Science as Ideology, and the Environment as a ‘Charity Case’

Harper Doesn't SpeakAlthough it has recently disgraced itself by promoting hate propaganda, CBC radio’s Ideas series still occasionally comes up with some thought-provoking programs. One of these is the series How to Think About Science, which has been running Wednesday nights since last November, and whose first 20 programs are now up on podcast. Tonight’s episode #24 featured a number of scientists and philosophers talking about how science is sometimes guilty of being unconsciously ideological, and how it uses myths and analogies (like Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’) to advance an ideological position that (because of the power of myth and analogy) can interfere with our ability to appreciate other, competing theories of how the world works. And science is, after all, just theories, models, approximations and representations of reality, that are interesting and, sometimes, useful.

One of the philosophers criticizing this unconscious ideology, interviewed in the program, was Mary Midgley who, after reiterating her now-famous criticism of Dawkins, said something so remarkable (perhaps because it was so obvious but I’d never realized it) that I had to pull my car off the road to stop and digest it. She said:

Before human beings can change their behaviour, they have to change their way of thinking.

When humans (including scientists) believed that other animals were unthinking, unfeeling robots, for example, we had no qualms about subjecting them to unimaginable torture and suffering. Even today, in many cultures and religions, ‘nature’ is viewed as a savage, hostile force to be subdued by humans (exemplified by shows on the wingnut networks like Fox — Survivor, When Animals Attack etc.)

I was listening today to a speech by our ghastly prime minister Harper, who is misrepresenting what his government is doing to protect biodiversity at an international meeting somewhere (he’s actually doing less than nothing, with policies whose effect is to accelerate loss of biodiversity). What struck me was his comment that much of the alleged work protecting Canada’s biodiversity was being done by — get this — “environmental philanthropists”.

A philanthropist is someone who donates to charity. So Harper was admitting that he views “the environment” as a charity case.

This is, of course, completely consistent with the conservative worldview. Nature is put here by God to be conquered, bent to man’s will, and used as he sees fit. Defeating nature is God’s test of our strength and valour. Once it’s beaten, it’s really of no use. Harper buys this myth completely; it is beyond his comprehension to see humans as just another, not especially extraordinary, creature that evolved as an inseparable part of the environment, dependent on that environment. The only way in this ideological worldview he can ‘make sense’ of spending money on environmental protection is by viewing it as an act of charity.

My point in writing about this is two-fold. First, we should not presume that the environmentalists’ worldview is devoid of mythology and ideology either. I think that Gaia theory (and the ever-evolving theory of evolution) is a brilliant scientific theory, one that intuitively resonates with me as having great explanatory power and predictive value. It’s very useful. It’s fascinating, even exciting. But it is only a theory, a model, a representation of reality. Like reality, it continues to evolve; it evolves as we learn more about how the world appears to work. It is not “the truth”.

This is not a defence of creation theory, which is an utterly indefensible misrepresentation of reality, and hence completely useless (except perhaps as a tool for propaganda and subjugation of the ignorant and fearful). But as useful and consistent with observation as Gaia and evolution theories are, they are only ways of thinking. They are not The Truth. In fact, as another interviewee on the program commented, the more we learn through science, the more likely it seems that The Truth is unknowable. Learning is a journey without end, and we will always find new models, new ways of thinking that make ‘more sense’ than what we thought before, and cause us to change our way of thinking and discard that old thinking.

Secondly, that italicized sentence above gave me a huge rush of appreciation for the value of writing, blogging, and being a generalist. I’ve been enormously restless and self-critical because I keep thinking out loud and writing about what I think needs to be done, what I think perhaps my Purpose is, but somehow never really get started doing anything about it. But maybe I’m not meant to be an activist, founding communities and enterprises and creating models of a better way to liveand make a living. Maybe instead my Purpose is to change people’s way of thinking. And for those of you who write as obsessively as I do, maybe that’s your Purpose too.

What do you think?

Category: Science
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13 Responses to Science as Ideology, and the Environment as a ‘Charity Case’

  1. Mel says:

    Dave – you’re in a contemplative place recently (which I like). Have you tried doing Tom Rath’s Strength Finder 2.0? I suspect you’d come out with a similar top 5 to me (Input, Intellection, Learner, Analytical, Deliberative). I’m currently on a career hunt after a year off travelling and finding something which suits me has become very important to me. In answer to your question, I really do think changing people’s thinking is a purpose worth pursuing – we can’t all lead with actions – but we can lead with our thoughts.

  2. Malva says:

    Very interesting post. Coincidently, the blog I read just before yours (I use a feed reader) is the not often updated Peak Oil Medecine (, which talked about the book “USELESS ARITHMETIC – Why Environmental Scientists Can

  3. Steve Bean says:

    Since reading Byron Katie’s Loving What Is, I’ve definitely changed my thinking. I now question my thoughts regularly and check them against reality. This is a little aside from your topic, but it comes back around very quickly. The ultimate value in this practice of inquiry is that with the demonstrably false thoughts out of the way I/we can (and do) act out of love, naturally. It also helps in evaluating the actions (and rationalization/justifications/mythologies) of others, including government officials.

  4. I think changing people’s way of thinking is a good idea. I think that returning to simplifying mythologies is not. One of my greatest criticisms of left and progressive activists is that they’re just not willing to commit to a depth and complexity of thinking necessary to support their philosophy.

  5. Siona says:

    “Before human beings can change their behaviour, they have to change their way of thinking.”:Puts on devil horns: Yes, but changing behavior can be the most effective means to changing one’s thinking; the process goes both ways. ;)Personally, I prefer the even more obvious (at least philosophically) truism that being precedes doing. Who you are affects what do you. Who are you? Who do you want to be? Apologies, though. You did write in the last post that we were going to head in a different direction, and look at where I’m taking us. :)I liked your question about purpose. My purpose (and I’ll confess I’ve even I’ve written this out) is precisely NOT to change anyone or anything, but to allow people to be-who-they-are, and to accept whatever that might look like in any particular moment. I don’t know. I think there’s something liberating about that ongoing, insanely hard challenge, and something paradoxical about it, too, because it’s usually when you feel accepted, unconditionally, that you feel most safe and secure in experimenting with change. Or at least this has been the case for me.

  6. John Graham says:

    Since you asked what I think,On “Purpose”:I infer from yesterday’s post and today’s that there’s a part of Dave (and a part of John) that sets itself up us judge of what the Purpose of his actions is, and is afraid the answer might be none.What kinds of evidence will this judge admit?I think it’s self evident that our little neural loops have no way of knowing what our Purpose is in the Gaia scheme of things. You don’t see all the ripples that my reading of your blog has in my community (neither do I).Which is not to say there’s anything wrong with acting into a purpose you’ve thought of – just know that any working hypothesis you have of this will in the final analysis be wrong. So Introvert Dave and Little John have literally nothing to fear.PO: the quest for a Purpose-I-know-about is really a quest for justification of existence.

  7. John Graham says:

    Like Siona, I’m drawn to what I conceive of as a path of radical non-interference. (I still have plenty urge to change others’ thinking, to put you straight Dave). It seems that non-interference allows Gestalt-shifts to occur in the world-brought-forth of our perception. As Quinn says, we don’t need new programs, we need people with new vision and no program.A Gestalt-shift in perception is what changes behaviour and thinking, in my view. Matthew Fox, in his book A Spirituality Named Compassion, has a great chapter on what compassion isn’t (including pity and sentiment). In compassion, seeing and acting cannot be separated. If we think they can be, then we’re not experiencing compassion. That kind of perceptual shift, to where I just see and do without the angst and grasping and feeling-bad-but-still-screwing-others-and-the-planet, is what I’m after. He has interesting stuff on extrovert meditation too.

  8. David Stuart says:

    Dave your words are creating change. If you need to see this, ask people to tell you their stories about how they have moved on your wisdom. Keep it up

  9. Chaitanya says:

    I think Siona has kind of meant this already, but i’ll say it anyways: When one tries to change one’s or other’s “thinking”, we are setting up a conflict between what-the-person-is-right-now and the-intended-future-state. That conflict creates tension. It will also create defensive positions and lock us into too much intellectual debates on how-to-change, what-to-do etc.Perhaps a better way to approach this might be to be acutely aware of one’s own thinking and one’s own thought framework, and that will perhaps let the change be more natural. This will clearly let one “see” the problem and what exactly to change. I’ve recently realized that the most practical way to engage in this new mode of handling things, and to my own personal change, is probably through Buddhist mindfulness meditation. Just after a few weeks of practice, iam starting to enjoy and benefit from it.Check out this superb introduction manual online (its free):Mindfulness in plain english. By Ven. Henepola Gunaratana.

  10. Chaitanya says:

    Oh by the way, your blog, of which iam a regular reader, ofcourse has its place .. on an intellectual level. Iam talking about mindfulness as a method for a deeper level change, after which intellectual arguments will perhaps be more easily absorbed.Re environment as philanthropy: Iam not familiar with the exact context in which Harper used these words, but in general, i actually thing this is a good way to conceptualize environmental care-taking.We have a common phrase “giving back to the community”. It’s not such a bad phrase, is it ? Its not derogatory right ? You realize your embeddedness within a community, and responsibility to give back to it. Same with the larger environmental community. This “giving back” need not be in form of a cheque, but in form of lesser consumption .. that can be interpreted as giving back to the environment, right ?

  11. Siona says:

    “Before human beings can change their behaviour, they have to change their way of thinking.”I forgot one little thing that made me chuckle. Who’s the ‘they’ in this? Is the speaker somehow not a member of the human race? I’d offer that “we” would be a more accurate way to put it, and that if this is the case, then my responsibility is to change MY way of thinking. Anything else feels a bit futile, as obviously I don’t have much control over the minds of others. Still, I’m with David S. Your words, Dave, are creating change. Look at what’s cascading here. Finally, I can only underline Chaitanya’s encouragement. Meditation is the best way I know to practice being, and if you’re interested in beingness, there’s nothing like embodied practice to get to understand the process better. Book learning only goes so far..

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Mel — yes, I tried it, and all the qualities I had started with the letter “I” :-)Thanks, everyone, for the counsel, which I will take to heart. Stephen: I agree that we ALL need to beware of over-simplifying myths and metaphors — they are powerful ways to communicate meaning AND disinformation.Siona (and respondents): Yes, absolutely, we can learn who we are by doing as well. I’d like to think I change people’s thinking by indirect means — providing information, telling stories etc., rather than by persuasion or coercion, which I’m hopeless at. So I respect your acceptance of people as they are, but…that being unprovocative just ISN’T me :-)John: I dunno…I suppose discovering your Purpose is a lifelong endeavour, but I don’t think that means that what you think is your Purpose at any time is wrong…I trust my intuitions more than that.Chaitanya: Thanks so much for the reference to the online book on mindfulness and meditation. Extremely sensible and easy to understand and follow.

  13. mattbg says:

    I don’t really see the “creation theory” and science as being mutually exclusive. It is possible, for example, that God created life and, from that point forward, it evolved according to the theory of evolution. That would be compatible with the idea that some higher power doesn’t protect everyone in isolation but instead allows them to have free will and live by the consequences of their actions or of the interactions that take place around them.Under that way of thinking, evolution and the Gaia hypothesis would be scientific analyses of what was created and started by God, but which is now acting as a self-reinforcing system over which the higher power has control.I’m not really religious… but I can’t accept the scientific theories about how things got started. I am still open to the idea that the things around us were created by a higher power, but I don’t believe it’s a meddling or micro-managing higher power. If it exists, it creates self-sustaining, healing systems and not every individual blade of grass.

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