Science in the Service of Power?

In our times science is certainly on top of everyone's list for credibility. Science, as one might say, brings home the bacon'-none of the technology that makes life easier, safer, more comfortable, more productive, more entertaining than it has ever been could flourish without the enormous contribution of science. It is no accident that virtually every area of human concern likes to label itself such'-even transcendental meditation dubs itself 'a scientifically validated program,' despite absurd claims to enabling people to levitate! And ads flood television and the rest of the media promoting stuff with white-coated folks summoned to lend their authoritative voices. Science is certainly very reputable.

Now when you hear word of impending disaster around the globe'-be it about the ozone layer, the rain forest, the green house effect, or global warming'-this sounds ominous, given how often it is supposed to be backed by hard science. Politicians love this stuff, of course, because they can stand up and ask for more and greater legal powers with which to regiment the rest of us who are clueless, making it seem impossible for life to go on without their constant expert-endorsed meddling by way of government inspections and regulations.

And who of us can confidently resist when the authority of the natural sciences is offered as backing for such calls for greater state power? Who but a few people, who spend the bulk of their time in think tanks studying this stuff, can stand up and reject those calls with confidence? If a scientist tells us that our home is about to become a toxic trap, how confidently are we going to keep out the meddlers, demand that they leave us in peace? We might be making a big mistake, just as we might about the famous weapons of mass destruction that experts insisted justified sending a bunch of Americans to their death!

I am sorry, but my skeptical temperament doesn't buy it. I am not convinced, actually, that ecology is much of a science apart from offering some explanations of how the globe's living systems behave. But just as most of the natural sciences cannot give us any direction as to how we should conduct ourselves, what we should aim for in our lives, but only tell us about certain limits and possibilities, so with ecology. This is especially so when it comes to the constant finger-wagging environmentalists engage in with the supposed backing of ecologists.

Consider the often heard lament that we are awash with people, that there is intolerable population explosion everywhere and that the resulting urban development, often dubbed 'sprawl,' needs to be contained. Is that really so? What demonstrates this? Most importantly, what standards are being used here, whose progress and flourishing is at skate so that such containment is imperative?

Whenever I fly over the country'-which is nearly 20 times a year'-I take a look at terra firma and it amazes me how much open, totally undeveloped space exists below me. The American southwest, especially, just seems to stretch out as far as the eye can see without even so much as a village below. I think on such occasions about all this doom-saying and shake my head in disbelief. The same happens when I fly in Europe, Africa or New Zealand, places where I work once or twice every year or so.

There is so much wilderness in all these places that the panic in the voices of environmentalists simply sounds less and less a function of reality, more a function of power-seeking.

Now, no doubt, people, with their capacity to do things well or badly and their freedom to choose either, can mess things up a good deal when it comes to managing their environment. That's just common sense, which is why some version of environmental ethics makes sense. As far, however, as the more alarmist version of these concerns go, I remain very worried that we are near dealing with yet another bunch of people interested more in running everyone else's life than in being genuinely helpful.

Fact is, housing developments are the dwellings of a vital life form in nature, human beings, no different from how nests are the dwelling places of birds or anthills those of ants or dirt mounds those of gofers or what have you. All living things transform parts of nature to suit their living requirements, and the same goes for human beings. To belly ache about this is rank misanthropy, not ethics. Sure, as with all else, here, too, people can go astray, unlike other animals that are governed by pretty reliable instincts to do the right thing unfailingly. But that's not the same as being wrong for actually building stuff'-homes, roads, parking garages, office buildings and the rest'-which is natural as all get out for human beings to do.

Perhaps we ought to trust our common sense a bit more here than all those experts who parade around in the media trying to scare us to death.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.