Science plays an interesting role in precautionary culture. Overall, science is looked at in our culture as a discerning field of advice in terms of numerous aspects of life such as geographical position and direction (think of the Global Positioning System), human health (medicine, food security and safety, particulate matter air pollution, cell-phone radiation, and so on), parenthood (the ‘nanny shows’ with its pedagogical experts were broadcasting blockbusters). Our era could be called the ‘age of assessment’. This is as such not a bad thing.
Nevertheless, precaution thrives on the uncertainties and vulnerabilities of our age. It expresses alacrity, so the visionaries believe, to respond proactively vis-à-vis uncertainty considering the vulnerability of people, society and the natural environment. And science should be the elucidating discipline therein. François Ewald e.g. proposes: ‘For one must take all hypotheses into account, even and in particular the most dubious, one must be wide open to speculation, to the craziest imagined views…With precaution, science becomes a principal of challenge…Effectively science today interests us less by producing new knowledge than introducing new doubts…all that can be excluded is that anything should be excluded.’
The edges of science, both in terms of its research range and impact, must be the playground of precautionary scientists (whatever and whoever they may be). Ironically then, even the wildest ‘guestimates’ need to be fully trustworthy in order to tame the uncertainties of futures undreamed and unknown. Knowledge ‘should’ be truthful, useful and acceptable, a means to create a ‘safe’ and orderly future through cultural responsibility and obedience to contemporary politics, to the ostensible benefit of our children and children’s children. This usefulness overall has the character of being amenably acceptable within the political and ideological confines of the day, curiously enough with the suffocating call for unadulterated truth.
In precautionary culture then, science finds itself between Scylla and Charybdis: a very high level of scepticism with regard to what science cannot and should not do goes hand in hand with a very high level of confidence regarding what science is supposed to deliver. Science and technology as originators of a perceived predicament (climate change, food safety, and so on) has proven to be indispensable to highlight and measure the very same predicament. The mandate of science thereby is greatly widened in view of the all-embracing precautionary requirements of safety and security. By the way, science and technology itself delivered the data to underscore this line of thought: the first space missions rendered pictures of Earth as a small blue planet engulfed by the dark hostility of space.
Overall, science has become scientism in precautionary culture. Scientism is defined by the view that all, or most, of the essential non-academic areas of human life can be fully translated into/understood by science, particularly the natural sciences. Precautionary culture provides the decisive footing for this development, for one because of its secular quality. Where to turn to other than science and technology? There is a strong desire among Western world citizens to want to live in a predictable world, and there is an equally strong desire among elite citizens to ritualistically consult analysts and consultants so as to ‘grasp the future’. Western societies are so catered to by numerous institutes that thrive on the ostensible predictability of the future, rendered so by scientific communities that buy into the scientistic myth. Lehman brothers, anyone? Although they divined great changes in the world of finance with respect to climate change, they did not anticipated their own imminent demise:
In the world of business and finance, climate change has developed from being a fringe concern, focusing on the company’s brand and its Corporate and Social Responsibility, to an increasingly central topic for strategic deliberation and decision-making by executives and investors around the globe. Driving all this is an emerging consensus on three broad points: that Earth is warming; that this is the result in large part of mankind’s emission of greenhouse gases; and that there will be significant consequences for Earth’s environment.
What once was highly objectionable—Herman Kahn’s 1962-systems analysis On Thermonuclear War sought to reduce politics to a purely quantitative discipline by applying mathematical tools to calculate nuclear ‘collateral damage’ and proposing technological and scientific solutions—has now become exceedingly fashionable. All the climate research and the projections of future climates with the aid of supercomputers is just one example. Kahn’s Cold War scientism, although abhorred by most 21st century Western world citizens, seems to be fully revived in precautionary culture. Whereas the context might be different, the aims seem equivalent, namely to formulate cautious perspectives in multiple fields of society that needs to become sustainable and risk-free. Science as scientism seems to be invoked again to cope with history ‘before it happens’.
With scientism a switch is made from ‘science gives us knowledge of reality’ to ‘nothing but science gives us knowledge of reality’. Then the question seems obvious. Is scientific knowledge the only kind of knowledge we have or is it a particular kind of (quite valuable) knowledge, and can the previous question be answered by the sciences through its methods and experimentation? The latter question is fundamental to the answering of the former. If not, we are left with an article of faith, nothing more.
You saw it coming, but scientism incorrigibly suffers from self-referential incoherence and thereby is self-refuting. This is easy to see when we revert to the second part of the question one needs to answer to explicate the validity of scientism. We can only know that scientism holds through the methods of science, as only that constitutes knowledge according to scientism. However, that is impossible. No method in chemistry, physics or biology would apply. Scientism is simply not open to scientific scrutiny and will never become so regardless of the growing knowledge we will obtain through science.
It seems that some kind of scientistic fideism is introduced in precautionary culture, a belief (as in trust) in science that is not carried by science itself. Here, the words of Thomas Nagel seem appropriate: ‘… for objectivity is both underrated and overrated, sometimes by the same persons. It is underrated by those who don’t regard it as a method of understanding the world as it is in itself. It is overrated by those who believe it can provide a complete view of the world on its own, replacing the subjective views from which it has developed. These errors are connected: they both stem from an insufficiently robust sense of reality and of its independence of any particular form of human understanding.’
Ewald, F. The Return of Descartes’s Malicious Demon: An Outline of a Philosophy of Precaution. In: Baker, T., Simon, J. (eds.) 2002. Embracing Risk: The Changing Culture of Insurance and Responsibility. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 289.
Hanekamp, J.C. 2009. Neither Acceptable nor Certain – Cold War Antics for the 21st Century Precautionary Culture. Erasmus Law Review 2(2): 221–257.
Llewellyn, J. 2007. The Business of Climate Change. Challenges and Opportunities. Lehman Brothers.
Nagel, T. 1986. The View from Nowhere. Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 4.
Rayner, S. 2003. Democracy in the age of assessment: reflections on the roles of expertise and democracy in public-sector decision making. Science and Public Policy 30(3): 163–170.
Dr. Jaap C. Hanekamp is a chemist at the Roosevelt Academy, Netherlands.