Nature matters: Systems thinking and experts
Nature matters: Systems thinking and experts

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Nature matters: Systems thinking and experts

2.3 Citizens in conversation with nature and experts

Before leaving office in 2008, Sir David King (the ex-Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government) introduced an ethical code for scientists. This drew particularly on his experience in working across the scientific–political divide on issues of climate change. The code comprises three attributes of scientific endeavour: rigour, representation and responsibility (Figure 7, p. 106). Box 7 provides an extract from a leaflet produced by the Government Office for Science.

Figure 7
Figure 7 Three attributes of scientific endeavour

Box 8 gives a definition of expertise taken from a Wikipedia article. This describes the relationship between members of the public and technocrats (elite technical experts), inviting questions on how environmental issues are framed and who frames them. You may like briefly to reflect on the extent to which your own culture defers decisions on environmental issues to ‘experts’.

Box 7 Science and responsibility

The Universal Ethical Code for Scientists

Our social licence to operate as scientists needs to be founded on a continually renewed relationship of trust between scientists and society. The code has been developed in my Office to help us meet this challenge.

Sir David King, Government Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Government Office for Science.


Rigour, honesty and integrity

  • Act with skill and care in all scientific work. Maintain up to date skills and assist their development in others.

  • Take steps to prevent corrupt practices and professional misconduct. Declare conflicts of interest.

  • Be alert to the ways in which research derives from and affects the work of other people, and respect the rights and reputations of others.


Respect for life, the law and the public good

  • Ensure that your work is lawful and justified.

  • Minimise and justify any adverse effect your work may have on people, animals and the natural environment.


Responsible communication: listening and informing

  • Seek to discuss the issues that science raises for society. Listen to the aspirations and concerns of others.

  • Do not knowingly mislead, or allow others to be misled, about scientific matters. Present and review scientific evidence, theory or interpretation honestly and accurately.

What is the Universal Ethical Code for Scientists?

The Universal Ethical Code for Scientists is a public statement of the values and responsibilities of scientists. By scientists we mean anyone whose work uses scientific methods, including social, natural, medical and veterinary sciences, engineering and mathematics.

The code has three main aims:

  • to foster ethical research

  • to encourage active reflection among scientists on the implications and impacts of their work

  • to support communication between scientists and the public on complex and challenging issues.

Individuals and institutions are encouraged to adopt and promote these guidelines. It is meant to capture a small number of broad principles that are shared across disciplinary and institutional boundaries.

What it isn't!

This code is not intended to replace codes of conduct or ethics relating to specific professions or areas of research.

The code is not mandatory but scientists and institutions are encouraged to reflect on and debate how these guidelines may relate to their own work.

(Source: Government Office for Science, 2007)

Box 8 Expertise: birth of the technocrat

Plato's ‘Noble Lie’, albeit arguably a notion of ideological propaganda, is often where the debate begins concerning ‘expertise’. Plato did not believe most people were clever enough to look after their own and society's best interest, so the few ‘clever’ people of the world needed to lead the rest of the flock. Therefore, the idea was born that only the elite should know the truth in its complete form and the rulers, Plato said, must tell the people of the city ‘The Noble Lie’ to keep them passive and content, without the risk of upheaval and unrest. Thus, the creation of an elite form of specialist and authoritative knowledge came about.

In contemporary society, doctors and scientists, for example, are considered to be experts in that they hold a body of dominant knowledge that is, on the whole, inaccessible to the layman … However, this inaccessibility and perhaps even mystery that surrounds expertise does not cause the layman to disregard the opinion of the experts on account of the unknown. Instead, the complete opposite occurs whereby members of the public believe in and highly value the opinion of medical professionals or of scientific discoveries … despite not understanding it.

(Source: Wikipedia contributors, 2008)

Since environmental issues first began to ‘matter’ in the global North, around the mid-twentieth century onwards, a wellspring of environmental expertise has been generated. This is situated in governments and private sector consultancies, as well as the many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) associated with the environmental movement. It is also increasingly acknowledged that whatever expert-driven plans are made and whatever assurances of success are given, there will always be consequences that are either unforeseen or foreseen but not particularly valued (hence marginalised). Human-induced accidents such as the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster in India, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion in what was then the Soviet Union and the 1989 oil spill from the tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaska have generated what has increasingly been seen as scepticism towards traditional expert support – particularly scientific or technical (technocratic) expertise, which is often viewed as being too closely aligned with business interests.

In 2007, a series of high-profile ‘Camps for Climate Action’ began in the UK. These are campaign gatherings that are set up on anarchist principles in protest against particular policy initiatives that have been given legitimacy by considerable levels of scientific and technical evidence, but that are deemed by many to be harmful to the climate. Between 2006 and 2008, camps took place at Drax power station (Figure 8), at Heathrow Airport (in protest against a planned new runway), and at the site of a proposed new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth.

Figure 8
Figure 8 ‘Climate Camp’ at Drax power station in 2006

The long tradition of direct action amongst activists in the environmental movement (see, for example, the Reynolds reading in the Course Reader, which discusses protests against the Narmada Dam Project in India) is one manifestation of the distrust between citizens and technical experts. Another manifestation is the widespread calls for greater citizen participation in planning processes. Box 9 looks at this in more detail.

Box 9 Challenging the technocrats

(T)he engagement of citizens and professional experts potentially opens a learning space. (A)ny human engagement both occupies and creates space where outcomes cannot be pre-determined. In particular, the assumption that everyone will discover the same universal truths requires challenge. The literature that investigates ‘beyond the truth’, drawn principally from participation and development studies, and public engagement with science is, however, limited in that the focus in both literatures is largely the potential for active citizenship. There is much less about the potential of others who inhabit these spaces. Prominent among these is the professional expert who, characterised as a technocrat and accorded only circumscribed agency, is seen too often solely as part of the problem (Wilson, 2006, p. 511).

In his paper, Beyond the Technocrat, Wilson acknowledges the demise of positivist epistemology exemplified by (a) critiques of the elitism of professional expert ‘learners’ (e.g. through promotion of rapid and participatory rural appraisal methods), and more recently, (b) elevating citizen ‘learners’ and ‘self discovery’ through, for example, promoting in-country poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSPs). But he counsels against denigrating both science and the value of practice through positing oppositional dichotomies (ibid. p. 521) – positivist or constructivist, and practice or understanding. Wilson advocates instead a more practical exploration of a social constructivist epistemology through enabling space for interaction between professional experts and citizens.

(Source: Reynolds, 2008a, pp. 768–9)

The ‘social constructivist epistemology’ referred to in Box 9 relates to the way in which knowledge is created: not through some privileged access to ‘truth’, as supposed by (epistemological) positivism and science, but rather through a continual process of dialogue (a conversation) in order to formulate new frameworks for understanding and practice as social activities.

Experts do not have privileged access to what is true, but they do have particular skills in framing ‘reality’ and ‘nature’ from the Real and Nature. Such skills can be valuable as tools for facilitating ecological conversations, but often they can be experienced as instruments for discouraging conversation. Even amongst experts themselves, framing devices can sometimes get in the way of meaningful conversation. Climate scientists have long been in dispute over the influence of human activities on climate, depending on the frameworks of measurement used. Many climate scientists have also been at loggerheads with economists and statisticians regarding their use of cost–benefit analytical frameworks in assessing the importance of climate change (for example, see Bjørn Lomborg's controversial 2001 publication, The Skeptical Environmentalist). These discussions are largely reserved for academic journals and books, yet many disputes have influence amongst those involved with policy design. But what might an enabling space for interaction between professional experts and citizens look like?

In the Wilson extract quoted by Reynolds in Box 9, reference is made to the tradition of ‘public engagement with science’. This is also known as science and technology studies (STS). Notable contributors include Bruno Latour, Frank Fischer, Jerry Ravetz and Brian Wynne. They focus on the way in which science constructs environmental issues in the policy domain and the effect that this type of framing may have on discounting other perspectives. Wynne in particular is a critic of the way in which policy informed by science circumscribes conversation in terms of ‘risk assessment’, and is also critical of some aspects of Ulrich Beck's concept of the risk society (see Section 5.3.1). For Wynne, the idea of ‘risk’ and its importance needs to be a contested issue in itself, rather than something that is simply ‘given’ or assumed by the facts of science. In a rebuke of policy designers relying heavily on technical experts, Wynne states that a continual problem in the policy domain associated with environmental issues is the effect of disengaging the public (2008, p. 29):

Thus the implicit condition for citizens' recognition by science-informed policy institutions, is that they comply with the reductionist issue-framings and meanings imposed by those policy institutions and their experts. This would mean for example … that a public issue like nuclear power is ‘only’ a question of whether it is safe (and thus accepting their [policy designers/experts] absurd proposition that parliament has already decided democratically all the other non-technical issues, and also the framing of what count as the technical issues). The same applies to GM [genetically modified] crops, which has been insistently defined by policy expert institutions as only a scientific risk issue.

Activity 13 The studio discussion and scientific support

Reading through your notes on the audio recording of the studio discussion (Activity 10), comment on how each of the protagonists uses science as a means of supporting their viewpoint.

Much of the work on STS is generated from a European context. However, Shiv Visvanathan, an Indian anthropologist and human rights researcher, has also worked for a long time in this field. In the spirit of Wilson's call for scientists not to be displaced, Visvanathan takes the underpinning criticisms further by trying to identify the type of space required for more meaningful conversation between scientists and citizens. In 1999 he coined the term cognitive justice as a normative principle for more equality in the treatment of all forms of knowledge. Cognitive justice implies a diversity of knowledge types and the need to embrace this divergence. The following short reading contextualises cognitive justice in India, and argues for the need to move on from simple calls for ‘participation’, ‘empowerment’ and other buzzwords used in policy intervention.

Activity 14 Cognitive justice: legitimising what matters

Read ‘Knowledge, justice and democracy’ by Shiv Visvanathan (2005).

The Visvanathan reading brings the discussion on ‘nature matters’ to the metaphor of conversation. For policy design and action that meets the requirements of environmental responsibility, there needs to be space given to different expressions of what matters. An ecological conversation that informs policy design and action is shaped not only by science but also by the culture in which that science is generated (Visvanathan, 2005, p. 89):

[W]hat one needed was a science that realised that nature was not just an object of an experiment or a resource but part of a way of life. As Tom Kocherry, leader of the Kerala Fishers Forum, claimed: ‘Seventy per cent of India depends on nature for its livelihood.’ Nature was thus not only a mode of production but a mode of thought. The movements realised that there were few life-affirming notions of nature within science. The concept of wilderness used in American ecology was inadequate because for the American the wilderness was an unpopulated monument. One needed something beyond the American dialectic of wilderness and frontier or the British obsession with gardens.

In policy design, giving appropriate expression to caring for the environment and ensuring accountability for harm or wrong done to it presents significant challenges. Yet these are not so much around getting the science ‘right’, though scientific ‘conversation’ with Nature is important; rather, they focus on the quality of wider conversation amongst experts, and between experts and citizens in different cultural contexts.


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