Love in the Ruins or My Romantic Dalliance With Holistic Science

We were childhood sweethearts. I grew up the late 1960’s in south Essex, Britain’s Motown – a land of car plants, oil refineries and scrap metal. The great Essex marshes had long since been buried under concrete and steel, but as a kid the lights on the oil refineries at night spoke their own magic and the power stations on the estuary and the huge container ships moving up the Thames to brand new automated docks, spoke of a future of technology and of hope. How I loved science.

As a kid I had my own chemistry set, recorded the temperature in the garden before I went to bed (I still do record the weather) built models of rockets and kept newspaper cuttings of the Apollo missions which I lovingly glued into scrap-books (which I still have – bit like old love letters). I can honestly still remember the shock of reading Arthur C. Clark’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and realising that by then I’d be in my late 30’s and far too old for the rigours of the first manned Jupiter missions, on which I’d set my heart.

Well, I never made it into space, but science and my love of it stayed with me and eventually I went into Higher Education and subsequently into teaching and research.

As an environmental scientist the majority of these research years were spent standing in a wet field in January, hastily writing down numbers with a stubby pencil, in an equally wet notebook. The numbers were produced by equipment placed at strategic points on and below ancient water meadows, not far from Salisbury on the River Avon in Wiltshire. My research combined the two ingredients not noted for a happy life, namely ditchwater (as dull as) and watching the grass grow (about as exciting as).

Yet I loved it. I really loved it.

I was answering questions, overcoming problems and probably for the first time (and shakily to begin with) truly thinking in a creative and scientific way for myself. It might surprise some that science research involves creative thinking, but I can assure you that it does.

They were the good times.

However, a few years ago my affair with science hit the rocks. So where did it all go wrong? Like all break ups, I’ve played it over in my mind, the things I did, the things I said and I’ve tracked it back to two events; one a stark moment of realisation and the other a gradual process of attrition.

The first was out on the meadows. In a sort of post-doctoral depression (it happens) I was back collecting data using a neutron scattering probe to measure soil moisture. This thing fires off sub-atomic particles into the soil from a radioactive source and records the numbers that bounce back. The more that bounce back, the wetter the soil, the more that just carry on going, the drier. I was on the meadows that John Constable painted in 1834, almost in the shadow of the graceful spire of the 13th century cathedral, wondering what I was doing to the worms. OK, I realised that I wasn’t going to create huge monster worms that would attack London along the Thames Valley, but I must have been doing something. What the hell had I done? I gave up using it that day (and radioactive labelling) but never really got over the sense of unease – if you’ve read the Sand County Almanac, you will know what I mean when I say, my earth worms to Aldo Leopold’s wolf. The drive to answer the questions had, somewhere along the line, obscured the means.

The second was going into teaching. I worked in a Higher Education College, teaching environmental science at undergraduate level. A nice college with nice students, but teaching environmental science was a strange affair. We taught about the environment and yet field trips and outside working was never really supported by the managers (though always figured prominently in marketing materials) and we had all sorts of arguments and obstacles put in front of us. However, despite a hard fought week or two away, the bulk of the programme was still taught in rooms and labs. Practicals were prescribed and the students merely did them seemingly to prove what we had said was right. If the practical didn’t show that, we’d allow them to do it again, until it did. I tried my best and we had a few laughs over the years, but I just got fed up with it – this wasn’t the science I had fallen in love with anymore. I always remember standing in a corridor outside the labs as two, presumably non-science, students passed by and hearing one saying to the other “Uggh! I hate the smell of science!” I’d reach a point where I thought that was pretty profound.

I’d lost it. My love for science had gone. I’d given up reading, had cancelled my subscriptions.  I too hated the smell of science.

So I went through the motions for a bit and eventually got out and got a job in a ‘proper’ university, teaching and hopefully inspiring potential science teachers. On my first day, I had pinned a photograph of my family on the wall and opened and closed my desk draws a couple of times when the computer pinged to indicate an email. “Come to Schumacher College” it said “and do a course called “A Science of Quality” – the university will pay” The last bit was the clincher.

I spent three weeks listening about a ‘new science’. I can’t pretend to have understood it all, but it got me thinking. We’d look at the ‘alternative’ science of Leonardo, Goethe and, Gregory Bateson. Patterns, systems, connections were floating around the place, replacing the old mantra’s of falsification, analysis, replication. Complexity replaces reductionism and intuition replaces logic. This was a science of the heart, one of feeling and emotion. Our fall from grace was certain when we followed Newton over the cliff of empiricism. It was all terribly seductive and certainly smelt nice and I came away thinking that we needed a new science…for a day or two.

Recently, I posed the question “Will science save the world?” on the discussion board of a group of second year undergraduate science education students. The overwhelming response was negative, ranging from a simple “No” to “I don’t know if it will save it, but it’s certainly near to ending it!” The most positive response drew the analogy of science being like plutonium – capable of great things, but generally too dangerous to mess around with. These are science education undergraduates! They don’t see beauty, they see threat.

And that’s a really important point. I don’t think that science is bad, despite its terrible press and the present fashion to blame it for the ills of the world. I think it’s simply misunderstood. I don’t for a moment think that scientists are bad. I’ve known a good few and in fact all have been concerned and working towards improving the world. Not a single science colleague has ever been involved in anything that I could say was unethical, environmentally or otherwise. Indeed, what has seemingly drawn them into science has been the opportunity to help, to problem solve, to contribute collectively.

We lose sight of the importance of science and its potential for improving the human condition at our peril. It has certainly brought us long way and still is capable of great things.

Perhaps reductionism is a problem in that we deal with atoms, molecules, cells. We don’t start with the individual, or the population. Perhaps we do need to teach it the other way round, putting the human back into human biology etc.

However, empiricism? Falsification? Without those we throw it all away.

I don’t dispute that we need an ethical science, nor that we need to recognise the limitations of reductionism. We do perhaps need to critique pure reason, as I don’t think that science can take us everywhere (despite what Richard Dawkins says) but we don’t need to reinvent it. Certainly Holistic Science sounds nice and looks good, but looks can be deceiving. One question that keeps coming back to me here is where are the outcomes? To use less aggressive educational parlance, what has it recently (say in the last ten years) produced to aid the human condition? I can’t find much at all. In fact, let’s take one area of concern relating to science and sustainability that is terribly topical and current in the UK that of the increased future use of nuclear power. As I understand it, the ‘holistic science’ tutors at Schumacher College are coming around to the view that nuclear power is the only way to fill the predicted future energy gap. Now curiously, I’m very much opposed to nuclear power and this opposition is not founded on any sort of empirical scientific evidence, but rather a deep-seated sense of unease relating to the technology, the spin-off technologies and the related politics. This is where Holistic science could really have won me (and others) over. When faced with such a great science based environmental problem, do Holistic scientists say look this just doesn’t feel right, let’s reconsider? No, they all fall in line behind James Lovelock’s rationalism. You have to stand by your methods, or abandon them. I’m not one to use profanities in public forum’s, so do forgive me but it is in the Oxford English Dictionary, Holisitc science is just such bollocks.

So after my relationship problems is reconciliation possible with science and me? Well, we’re taking things slowly, but I think so. Things are looking good. After all, we’ve been through a lot together over the years and we’ve come a long way.  In the end, yes, it’s infuriating sometimes (disparities in expenditure on anti-obesity and anti-malaria drug research), worrying (aspects of stem cell research) and at times dangerous and destructive (weapons research), but despite all that it’s my best hope for the future and the future of my kids.

No, I don’t need a new science, I just need to work on my relationship with the old one.