Science / Art / Knowledge / Belief

It seems that too many environmental and social justice advocates think they should be exempt from reducing their aviation-related footprint because their work is important. The continue their airborne ways because they don’t see “realistic” alternatives, and, perhaps, more importantly, because they can.

It is not that the exercise of privilege can’t be put to good use, but such action always and inherently also brings about injury. So the question we have to grapple with individually and collectively is, does the resulting good compensate (at the very least) for the harm, while laying the groundwork for eliminating the system of privilege and disadvantage — what ultimately, from a social and environmental justice perspective, has to be the goal of progressively minded folks?

The above quote is from an article by Joseph Nevins entitled Flying Is One of the Worst Things You Can Do for the Environment — So Why Do So Many Well-Intentioned Folks Do It?

It goes to the core of the question that this Environmental Audit posed for itself right from the beginning: “If the museum puts on an exhibition about the environment, how much in the way of resources is consumed, how much carbon (etc) emitted in the process? In other words, was it worth it?”

Now, I can’t say that I have come anywhere near answering that question definitively. Actually, I’m not sure if it can be answered, except perhaps in small case studies where tangible social, political or environmental change has occurred as the result of a particular action. Too often, however, the outcomes of art projects (or of, as Nevins discusses in his article, “international meetings” enabled by air travel) are too hazy to properly measure.

Similarly, as one commenter states in response to Nevins, “I don’t see humans giving up air travel very soon […] the benefits are immediate and gratifying, and the detriments are incremental and widely distributed — and human perception is too narrow to bridge the gaps.”

If our perception of the ill that is caused by air travel is too vague to be a disincentive, this means that in order to be motivated to change our behaviour we have to rely on longer term knowledge of cause and effect. In other words, we have to turn to the cumulative knowledge base of science, which transforms the aggregate of human minds into one immense, networked “mind” which is able to connect the dots over a much longer period of time.

For individuals who are not scientifically minded, or who don’t have the technical expertise to understand the nuances of climate science, this can pose something of a problem: to outsource our “knowing” to a wider community can be unsettling. To trust that the information we receive (eg, that air travel is one of the worst things you can do for the environment) is correct, without being able to see it with our own eyes, can cause great personal doubt – making it more difficult to change our behaviour.

This was one of the issues raised last night at the Tipping Point forum. It was put on the agenda by Jess, who wondered how she could act, as an artist. How could she usefully throw her weight behind the movement to slow climate change – when she only has a very feeble grasp of the science involved? How to jump on board without feeling like a phoney? And what kind of contribution can an ignorant artist make anyway, when all the knowledge seems to be “way up there”?

This is a pretty interesting problem, and I think in some way it heads towards the territory of belief. If we don’t “know” for ourselves (in the sense of knowing via personal experience) the ins-and-outs of climate change science, we do, to an extent, have to adopt a certain level of belief. An overarching belief in climate change, may, in fact, become a new world “faith”.

As I argued (with a rather half-baked metaphor) last night, in the small breakaway discussion group about this particular subject: just because I don’t fully understand the Torah, that does not make me any less Jewish. I accept the overarching belief system, and carry on with my daily life with this faith as a guiding force. On the other hand, the Torah is available so that I might deepen, or question, my understanding of my culture/faith if I so wish.

So too for the artist/scientist divide. Just because Jess doesn’t fully understand the science, does not mean that she should not act. Perhaps, working from the faith that scientific knowledge about climate change is “justified true belief”, she should carry on making art which she hopes can assist her fellow humans (and herself!) in dealing with this impending crisis.

Of course, this kind of talk wades into the thorny territory of epistemology, and it would take wiser heads than mine to untangle it all.

Stephen, one of the scientists present at the Tipping Point, objected to the idea that climate science might require some level of faith. For Stephen, science is a fact-based discipline, not subject to the same laws of relative interpretation as other human endeavours (like religion or propaganda).

I’m no scholar of the history of science, but it seems to me that science is a construct of post-enlightenment western civilization which follows particular ideological principals. This is not to argue that certain facts which underly climate physics are “relative”, in the sense that there is no inherent “truth” in them. It’s just to acknowledge that science is subject to the same social laws as any other aspect of culture: it has languages of communication, political forces which shape it, and standard methods of operation, which enable and constrain the kinds of “facts” it is able to discover.

And, as Stephen conceded, however “right” science may have proven itself to be (for instance, 98% of scientists now agree that human-induced climate change is a reality), it has failed to communicate that message powerfully enough to positively change the system that it measures.

Why? Perhaps because until very recently, the obsession of many good scientists with objective facticity has made them reluctant to weigh into political debates – as if such “motivated” communication would sully the disinterested correctness of the underlying science.

Could it be that science may now need to learn something from art*, in order to turn its objective facts into transformative social action?

*And when I say “art” I mean all sorts of art: hollywood movies, advertising, folk music, reality television, etc as well as the more museumified sorts…

One thought on “Science / Art / Knowledge / Belief

  1. This is a very interesting post. The principal problem I have with the’scientist’s view is that it’s far from certain that science gives us “interpretation free” knowledge. In any case, any assertion about science being an inherently objective discipline will itself not be a scientific statement; that is, the statement “only science gives us bias free knowledge” is itself not a statement of science, but about science. That is, it’s a philosophical claim precisely the kind of assertion that lands one in interpretative thickets and competing claims.

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