Put science in context - life is not like a box of Lego

November 24, 2000

Public unease over science is compounded by science's refusal to look at the big picture, argues Alan Rayner.

The debate about genetically modified crops is the most recent symptom of a growing public unease. The shining aura of infallibility that used to shield scientific authority has begun to fade, to be replaced by questions: do they honestly know what they are talking about and can our science really foresee the long-term consequences of our actions? And, as the global impact of human technology looks set to outstrip human wisdom, these questions become more urgent. The future quality, if not survival, of our living space is in doubt.

Faced with this crisis, the response of some is to accuse the disquieted public of ignorance, irrationality, irresponsibility and pursuing a political agenda. Ironically, it is the deliberate ignorance of context, compounded by political, economic and career aspirations, that really risks unleashing dysfunction: indeed it already has done so.

Deliberate ignorance comes with rationalistic modes of inquiry that continue to underpin mainstream analytical science, regardless of the implications of relativity, quantum and non-linear theory. In its relentless pursuit of simplicity, precision and certainty, rationalism has separated subjects and objects, insides and outsides, self and other. It prizes a purified, objective view of things as discrete contents in splendid isolation from their contextual container, thereby eliminating "dirty" subjectivity and "noisy" environmental variables.

Hence, life and the universe are regarded like a box of Lego blocks that can be sorted, assembled and disassembled: a fixed reference frame of empty Cartesian space and absolute time, in which independent objects collide, compete and stick together but cannot relate. It all seems so simple and logical - the only uncertainties lie in the randomness of independent events, but statistics and risk analyses can account for those.

But the simplicity is false, arising from deliberate exclusion of all that is considered outside the frame of reference. To be fair, this exclusion is the result of believing that we cannot account for everything, so it seems better to focus on the small picture first and build from there. Unfortunately, it is impossible to get the big picture from a small one that has already excluded vital contextual information. This becomes critical whenever analytical science tries to take a long-term view, because then the crucial uncertainty is not randomness, but rather implications - how the future will unfold as neglected outside influences come to bear and one thing induces another.

For, in reality, nothing occurs in complete isolation. The discrete boundaries assumed or imposed by rational inquiry to keep things simple are artefacts that actually complicate and ration our understanding. Real boundaries are dynamic interfaces, places of opportunity for reciprocal transformation between intercommunicating insides and outsides over nested scales from sub-atomic to universal, not fully discrete limits. Features arise through the coupling of explicit contents with their larger implicit context that, like a hologram, can only be seen partially and in unique aspect from a fixed viewpoint.

By the same token, we humans are as immersed in and inseparable from our living space as a whirlpool is in a water flow: our every explicit action implicitly depends on and induces transformation of our environment - which is as much our inheritance as our genes.

By taking self-centred action, regardless of context, we put that inheritance at risk and, ultimately, at conflict with ourselves. The resulting damage is evident in tales of the unexpected, from Dutch Elm Disease and Southern Leaf Blight in monocultures of male-sterile corn, to global warming, mental stress and BSE - a just cause for mistrust. When, as with genetic modification, we try as an afterthought to test implications, using experimental methods that continue to disregard context, we add insult to injury. To restore trust, it would help to invert this application-before-implication trend, so new technologies such as genetic modification emerge in relation to contextual need, not private greed.

As deep ecologists urge, we need to shift, both intellectually and practically, from egocentric to ecocentric, by giving precedence to our living space.

The participatory philosophy of "inclusionality" I am working on with others, in which all things are viewed as dynamic contextual inclusions, may help by enabling us to value the explicit, laser-like focus of rational inquiry not as "all there is", but rather as a high resolution tool. This tool, when complemented through dialogue by the collective imagination and insights coming from many, diverse perspectives, can illuminate implicit, holographic, reality. In this way, we can stay attuned to our dynamic context rather than create dissonance by assuming control over what our restrictive analytical vision prevents us from seeing.

Alan Rayner is reader in biology and biochemistry at the University of Bath, author of Degrees of Freedom: Living in Dynamic Boundaries and a member of Bath Bio*Art

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