favored co-travelers some security of a nutritious and abundant food supply. Now seeing the error of my ways, I beseech your benevolent pardon and hope that I might find some means acceptable to you whereby I could, as your humble and obedient servant, live out the rest of my life so that in some small capacity I might attain some forgiveness for the horrendous possible outcomes that would lead from my ill-advised researches.

      I trust you will forgive my use of a computer and the internet without an overseer to guard that I don’t misuse these technologies. Heaven forbid that I might surf the web for some child pornography. This is such a horrendous possible use of this technology and with your permission I will begin immediately to campaign against such a technology that might be employed in this fashion. I further beg your indulgence in the use of my fingers to type this message. One must never forget that fingers can be employed to strangle humans and other warm blooded critters and this grievous behavior should be eliminated immediately. Such trite assertions as “fingers don’t kill people” need to be banned from any sort of serious discussion, and stranglers should be put on notice that we will not tolerate their apologetics either.

      Your insightful assertion that we can never reach zero negative impacts even after careful and appropriate strategizing to do so is a heartwarming and most welcome epiphany. I only wish I could have learned of this much earlier in life.

      Your medical insights are so fascinating and a whole life might be devoted to the exploration of your knowledge of the heart. Never before in all my years had I understood that abuse is one of the chambers of the heart. That does explain quite a bit. I had at first thought perhaps you had laid that out as a metaphor. But now I see how you right you are that chambers of the human heart must indeed be caldrons of spite, treachery, and abuse. My backward education suggests to me there is a fourth chamber in the heart. As I can now only produce the names of three, and forgive my ineptitude, could you favor your servant with the name of the fourth?

      If you would pardon one rather insolent observation on my part kind sir, I do imagine that I may have attempted to allow some criticism of science. The very first sentence of my comment wherein I mention you is: Science as a human endeavor should likely take a philosophical beating from time to time And perhaps I’ve not played that note sufficiently or correctly. My bad. Hopefully as I further my philosophical training at your knee (with your kind permission) I can come to better appreciate how one can express a thought to such a notable audience.

      I anxiously await the favor of your reply to this tepid effort at apology for the sin of science apologetics. Would that I too might have been diverted from my youthful ambition to learn of genetics and the means to apply the scientific method to the plants we husband for our sustenance. I now see the overwhelming error of my ways and hope that you can see, from a favorable corner of your heart, to spare me further belittlement.
      Your humble and obedient servant,
      Clem

      • Our Loyal Subject Clem,

        We are very pleased to receive your oath of fealty, and wish to celebrate the occasion by granting you and your lineage the right to graze 20 sheep amongst our apple trees, and also the right to claim the back fat of three pigs during the month of slaughter.

        As your liege lord, our first wish is that you refine your use of sarcasm to be a little more…continental. Our colonial subjects do seem to be a trifle…plain…in their speech.

        .

        But seriously… Clem, I am glad I did not touch a nerve here…

        But really seriously. I can hear your frustration at having your efforts not seen, or acknowledged in a way that feels sufficient. You have spent your life in service to life through science, and you clearly labour to be precise with your speech to best communicate your meaning.

        So on one hand there is a saying, “If it is not about you, don’t make it about you.”

        But on the other hand, perhaps that will not be adequate. Can you tell me more about why this is so raw for you, and where it hurts?

        • Of late have been reading (more like attempting to read) ‘A tale of a Tub’ by Swift. Had to have a go at his satirical style. For some reason I’ve found it a bit cathartic. Perhaps in retirement I could practice it enough to gain some level of proficiency and then have a wag of the finger in all manner of direction.

          Why so raw? Where to start? First off I did fully hope and expect to see some pushback from your desk. And I’ll confess a seed or two was planted there for the desired effect. But I had hoped for a more sophisticated response – something more in line with your capable nature.

          Perhaps I should reread the longish reply to see if I’ve misjudged, but at this moment it appears to me a rant of sophomoric pleading that any and all of the ugliness circling us in what we deem the twenty-first century to be directly the result of scientific meddling. And further, the facts as laid bare by your talented hand, should be so obvious to any sentient being so as to question the intent of anyone who might aspire to be scientific. Only the evil mind would conspire to “help” us through science… for we will all dearly pay as soon as the next discovery/invention is supplied so that our abusive hearts might further the rampage upon our selves and our habitat.

          That you were fortunately spared such an evil destiny by the good fortune of being diverting from science to a major in sculpture…

          I did expect to be compared to an ecomodernist, so the Phillip crack didn’t hurt a bit. But the offhand dismissal that eventually some science apologist would come on the scene… well, that one ripped at the abuse chamber in my little heart. Score one for the rant.

          I’ll digress here from the direct response to Ruben to address a larger thread (or my sense of such) where I’ve gotten the impression that the human engagement in the scientific enterprise is somehow responsible (or should be) for any and all uses and applications of the discovered knowledge. I find this tiring. While I’ve no quarrel with the notion that research should have an ethical element, that experimentation and technological effort should be guided by notions such as the Hippocratic oath or Precautionary Principal… I still find it a touch loathsome when some ill considered poke at the misuse (or abuse) of a discovery or invention is traced back to the inventor/discoverer and the same is then blamed for having not foreseen such an ugly application.

          So long as I’m ranting now I might also offer that it is quite difficult to be in the spot of a researcher who has to hand a new discovery or device that in it’s infancy does bear the mark of something that could be misused. Prudence might suggest it appropriate to keep something this raw under wraps until more about is understood and appreciated. But when the real liege lords – those who represent the money sources – come to judge what have you done for us lately… and you either spill an unripe work or search for different employment… the matter gets real and difficult very quickly. Being second guessed by amateurs is something I’ve struggled to accept over the course of my career (and I don’t mean to suggest I’ve made any progress).

          I think I actually used the metaphor of a spreadsheet earlier in this thread to be a place to check the boxes for where blame might be suitably applied. Think of columns such as: Scientist, Money People (behind the scientist), Marketing folk, and end users with heart chambers for abuse.

          I imaging the first hunter gatherer, a real Paleo diet guy or gal… who tied a sharp rock to a stick and employed it to either ward off large predators or bring down otherwise elusive prey never for a second considered that some day legions of Roman soldiers would wield this same invention in the name of conquering their fellow man. Who apologizes for this hunter gatherer, and why would we blame them in the first instance??

          • Well, since I am pleading, I will indeed plead for you to reread.

            In fact I pulled my punch on several occasions, since I do believe the emergent property is the thing, and that was the argument I was trying to make.

            That means the easy meme-bites must be avoided, since they trade only in simplicity, not complexity.

            And it is specifically the metaphor a spreadsheets I am rejecting there; that is not emergence. It is not 1+1=2. It is 1+1=g. Or kittens.

            So, I am precisely trying to argue that science alone is not to blame. Our problems emerge from science + people + capitalism plus plus plus whatever else is in the witch’s brew.

            But that means that the removal of any part changes the outcome—and the practice of science must be on the table for removal. Otherwise we hold it up as something pure, which it is demonstrably not.

            But here, here is another target that may hamstring my argument—Kingsnorth talking about scale. I haven’t read it yet, but I have a nice open face sandwich in the toaster, which I will top with slices of just-picked tomato and then I will sit down to read.

            We Got Too Big For the World.

  12. I agree with much in the two comments posted by Ruben and Tom above, and especially with the pluralistic notion of science – treating it as a unitary thing has surely been part of its deification. One can identify a generic empirical hypothesis-testing method at the heart of science, but it’s also possible to point to a generic communion with existential forces at the heart of religion, and few would now argue that that’s the best way to understand it. Science has got to be seen as inseparable from the people that practice it.

    In that vein, I wonder if the modern form of the deification of SCIENCE can be read as a part of neoliberal capitalism. In particular, the argument by the latters’s proponents that There Is No Alternative. This has led many of its supporters to attempt to naturalise various aspects of neoliberal practice, such as the use of game theory to justify homo economicus. Likewise, the support and funding of scientific research by corporate interests for profit-seeking motives demands that science be seen as an unalloyed good that is naturally going to produce progressive solutions wherever it is applied.

    It seems to me that the ecomodernists have noticed that corporate research often doesn’t have this progressive outcome, but have not questioned the deification of SCIENCE. Their project is therefore one of Reformation – attempting to purify the religion, and direct its efforts to ends more befitting the benificent nature of their god.

  13. Much to agree with in Ruben’s and Andrew’s posts. I’m interested to see where this debate goes if anyone wants to add to it, without weighing in further myself just now.

    But I’d like to clarify the ‘capitalism’ issue raised by Ruben. Of course it’s far too glib just to say that the problem is ‘capitalism’…but there’s only so much you can cover in a single blog post. I’d defend the view that some of the most fundamental problems we face in the world today have arisen out of an expansionary political economy grounded in compound growth…or out of ‘capitalism’ for short…which is not the only kind of political economy possible. That doesn’t mean that there will be no problems or no undesirable outcomes in a non-capitalist political economy. But I don’t think I’ve ever claimed that. I do, however, think that the undesirable outcomes are possibly – not inevitably – less given a different kind of political economy. If I didn’t, that would take me into ‘There Is No Alternative’ territory and I might as well give up funding the management of my hedges to become a hedge fund manager. Come to think of it…

    …or am I misunderstanding you, Ruben? Are you saying that absent capitalism, then science alone will deliver us a packetful of trouble? I’m not sure that I’m with you there. However, I do like your comment that you ended up with a degree in sculpture rather than genetics through no fault of your own. Through no fault of my own I ended up being a farmer-blogger-social scientist rather than a zoologist, as originally intended.

    • Might be a useful link from another conversation: “Tim Jackson and Peter Victor have “proven” with a modelling approach that a stationary capitalist system is possible in this paper where they, just like you here, question the existence of inevitable growth/growth imperative. well worth a look: http://www.prosperitas.org…. I’ve put proven in brackets as I’m not able to fully grasp how they do this and which assumptions underpin their work.”

      Myself, I think as long as you worship at the altar of MOREloch you will have trouble. And that worship began long before capitalism.

    • Well this is lively! Thanks Chris for hosting.

      I am sympathetic to Clem’s points, and to the apologizers for science, because as they all say, science is a really powerful tool. Much like a chainsaw, it seems to me.

      So I am mostly inclined to side with Ruben on this topic. Also, to Chris’ point about science, even SCIENCE and capitalism not depending on each other, I think I can imagine such a situation, but it is not our current state, and there are some fundamental similarities between capitalism and science that I believe make all the difference.

      Let’s see if I can write down a coherent case.

      It seems to me that everyone here has a pretty good idea about how good science actually gets done. I am only going to talk about good science – the business of cloaking politics in scientific terms is simple fraud, and not worth explaining.
      But good science starts with observation of the world, and a germ of an idea as to what those observations might mean. A hypothesis is the isolation of a few phenomena into a pattern that can be concisely described. The description must be concise enough, and contain few enough variables that when one of the variables is changed, observation of any effect will be meaningful. This is an excellent way to repair your car, but a concise finite mental model will never come close to adequately describing the natural world. Yanking a spark plug wire has a well defined effect, but what happened to my neighborhood ecosystem when that guy ran over the raccoon?

      Science must be reductive to work. You cannot consider all of the long-tail effects and still arrive at a conclusion. But the world is not digital. It is not possible to draw a fully accurate line between any two neighboring things in the world. What is the length of the coastline of England? What is the smallest particle of matter? Where is the boundary between the ocean and the atmosphere? The answers to these questions are not even irrational numbers. They are not even undefined. They are indefinable, except in approximation.
      This is the job of science – to make approximations, and come up with useful answers that are close enough to get the job done. Anyone who says otherwise is selling a religion. And the devil is in the details. Those small long tails stack up pretty high when you multiply them by 7 billion too.

      The similarity I see between science and capitalism rests in their shared necessity to ignore certain details. Capitalism is much more brazen in its studied ignorance, but the methodology is similar. All we must do is rename the living world ‘resources’ ignore the steep part of the exponential curve, and solve for maximum wealth. Well only just MY maximum wealth actually.

      It is true that science can describe the damage that we do as we use it as a tool to manipulate the world, but science is not the best tool for that particular job. Science must generalize to work, so it is not very sensitive to small or vague effects. How many megatons of fossil fuel did we burn before anyone in the academy started to wonder if it might not be a good idea? But did anyone take an uncorrupted elder living in a subsistence society to look at an early oil well and ask them if they thought this was a good idea? No, because we already knew what they would say. A working conscience (ha! CON-science) is the best tool for deciding whether to do things. And ultimately the ‘whether’ is a much more important decision than the ‘how’ that science can answer.

  14. Vera, Eric – thanks for that. I like Eric’s description of science & the analogy with capitalism. Regarding Vera’s point about the ‘worship of more’ predating capitalism, well that’s true but for various reasons it was rarely incorporated into an intrinsically economically expansionary world-economy, which is the problem we have now. I’m not trying to champion pre-capitalist economies specifically or to suggest that it’s either possible or desirable to ‘turn the clock back’ to them. However, I do think it’s worth studying such economies to see if they hold any lessons for trying to develop a worthwhile post-capitalist future. Which segues neatly into my next cycle of posts, concerning what we can learn from global history…

  15. Interesting debate – respect for keeping it all more or less amicable.

    My thought on Ruben’s comment, and also on Joe’s, is to accept your ‘emergent properties’ but to raise you multicollinearity. In other words, thinking of it in terms of multivariate statistics, you’re saying that there’s an interaction effect between science and capitalism, plus whatever else, that has a combinative effect greater than each of those parts. That, I think, is true, but it’s also the case that there’s an impetus to scientific innovation that runs causally from a capitalist economy – so ‘scientific innovation’ and ‘capitalism’ aren’t entirely independent variables. An expansionary capitalist economy emerged in Europe based on wind, water and biotic energy. Had such an economy failed to emerge, I think it’s doubtful that the discovery of fossil fuels would have amounted to an awful lot. To get into the mess we’re in today has required three necessary elements: a capitalist economy, abundant quantities of fossil fuels and the technical knowhow and commitment to make use of them. But without the first, the third is a bit unlikely, and the second then becomes irrelevant. So I’d reiterate my view that the problem is capitalism…though that’s not to say that other kinds of economy are unproblematic.

    The key resource in my view is the winds that potentiated relatively cheap trans-oceanic commerce, enabling a capitalist world system with a core-periphery structure to emerge. Absent that, and we’d have probably just had a kind of zero-sum, internecine mercantilist battle among regional powers. Once a capitalist world system is in place, throw in the geological accident of vast carbon-rich fossil fuel reserves and modern history is almost (but not quite) written in the stars. The dream of the ecomodernists is to take the accrued capital in various senses of the term from that modern history and use it to overcome the negative consequences of past technologies and past economies in creating an ecologically damaged and economically unjust world without any fundamental economic change. To me, that seems extremely implausible.

    But in relation to the debate between Clem and Ruben, I guess I feel somewhat in the middle. I think humans are inherently technological and scientific in various senses of the terms, which make us premier patch-disturbers ecologically. But I agree with Ruben and Joe that it’s only when we got our grubby hands on fossil fuels that the patch disturbance got out of hand. Still, I also think that, the likes of Feyerabend notwithstanding, scientific endeavour has developed modes of practice that are splendidly, wonderfully value-free, and have managed to develop an impressively deep understanding of the world as a result. But that understanding is articulated with a value-soaked world, and the line is quickly crossed. Understanding cell genetics is (ultimately) value free, even if scientists get thrown off course by their values. Using that understanding to create new varieties of crops is never value free. Doubtless at some level we all have to take individual responsibility for our actions – as scientists, consumers, procreators, investors or whatever. But I think what may be more important is understanding the dynamics of the systems of which we’re a part, and focusing on systemic change rather than the game of personal responsibility. I detect an individualising strand in Ruben’s comments – blame the scientists, consumers, procreators, investors! – that I don’t entirely agree with. But I agree with his systemic critique – it would be a good idea if the applications of scientific research were to be limited to manageable societal goals, and I agree that there’s a certain amount of hiding behind the value-neutrality of science (not by Clem, I might add) to dodge that point.

    • Well put, Chris.

      So we need some action on identifying what societal organisation/goals/constraints etc working with what technological organisation/goals/constraints etc could deliver better outcomes – measured by objective (ideally!) criteria such as environmental footprint and social equity – than is currently the case.

    • I am not sure emergence and multicollinearity are the same thing Chris.

      There is nothing about a human cell that suggests if you collect enough of them in one spot, there will be bones and blood vessels and digestion and sight.

      There is nothing about each of the four individual animals that suggest when they form a colony they will become the Portuguese Man o’ War.

      There is nothing about a puddling of black goo that suggests it could reshape our culture, our planet and our atmosphere.

      So, as I tried to repeat to Clem, I am explicitly trying to NOT “blame the scientists, consumers, procreators, investors!”

      But nor am I willing to tolerate the ritual hand-washing of absolution. That manifests directly, I believe, in the babbling idiocy of the ecomodernists.

      To get into the mess we’re in today has required three necessary elements: a capitalist economy, abundant quantities of fossil fuels and the technical knowhow and commitment to make use of them. But without the first, the third is a bit unlikely, and the second then becomes irrelevant. So I’d reiterate my view that the problem is capitalism…though that’s not to say that other kinds of economy are unproblematic.

      I think you could just easily say without the second the first and third are constrained by current solar income. Without the third, the first and second are constrained by chance and superstition.

      So, I disagree that it is capitalism, or science, or fossil fuel that is to blame. It is the emergent properties, entirely unpredictable by correlation, that have brought us to this nadir, like being stung to death by the Portuguese Man o’ War.

      But that means we cannot absolve any of these fields from blame. Again, that is what Phillips tries to do, blaming only capitalism for the ills of the world.

      Would we absolve the organism that forms the sail of the Man o’ War, because it wasn’t the organism that actually stung us? Well, then, how did the tentacles get so close to us? How would the sail or the tentacles have the energy to get near us, or sting us, if it wasn’t for the organism that digests food?

      Nothing is blameless.

  16. I need to find time to read your blog more often. I think I agree with everything you wrote, although, with the exception of nuclear weapons, the problems you blame on science wouldn’t have been recognized as soon, were it not for scientists studying them.

  17. Thanks Chris, I think we are getting somewhere. I probably sit somewhere between Clem and Ruben on this particular argument too, but I am rooting for Ruben because I perceive him to be the underdog on this one.

    I am going out on a limb here, but I will assert that there are other ways of knowing. Granted, science is our only reliable way to prove anything without recourse to a deity, but that doesn’t mean that the whole world is ultimately provable. What do you, or I or any of us value most? Love, and a perfectly ripe apricot? It is not possible to exactly quantify those things. Science is not the tool for that.

    But since we have (largely) shed the shackles of divine revelation, we have put science in that place. This is the kind of misappropriation that turns intelligent, logical people into Richard Dawkins. Here is the point where I normally insert some anecdote about my fundamentalist young-earth Christian (with a degree in geology!) mother arguing about the origins of the world with my devout evolutionist logical father. I will suffice it to say that both of their arguments were logically consistent, given their very different premises, but I regard my mother as more intellectually honest because she admitted that her premises were articles of faith, while my father believed that his premises were objective truth.

    Also, I agree with you, science is value neutral, no matter the biases of its users. But a worldview that privileges the quantifiable above all else, is not value neutral. There are vast swathes of the world that lie outside the purview of science, and the response to this by many scientists is not encouraging. One would hope for mild disinterest as a reaction to the unscientific, but instead we tend to see ridicule or simple misunderstanding.

    I am not denigrating science. As you say, it is not the fault of the tool what use it is put to. The trouble comes back to the fact that science is the only way we have to actually prove anything. To use all the other ways of knowing, we need to be able to simply agree with each other. Right.

    And it is made worse by the tendency toward totalitarianism by many of the people who are skilled at those other ways of knowing.

  18. This debate really seems to be highlighting some fault lines – great stuff!

    I like Eric’s ‘ways of knowing’ formulation as a way of relativising science. My main disagreement with any of the above would be that science is ‘value-neutral’, or that it is ‘just’ a tool. All tools have a circumscribed set of uses, even is some of those uses were not originally intended by the tool maker.

    Eric’s idea that science is the only way of knowing that ‘proves’ things puts the idea of ‘proof’ on the witness stand, and all it really means is: to demonstrate an observable role within a mechanistic conception of the universe (which is no small thing of course).

    None of this us to say that science is actually a ‘bad thing’, but it is inseparable from the contexts of its practices (social, economic, whatever). I agree with Chris that such variables should not be considered independent, so ‘multicollinearity’ is my favourite new word, but I’m also sympathetic to Ruben’s suspicion of searching for prime movers. That capitalism should be considered the ultimate ‘culprit’ implies a particular world view (one I find attractive I might add), and so we swing back to the idea of different ways of knowing…

  19. Sir Ruben of Victoria:
    It appears we have an audience. And an invested one at that. May I propose we each avail ourselves of noble steeds – charges worth the weight (which for my horse would suggest a specimen of extreme proportion). I think someone has suggested you might have the honor of underdog status, and while I should find this fitting in a primitive and immature way my actual appraisal of your status is far more generous. I only hope my armor is up to the punishment that will certainly be pressed upon it.

    Your immense mathematical skill has me taken aback. I’ve some familiarity with non-linear systems, and large multi-dimensional matrices don’t frighten me (unless the power is off and I must resort to pencil and paper… ugh). But your ability to get from “1+1=g. Or kittens” as an example of emergent phenomena is breathtaking. I would tip my hat but it’s currently at the metalugist’s shop for reinforcement.

    Having reread your comment from 31 July, I still find little to celebrate. I understand (or amuse myself that I understand) the point of emergence coming forth from combinations [eg., your science+people+capitalism (plus or minus capitalism I should say) ] Where I find myself off the rails is in connecting the dots between the mess of emergent processes such as abuse of technology and scientific apologists showing up. It is agreed there are many among us who have either a profit motive or political agenda to defend and these same will often step forward with messages such as those you’ve adequately listed. No quarrel with that. [I do have a semantic issue with the ‘blame the jaywalker’ trope – really? That was the source for my ‘sophomoric rant’ crack]

    And in a later comment you offer the nugget “If it is not about you, don’t make it about you.”… which I could translate as – “If you’re not culpable, don’t stick your nose in it.” And if my parsing is even warm I must complain. This is hardly a humanitarian approach. On one hand it smacks of censorship – or at the least a warning to mind one’s knitting and keep still. I’m obviously not so inclined.

    About science being on the table for removal. Good luck. I can agree that science should be held up to scrutiny. Scientists as well (or especially). But I can’t imagine any human habitat (or witch’s brew) where humans are an element and curiosity might be magically erased. Yes, I have conflated curiosity with science – I think the latter is merely a formalization of technique to satisfy the former. We might similarly wish to attack pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth – but I’d argue we already have our hands full there. And curiosity isn’t even one of these seven.

    Perhaps I should spend a moment searching for a little common ground in this debate… (heaven knows my horse is getting nervous just thinking about an armored Clem on his back). You talk about Science being too big to manage. This is a fair concern. Science has also gotten quite difficult to afford. How science gets paid for is a topic for very fruitful debate in my opinion. Some avenues of scientific endeavor have gotten extremely complicated. Piece together costs + complexity and science —- just trying to ‘do’ science —- is quite difficult to manage. But trying to ‘not’ do science seems to me even more troublesome. How might we explain to victims of Ebola that science is just too difficult to manage so we’re going to stop? I suppose one might suggest there are too many billions of us anyway – so do your part and perish quietly please.

    Oh, hey… my helmet is just back from the shop. Funny, mine now sports a pair of horns like Hagar the Horrible. Have you been spreading rumors about me?

  20. Thanks everyone for a stimulating discussion – and nice to hear from you again, Ford. I hope you do find the time to read and comment on the blog, I’d welcome your perspective.

    I’d just like to comment further on the correlation-causation-emergence part of this discussion, which picks up on some but not all of the interesting comments people have contributed.

    Ruben – emergence is indeed not the same as multicollinearity, which was my point. There’s a correlation between capitalist economics and scientific innovation which complicates the idea of seeing them as independent variables, uniquely combined. In response to my formulation of capitalism + fossil fuels + technical knowhow/commitment you say that without the 3rd the 1st & 2nd are constrained by chance and superstition. I don’t see it that way – my point is that there’s a causal connection running from the 1st to the 3rd (although also a degree of independence).

    So in relation to your Portuguese Man o’ War example, yes of course it’s pointless to allocate blame out to the constituent parts of the organism. But it’s also pointless to blame the organism as a whole – stinging things is what it does. Man o’ Wars sting things and capitalist globalisation creates vast inequalities and ecological meltdown. Well, what did we expect? What purpose does blaming the beast and all its constituent parts serve? It does what it’s built to do.

    The only purpose I can discern is as a prelude to trying to reconfigure it into something better. And here, my ‘capitalism’ is only a shorthand for another complex set of relations. I think Andrew is right to be cautious of historical prime movers. So we can try to understand it by breaking it down in various ways – looking at its historical development, for example, or its present manifestations and entailments in order to find some points of traction to move towards more benevolent outcomes. This is where I don’t quite understand your larger position, Ruben, and where the Portuguese Man o’ War analogy doesn’t really work, in my opinion. The Man o’ War has an emergent structure of mutually dependent parts which is essentially fixed over time, except through slow evolutionary change. Human economies, polities, technologies may have that appearance at a given historical moment, but they’re not such fixed, determinate structures. The political economy can be purposively reconfigured (albeit not easily, and not without unintended consequences) in a way that a Man o’ War can’t. So I’m not quite sure what you’re saying – your position sounds like quite a totalising religious critique, along the lines that we live in a determined world in which humanity is inherently sinful. But I suspect that’s not what you actually mean…

    If I understand Eric correctly, I agree with where he’s going in terms of a vision for a more benevolent political economy – one in which there’s more place for non-quantitative and non-scientific thinking. This, I think, is the deeper cultural problem at the root of the food faddism critiqued by the Angry Chef. People seek symbolic and spiritual connections with the world, but a technological capitalism has undermined many of the possibilities and even the very language for doing so – resulting in some rather alienated food fads that feel the need to cloak themselves in quasi-scientific authority. It’s quite easy to critique them, but that kind of misses the point.

    Regarding Phillips, well I think he’s right to critique capitalism – an improvement at least over some of the other ecomodernists. The trouble is his critique is very bad, leading him to a kind of cargo cult mentality of a working class redeemed by the ability to shower itself endlessly in material luxuries, and thence to a view of the green movement as nothing more than middle-class, status-signalling poseurs (or ‘twig-munching reactionaries’, as he called me). So for me the problem is not that he’s critiquing capitalism, it’s that his critique is total bullshit.

    • Chris, your point about stinging being the nature of the Man o’ War and destruction being the design of capitalism is a very clarifying one for me.

      But what I was trying to illustrate with that is not nature, nor an inability to change over time. All I was trying to illustrate is total interdependence.

      My only interest through this whole thread has been to hold the position that everything is interrelated, and therefore nothing is blameless. It started with the delicate feelings of our scientist friends—I don’t think they can absolve themselves of harm caused by the evil misapplication of their work. Nor do I think the oil companies or the capitalists can wash their hands because they are just fulfilling consumer demand,

      I honestly can’t tell if I agree with what you are saying about collinearity or not.

      There’s a correlation between capitalist economics and scientific innovation which complicates the idea of seeing them as independent variables, uniquely combined.

      I. Do. Not. Think. They. Are. Independent.

      my point is that there’s a causal connection running from the 1st to the 3rd (although also a degree of independence).

      I agree there are degrees of independence, and I agree there is a causal connection running from the first to the third.

      And I also think there is a causal connection running from the third to the first, and from the second to both the others, and back again.

      And so, given that understanding of a spiral/web/coevolution, I have no belief whatsoever in a totalizing religious view.

      Furthermore, I deliberately called my work Compassionate Systems, and take as the absolute fundament that humans are not “sinful”—or even selfish or bad or rude or anything. We are all just trying to do the best we can under the circumstances.

  21. Oceanic Commerce…………….

    Methinks Sam Hall and the invention of the surface condenser have a lot to answer for

    • Oceanic commerce #2……………….

      I will nominate James Watt and his improvement of the steam engine, more answering required.

      • Yes, BUT it was the surface condenser that made higher pressures & hence more efficient engines possible

      • Thomas Newcomen (a Brit) with the first steam engine… James Watt (a Scott) with a modification of the Newcomen steam engine… Sam Hall (a Brit) with the condenser allowing fresh water recycling so that steam engines could go to sea for serious periods of time… and then James Aillaire (a Yank) who invented the compound steam engine (to harvest more power from the steam). From the list it appears the United Kingdom is up to its arse in bloody technology development. Oceanic commerce, capitalism, planetary rape. Hmmmm, can’t wait for Chris’ History of the World from the perspective of a Wessex Peasant.

        Just kidding. Perhaps I’ve fallen under the spell of that great modern Philosopher, Anders Rubenson.

        Still kidding, but one should let off a little steam now and then… 🙂

  22. One for the “Maybe Scientists Really Are Bad People After All” file.

    http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/50017/title/Microbiology-Professor-Wanted-for-Murder/

    It seems a scientist and one accomplice are wanted to answer questions about the stabbing murder of a 26 year old male in the greater Chicago area. There is still some chance the scientist is not guilty, so I won’t pass judgement. But given our recent squabble(s) and the fact the murderer(s) didn’t use a gun (so the NRA will likely be ALL over this one) I thought I’d toss this one in the wind. Over to you Ruben.

  23. Thank you, Ruben. One of the problems with the blogosphere is that it’s easy to get into ever-amplifying disputes with people with whom we probably don’t ultimately much disagree, which would more easily be clarified over a drink or two. My intention wasn’t to accuse you of religious fundamentalism, but to leave an opening for further clarification. There’s always scope for more discussion, but thanks for responding…I don’t think we’re that far apart, so I’m inclined to leave it there (friendly emoticon).

    Now then, Clem – you seem to have put your finger on a puzzling coincidence. Whence do the majority of scientists and engineers who inaugurated the technological revolutions of the modern age originate? Britain. And which country pioneered industrial capitalism. Britain! Really, it’s quite uncanny. Clearly, there must be something in our soils that fosters technical expertise of a kind that other countries simply cannot match. Though saying that, I’d venture that your own country has been more to the fore in technical innovation over the last century or so. And when I assessed which has been the globally dominant country economically over the same period, I was astonished to discover that it was the USA, no less. The coincidences multiply!

    Thanks for debating, folks. Keep smiling…I love you all…

    • It seems something I once read suggested the Dutch got capitalism established with the tulip trade… but that likely wouldn’t be described as ‘industrial capitalism’… so no need to split hares (yes, it should be hairs… but doesn’t splitting a hare go better with sharing a drink??).

      And like you I’m of the thought the U.S. has been pretty invested in technological development since early days. One might even surmise it was Yankee pride that imagined the yolk of British ingenuity could be dismissed in favor of home grown efforts to conquer the natural world.

      As an Illinois native (the Land of Lincoln) I’d always fancied our 16th President was something of a futurist in more than political turmoil. The Land Grant movement (Morrill Act, 1862) establishing research universities throughout the country took the country’s early Yankee ‘can do’ spirit and gave it an infrastructure to pursue science and technology on a grand scale.

      Conquering nature. Not such a pleasant trope given our current view of the horizon. But I think there is still hope, whether one models the world linearly or non-linearly. Silver linings can be discovered be searching for them. Hope endures where given a chance.

      Keep up the hard work Chris, we all love you back!

      • >Keep up the hard work Chris, we all love you back!

        Ah, thanks Clem. Just got out of bed with a mind to delete that ‘love’ bit, the product of over-tiredness and a glass or two of wine. But now it’s too late… Well, it’s certainly a pleasure hosting such an interesting bunch of contributors…

  24. Just heard from a friend who is very knowledgeable about paleo (and other popular diets, for good or ill), and this is what he had to say (in response to my query why they would be the ones experimenting with cortisol resetting)):

    “Been a little while since I’ve checked into the latest on the Paleo scene. However, in my opinion, they are one of the few nutritional communities that have a coherent view of human health and nutrition in all their aspects. By that, I mean they are guided by the overarching paradigm of human evolution in making sense of research and other observations, and therefore much more likely to be able to interpret findings at a “global” level that truly makes sense in terms of what forces have driven the design of human functioning over eons of time.

    Also, because of that global view, they are probably more likely to notice things that initially come to light that others might miss, due to the reductionistic myopia and prejudices that tend to swallow up the world of clinical research.

    Paleo is unlike most nutritional schools of thought that are piecemeal in their approach, looking at clinical studies with a very short-sighted, “blinded” view, sort of peering down a telescope backwards examining one thing at a time in ignorance of dozens or scores of other potential influencing factors. This isolation or ignorance about other factors that would impinge on the findings and reveal shortcomings in the study design is what leads to all the helter-skelter comicality in the larger nutritional world of, “Hey, THIS is the answer!… No, wait, now it looks likes this OTHER thing might be!… Oops, no, wait, that was wrong!… Now we ‘know’ (yeah, right) it’s probably THIS!” Sure, buddy… 😉

    Guess what I am saying is: Not up on what’s behind why paleo folks are currently looking at cortisol resetting, but because of the evolutionary template for reasoning that forms the superstructure of paleo thought, they are usually going to be ahead of the curve on things. They aren’t necessarily always right about things, at least in the beginning, but over time they will usually have the most useful insights to provide, because they’re able to see the “forest” that most miss for all the isolated “trees.”

    I am always amazed at how ignorant or defiant most of the nutritional world is about human evolution, seeming to regard paleo as just another fad (i.e., the “caveman diet” label that is often pejoratively applied).”

      • Thanks for sharing this, Martin. I missed Michael’s earlier link to the mid-Victorian study, and your further thoughts on it were well worth reading. I particularly liked your point about “the sheer accidentalness of the thing.”

  25. I hear Vera’s latest comment and scratch my head yet again. But rather than get embroiled in dietary disputations, let me wonder aloud where all the exercise enthusiasts have gone – have we not invited them to the table? I am persuaded that in general health results from the intersection of diet+excersize+gentics+(witches brew of yet to be discovered (or appreciated) influences).

    [by way of a peace offering I’ve deliberately chosen to employ Ruben’s maths in a friendly effort to suggest his approaches are worth much consideration]

    Anyway – the curious part of me wonders whether the Paleo hunter gatherer wasn’t far more athletically engaged. The exercise required to obtain her sustenance would have far outpaced what it takes to drive a motor car up to a window and request a thousand calories worth of slop and the attendant few moments of time for the same to magically appear. And while pondering this discordance we might also ponder meal size choice in relation to ‘cost’. If you work your fanny off all day (literally AND figuratively) trying to obtain enough to eat then it seems to my tiny rationality that you may be less disposed to eat more than your body requires. Oh, did I put ‘choice’ into my Rubenesque nonlinear model above? Ooops – well – kittens.

    Not a paleo diet advocate myself I can be persuaded that if we have a closer look and the WHOLE of the paleo life situation from food source to exercise and all the other aspects of their survival we might make better inferences for our present situation.

  26. To be fair, the Paleo people do emphasise exercise, though undoubtedly there’s a debate to be had about the relative importance of the different components of ‘Paleo’ life. I think Vera’s friend’s point about putting dietetics into an evolutionary framework is interesting (maybe parallels Ford Denison’s arguments for putting ecology into an evolutionary framework) but I guess in view of culture and behaviour, diet is under-determined by evolution. I still think a prima facie case remains for the Paleo hypothesis that’s robust to Mr Angry’s wide of the mark objections.

    Martin, thanks for your steampunk diet – I’ll have to look at that paper. Various things there that make me sceptical, but it’s certainly thought-provoking.

    Note on terminology – as a British-based blog, just thought I’d mention that ‘working your fanny off’ in British-English is feasible only for about half of the population, and is absolutely not recommended. Likewise, looking at Brian Miller’s latest blog post over at the South Roane agrarian – in the US having a boss who’s pissed is clearly problematic, whereas in the UK it puts the workers at a distinct advantage.

    • I passed Martin’s Steampunk post along to a facebook friend who is a farmer, nutritionist and Paleo eater. She thought it was good, and also read the paper referenced with by Clayton and Rowbotham with it.

      Probably not too revolutionary, given that she works in the high fat, high protein, low carb area, but thought I would pass it along.

      • Can I just add that (from a superficial reading of internet commentary), one of the interesting things about the whole paleo-thing is what it illustrates about behaviour.

        The basic paleo idea is that “We are evolved creatures. Rates of physiological evolutionary change are far too slow to keep up with social, cultural and tehcnological changes to diet and lifestyle. therefroe it might be a good idea to look at the sort of food and physical activity that would have been available to our not-too-distant ancestors – because that’s what might physically suit us.”

        This is completely sensible! The caveat is, of course, that we can’t know in detail what conditions for our paleolithic ancestors were like (we can’t hardly even know in accurate detail what went on twenty years ago!). So it has to be broad brush – eat more veg, little sugar, fat’s not evil and above all ( the one that interests me more than diet btw) do more walking and physical activity.

        The caveat hasn’t stopped people turning this into a series of mad, detailed, prescriptions and proscriptions: “dairy is evil! Potatoes are posonous! I have to have meat every day!”. This kind of talk is ripe for the debunking and deservedly so.

        • Well, cockney is a fine tongue in which to be indignant.

          Yes, wise comments on paleo & obsessional human behaviour. I suppose there may be things to be surmised about paleo diets in terms of wild meats & fats (actually, I wonder if we know more about paleo diets than some critics claim…I’ve always been amazed about how much archaeologists profess to know about human & animal diets from a few bone fragments…)

          Exercise is another interesting one. A lot of people seem to assume there was a lot of mad anaerobic running after big game. I’m more of the ‘set fish traps, pick berries, retire to hammock’ school of thought. Though I’d guess that people walked a great deal more than most of us do today.

          • I couldn’t lay my hands on it, but I read an article about the many health benefits of walking. There was still great benefit to walking in small amounts, but the studies found we have evolved for four to seven hours of walking every day.

          • I’m more of the ‘set fish traps, pick berries, retire to hammock’ school of thought.

            Good on you… I’m close – attach bait to hook, toss into water, pop open cold beer, retire to hammock, think about picking berries.

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