Sociological approaches to ecological uncertainty (version 2) 
Ecological uncertainty raises questions of authority.

Who has the authority to answer ecological questions?

Questions of ecological uncertainty such as the safety GM foods cross the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines, involving the biology and technology of their production (Ho 1998) with the sociology of their reproduction, dissemination, and interactions with existing cultural or ecological systems (Beck 1986:1992, Shiva 1993, 1998). Two specific aspects of ecological situations that make it hard to set academic boundaries around them are:

i. That organisms within their ecologies have multiple interactions with other organisms and other parts of their ecologies. Mayr writes that 'it is quite possible that in biology the majority of phenomena and processes must be explained by a plurality of theories.' (1998, p.68)

ii. That an organism's actions or processes do not have set consequences. Instead their actions are reflexive, that is that their actions are turned back upon themselves. At the level of the cell, this is evident in autocatalytic metabolism; where chemical reaction products catalyse more copies of themselves (Maynard Smith & Szathmary 1995).

This lack of boundaries has the consequence that arguments cover methodology as well as interpretation. Particularly they concern the authority of one methodology to offer an interpretation that is better than any other methodology.

Science traditionally distances itself from religion or the humanities in this way. On the one hand claiming that religion does not allow questions (Mayr 1998, Casti 1991, Hofstadter 1979), on the other hand claiming that cultural studies or literary criticism misuse scientific definitions (the Sokal/Social Text (1996) episode seems a good example of this). Science does not seem to distinguish between authoritarian religions and what could be termed open religions (in Britain: Lollardy, the Levellers, or Nonconformism for example). Although Mayr highlights the links between evolutionary biology and history, he seems to suggest that the humanities should learn more about science rather than a two-way exchange of ideas (1998, pp. 37-39).

The dislike of literary criticism amongst scientists may be a relic of a mathematical bias in science. However, some schools of mathematics (formalism or constructivism, inter alia) seem closer to schools of linguistics than they do to physics. In his conclusions to 'Pi in the Sky', Barrow particularly notes that in constructivism, ideas such as infinities and continuous functions (that are used in the wave equations of general relativity and quantum mechanics) are not allowed. These arguments can be seen as mathematical play, by they also suggest that there are many more ways constructing the universe than by the theories scientist accept at present (Barrow 1992, p. 295-297).

This opens a nest of questions. Have the humanities produced results that scientists would accept as science? Are these results recognised by scientists? What are the reasons for failure of recognition?

From my preliminary reading I would suggest four authors that scientists should read are (in order of readability): Umberto Eco, Michel Foucault, Ulrich Beck, and Jurgen Habermas.

Links to other sites...

Written 3/5/99
Created 30/5/99