Dangerous confusion of science with technology
2.Techno-fix or false solution?
NOTE: All items from the current edition of The Ecologist, including a superb article (item 1) from Guy Cook, professor of language at the Open University, who co-edits the journal Applied Linguistics.
1.The UK Government paper, A Vision for Science and Society, is no clear picture
The Ecologist, 20 January 2009
*A Vision for Science and Society, in today's technological vista, sounds an honourable aim. Guy Cook reads between the lines of this new UK government paper
In an era of climate change, genetic engineering, biofuels and debates over alternative energy sources, nothing could matter more for the environment than the choices made by government and society between available technologies. So in principle, the recent government document A Vision for Science and Society should be welcomed by all those concerned.
Unfortunately, the promise is not fulfilled. The problem is inherent in the title itself. The document fails to address the key difference between science (which develops knowledge of the natural world) and technology (which applies that knowledge). While it claims to be about the former, it is actually about the latter. Though not discussed, the distinction is clearly accepted by the authors, who use the phrase 'science and technology' 24 times. One has to suspect the avoidance of this issue is a strategic choice for a government intent on ignoring legitimate, environmentally aware assessment of new technologies, positioning it as opposition to science itself. They are not the same thing.
The natural sciences pursue rational, objective, evidence-based, disinterested knowledge of the natural world. Their achievements are immense. Yet their strength and authority rest upon their own clear delineation of what they can and cannot do. To misrepresent these self-imposed limits is to undermine this strength and may weaken this authority. They do not consider the political, commercial, ethical, philosophical, social and aesthetic dimensions of decision making. (This is not to say that scientists do not have wise contributions about these aspects of decision making many clearly do nor that scientists do not study the philosophy and ethics of science.)
Thus, for example, science can tell us what will happen when a nuclear bomb explodes, but not whether countries are right or wrong to have nuclear weapons. That decision must consider other criteria. The British Government's decision to maintain Britain's nuclear-weapon capability an instance of a policy informed by science is a political rather than a scientific one. Once the science and technology is confused, it is easy to characterise opposition to a technology as deriving from lack of scientific knowledge, or antagonism towards science.
Although the document wisely acknowledges the fallacy of the 'deficit view' of the public understanding of science by which opposition to new technologies is attributed to ignorance and prejudice to be remedied by science education it does not put this principle into practice. Throughout the document, the overwhelming emphasis is upon the 'need for all citizens to understand the nature of science better', but not on the corollary of this exhortation: the need for those applying scientific knowledge in new technologies to understand better the nature of social, economic, political, ethical and philosophical factors in their decision making.
This is not to deny the supreme importance of developing public understanding of science, but to acknowledge that there are many more dimensions to decision making. New technologies and their implementations encounter legitimate ethical opposition, alter employment opportunities and patterns, redistribute wealth, affect markets, have psychological effects, change political processes. For these reasons, the voices of experts other than natural scientists and of all citizens who have views, should be heard. Though we are told that 'since 2000 the emphasis on public engagement has been on two-way dialogue', there are no details in the document of how scientists and technologists might listen to other kinds of expertise, or to the public more generally.
Nor is there any suggestion that a new technology, though scientifically informed and viable, might not be adopted in the light of consultation. The aspiration to 'two-way' communication is simply not borne out. We are told 'national policy consultations can be opportunities for mass public education about science and associated issues'. But education though desirable is not the same as consultation.
From the outset, the report makes assertions and begs questions. Its simplistic opening sentence 'science improves the quality of daily life' sets the tone. Few would disagree that technologies such as dentistry, lightening conductors, and vaccination have improved the quality of life. Yet in the case of other technologies, such as weapons of mass destruction, the opposite is true. The problem for policy makers is not such simple extreme cases, but those where there are substantial and rational arguments on both sides. The document does not however offer details of how such technologies are to be assessed. While understanding of the science is an essential and major contribution to such decisions, it is not and should not be the only voice. To make it so, is both detrimental to science itself, undermining its independence and neutrality, and to other legitimate voices which should have a much greater share in the debate.
Although the government asked for comments on the document, and set up online mechanisms for their submission, the website (http://interactive.dius.gov.uk/scienceandsociety/site/) now seems only to showcase those comments supporting its line.
What is needed is not a one-sided vision or a fake consultation, nor the use of a misrepresented science to browbeat those with legitimate arguments into submission. Government thinking itself needs to take a lesson from the natural sciences and aim for precision, clarity, assessment of evidence, and an open mind about what it will find out. On that basis, there could be a genuine consultation in which, while science is applauded for its advancement of knowledge, the implementation of that knowledge is subjected to thorough critical assessment and scrutiny.
Nothing is more important for the environment than policy on technology. In this bland 'Vision,' an opportunity has been missed. It is hopelessly partial in both senses of the word. It demeans science, patronises society, and also bodes badly for the future of the environment.
2.Techno-fix or false solution? What technological controversies for solving environmental problems will we see in 2009?
The Ecologist, 22 January 2009 [part only]
Somebody somewhere has to have a cunning plan to fix our environmental problems and save the world right? Jim Thomas sorts through the big tech ideas you’ll be reading about this year
Almost every day sees new technologies being proposed to fix old problems. 2008 witnesses global technology fights over the rapid development of biofuels, protests against ‘clean coal technology and GM crops staging a come-back of sorts. In all three cases, ‘solving climate change’ was presented as the excuse for gambling on high-risk technologies. That theme is likely to continue. Here are a selection of technological controversies on the drawing board. See if you can sort through the silver bullets, technofixes and false solutions that are sure to keep cropping up this year...]
Three years ago, the idea of re-engineering the Earth’s climate was considered politically unacceptable. In 2009 though, geo-engineering, intentional large-scale manipulation of the climate, is poised to enter mainstream climate policy discussions. High-risk projects are now gaining a shocking respectability as panic rises over climate change. They include polluting the upper atmosphere with sulphur nanoparticles to reflect sunlight back to space or changing the chemistry of the ocean to absorb more carbon dioxide. Former climate change sceptics such as Newt Gingrich and several right wing think tanks have started to promote geo-engineering as a painless quick-fix which would bypass the need for emission reductions. This summer, the UK Royal Society will publish a report purporting to weed out the good geo-engineering schemes from the bad.
Unfortunately, it will be written mainly by geo-engineering enthusiasts. Despite a global moratorium on one ocean geo-engineering technique, fertilising the ocean to grow CO2-gobbling plankton, India may launch a pilot scheme this year and private geo-engineering company Climos threatens to take to the seas in 2009 or early 2010.
If the thought of GM pollen spreading on the breeze worries you, then watch out the latest GM products have wings! In 2009, Oxford based Oxitec intends to become the first company to sell genetically modified insects for large scale release. Oxitec has developed a GM pink bollworm (moth larvae) that it claims will mate with natural bollworms (a cotton pest) and render them sterile. However, Oxitec’s plans don’t stop there. This also looks to be the year when it will proceed with a large scale trial release of genetically modified mosquitos also intended to spread sterility in wild populations.
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The Ecologist, 15 January 2008
A new generation of biofuels is poised to come into the market. They are greener, say proponents because they can be grown on unused, 'marginal' land and won't compete for our food crops. But just where exactly is all this marginal land, and whose backyard might it be? Helena Paul reports
Recent months have seen intense debates over agrofuels biofuels made from crops. At first they were described as a panacea, a means of addressing climate change and regenerating agriculture and rural regions in Europe and around the world, particularly in Africa. The drive to exploit the global south for production of fuels from food crops such as corn and soya was presented as a development opportunity. However, many questions have since arisen about their true value for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on food production, such as land-use change, water depletion, waste, the displacement of people, other crops and animals and the human and environmental costs enacted, have become major concerns.
In response, policy-makers have been offered 'second generation' biofuels. These, we are told, will not affect food production because they will not use non-food crops. Technologies will convert the whole plant or tree to fuel, not just the fruit or seed. At least that is the vision.
However, large plantation will still be required to provide the raw materials and thus, although agrofuels might not compete for food crops, they will certainly compete for land and water. Moreover the technologies may be not be commercially viable for 10-20 years.
All this has caused confusion among political decision-makers. The European Union, having decided early in 2007 on a 10 per cent target for agrofuel use by 2020, has been strongly urged to reconsider, by a wide range of organisations and scientists profoundly concerned about the impacts. But the EU has resisted doing so to date. In February 2008, in response to the growing outcry about food prices and the indirect impacts of agrofuels, especially changes in land use, the UK government invited its newly established Renewable Fuels Agency (RFA) to undertake a review of such impacts.
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