Balancing Value Systems

A short book review:

Stephen Bocking, Ecologists and Environmental Politics: A History of Contemporary Ecology (Yale University Press, 1997)

In this  book, Stephen Bocking (Trent University) presents the history of ecology and its role in society by looking at the discipline’s respective emergence in Britain, United States, and Canada. Although at times Bocking’s writing style becomes tedious, his arguments nevertheless are consistent, and he does a thorough job raising key issues regarding the relationship between the role of science (ecology) and political demands (environmental politics) by analyzing how institutions can steer the direction of scientific research. Through his case studies—the Nature Conservancy, Oak Ridge Laboratory, the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study, and the Ontario Fisheries Research Laboratory—Bocking provides not only a history of the growth of an institution, but also the way in which ecology itself was transformed with the institutions’ growth. Research agendas, funding sources, and political issues all played a central role in developing the field of ecology.

One key theme that emerges is the idea that scientific agendas are established for social and economical priorities. Throughout our history, this claim is apparent: from Nazi holocaust, to the Manhattan Project, and even to cancer research. Developing on these notions, Bocking invokes a central political question: should ecology contribute to environmental politics? Through his examples, Bocking argues that historically, specific environmental concerns has affected ecology’s place in society and its status as a discipline—such as Britain’s need to preserve its historic countryside after devastating ruins following WWII; the iron triangle of the Joint Commission of Atomic Energy, the Atomic Energy Commission and the nuclear industry that governed available research projects for ecologists; and the decline of the Great Lakes fisheries. However, if science is under the control—or at least governed by—political and social institutions, where does the autonomy of science lie, if at all? Does science always need to be planned in order to be of maximum benefit to society? Is there any freedom in science?

Bocking subtly answers these questions, glazing over them as he invokes his argument for the growth of ecology as reflective of social and political agendas. His arguments are presented within the context of the Science Wars, as science and society are often viewed as antithetical, especially on epistemological grounds. The source of the battle resides on the role of value systems in science, since an absence from values is required in order to maintain a pure epistemological stance; for science to require an absence, if not complete disregard from values, it needs to live beyond the borders of society, an approach that is riddled with hostile criticism, especially towards a secularized, authoritative nature of science. Through ecology’s history, there were instances of conflict that centered on competing value systems. I was particularly astounded and amused by Bocking’s brief review of the Hudson River dispute, a conflict between environmentalists and utilities: “The clash of values and interests—between those wishing to preserve fish populations and those aiming to minimize the cost of power generation facilities—became redefined as a technical dispute” (111). This dispute while demonstrating the demand for environmental research, also demonstrates how scientific values can so easily be shifted and manipulated for political goals.

Max Weber once declared that all science—even the social sciences—needs to be “value-free,” a notion apparently lost in the blurring of boundary lines between science and society since Weber’s heyday. Ideological applications of science or at least the extreme exploitation of scientific claims for social agendas—especially in biology—have apparently raised nothing more than perversions of science: Social Darwinism, crainometery, the hereditary principle of IQ, Sociobiology, and other intellectual disasters. If scientific values are framed for social and political goals, can science be “value-free” in order to maintain its pure Baconian pursuits of knowledge? The militarized, institutionalized approach of post-WWII eras traditionally supported the grand scale funding for what is perceived as “mission-based” science, a contrary shift from the rationalization and noble pursuit of science, and a long way from what Derek de Solla Price calls Little Science as the image of “the lone long-haired genius, mouldering in an attic or basement workshop, despised by society as a nonconformist, existing in a state of near poverty, motivated by the flame burning within him” (Price, 1963). Bocking’s book is an excellent addition for providing a balance between science, society, and values.


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