Philosophical challenges to the role of science in conservation: An ecologist’s response to “What’s so good about biodiversity?” (2 Comments)


South Sister and Morane Lake, Oregon, USA are exquisite but relatively non-biodiverse.

Below is the second installment in a two-part series of posts on the philosophical values of biodiversity. It was motivated by Donald S. Maier’s presentation, “Can biodiversity ground normative truths” in a lecture series at the University of Oregon titled “Biodiversity at Twenty-Five: The Problem of Ecological Proxy Values”. The series is divided in two different viewpoints; in the first post, PhD student Tim Christion Myers investigates the value of biodiversity conservation through the eyes of a philosopher. In this installment,  PhD student Lorien Reynolds reflects on the value of biodiversity through the eyes of an ecologist.

I was recently in a position to question my worldview, which I relish.  I am an ecologist and my life-long goal has been to use my scientific knowledge to conserve the natural world in the face of anthropogenic impacts.  I value nature and I believe that science is the best tool humans have to understand, and thus mitigate our impact on, our world.  But are these beliefs well-founded?

This is how I understand the story of conservation science:  The conservation movement was born out of love of the natural world and a recognition that human activities were transforming it.  In some cases it was a scientist who first recorded these anthropogenic impacts as they were 1) looking and 2) trained to recognize and quantitatively measure and record patterns in natural phenomenon.  In other cases concerned citizens have turned to the scientific community, as experts who ‘know how to know things’, to advise on both 1) what is happening and 2) how to stop and/or fix it.  These scientists, being both in possession of the data and alarmed, chose to act, thus crossing the line between observer and activist, between what is and what ought to be.  And herein, according to Don Maier — moral philosopher and author of “What’s So Good About Biodiversity?” — lies the rub:  Impartial science, by wedding itself to moral action, may compromise its authority by compromising its own rules and thus weaken the argument for nature’s value.

In particular, the attempt to use science to ‘detect’ what is ‘valuable’(and thus worth protecting) about nature is fundamentally flawed because ‘descriptive’ truths, or scientific facts, are not the same as ‘normative’ or value-based truths (to use the philosophical jargon).  Biodiversity and ecosystem services have become two of the most widely used tools in conservation science to demonstrate the value of nature and to attempt to persuade the public, corporations, and governments that they ought protect it.  However, as Don Maier points out, these concepts are both scientifically inconsistently applied (weakening scientific authority), and, when taken to their logical extreme, may result in the opposite effect they were intended to have.  Briefly, high biodiversity is thought to be a ‘good’ thing, however there are cases where increasing biodiversity is not ‘desirable’ — such as in nutrient-poor, non-biodiverse ecosystems — hence the scientific inconsistency (Don Maier likens this to ‘tossing out datapoints’).  Meanwhile, ecosystem services put nature’s value in direct competition with other economically valuable states, and thus as soon as it is of less economic value it has lost its protection.  For instance, if a fjord provides less monetary value as an ‘ecosystem service’ than as a source of oil, the efficacy of the ‘ecosystem service’ label is expunged.  Furthermore, the argument that nature should be protected because it may provide some service in the future is similarly flawed in this context because it is not quantifiable.

Don Maier concludes that scientists should not be involved in conservation because, and I am paraphrasing my own perception mind, science cannot empirically assign value to nature and the attempt leads to invalid arguments, which as a philosopher and a lover of nature is deeply distressing.  For myself, I cannot but agree with his arguments, but not with his ultimate conclusion, though perhaps that is because as an ecologist and a lover of nature I am compelled to act.  As I stated initially, conservation science was not born out of logic, but out of love, need, and knowledge, however flawed.  However, I am also compelled to examine my beliefs more explicitly and I urge my fellow scientists and conservationists to do the same.

15 January, 2014

January 15, 2014