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Fear of Action
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Biology Culture
David Sloan Wilson
David Sloan Wilson
is the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University and Arne Næss Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo

A book titled Fear of Knowledge by the philosopher Paul Boghossian critiques excesses in intellectual thought associated with terms such as constructivism, relativism, and post-modernism. These schools of thought make the valid point that we are a highly cultural species. We have spawned a diversity of symbolic meaning systems, each one has legitimacy within its own context, and all of them stand in a complex relationship with each other and with objective reality. So far, so good. Taken to extremes, however, these schools of thought end up denying the existence of objective reality or being so skeptical about what counts as a fact that actions based upon facts become impossible. The wanton disregard of facts in current political discourse could be a Frankenstein’s monster created by these intellectual traditions. Boghossian restores common sense by pointing out that nothing has happened in philosophy that prevents us from making factual statements such as “mountains existed before people”.

Most of my scientific colleagues sneer at the denial of objective reality and would cheer the message of Boghossian’s book. They appreciate that “the facts of the matter” can be difficult to discern, but the whole point of science is to overcome those difficulties. A good scientist walks a middle path between hubris and humility. On one side are statements durable enough to be called facts. If you think that people existed before mountains, that the continents don’t drift, or that the earth was created 6000 years ago, you’re just plain wrong. On the other hand, a great deal of knowledge is provisional. Even facts that appear rock solid can crumble now and then. In addition, facts can never inform action by themselves (to think otherwise is called the naturalistic fallacy) but only when combined with values. The provisional nature of much objective knowledge, along with the challenges of combining facts with values to inform right action, call for a great deal of humility.

Humility is especially required for the study of complex systems such as the climate (a complex physical system), biodiversity (a complex biological system), or the economy (a complex human social system). Making a change in a complex system is like making a wish in a folk tale—the result can be very different and much worse than intended! Even the most rigorous scientific study supported by randomized control trials can lead to bad policy decisions when applied in conditions that are different from the conditions of the trials.

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So, when it comes to solving the problems of our age, the answer to the question “When is the science settled?” is “Not in the foreseeable future.” However, it is a great mistake to think that the science needs to be settled before it can lead to action. This is such a pervasive assumption that I will give it a name—“Fear of Action”, to accompany Boghossian’s “Fear of Knowledge”.

Those who fear action don’t necessarily fear knowledge. Instead, they think that the bar for certainty should be set high before knowledge is used to inform action. Until then, the only action that can be prescribed is more research.

As with Fear of Knowledge, there is a baby in the bathwater of Fear of Action. The application of provisional knowledge should also be provisional. But the wisdom of any course of action needs to be weighed against its alternatives. What are the consequences of not applying the best of our current scientific knowledge, as provisional as it might be, to the solution of real-world problems?

“Custom” is a source of wisdom that needs to be taken very seriously as an alternative to scientific knowledge. This word refers to the ways that people do things based on experience, often compounded over many generations. Cultural change is an evolutionary process, much like genetic evolution, resulting in the accumulation of practices that adapt people to their environments. Some adaptive practices were consciously invented by people who can describe them to you in matter-of-fact terms. Other adaptive practices work without anyone knowing how they work. They are simply what hung together, compared the many other things that fell apart. Either way, the status quo in any given culture needs to be considered very respectfully as a source of wisdom before trying to replace it with new practices informed by scientific knowledge.

But the status quo can only be expected to work if our current and future environments resemble our past environments. New environments call for new adaptive practices. How can new practices be derived, if not by a scientific process? One possibility is the same process of unmanaged cultural evolution that gave rise to past adaptations. Economists call this “creative destruction”. Firms vary in how they conduct business, some work better than others, and they end up winning the Darwinian contest. The same process can potentially work in other sectors, such as educational practices that replace other practices on the strength of their outcomes.

Unfortunately, the unmanaged process of cultural evolution isn’t good enough for a variety of reasons. It’s too slow (requiring centuries in the case of many past adaptations), operates at too small a scale (how is someone in Connecticut going to notice a best practice that takes place in Kansas?), and relies critically on the concept of the invisible hand—the idea that what’s good for me or my group also benefits the larger common good. That has got to be the silliest idea ever proposed by otherwise smart people.

If the status quo isn’t working and the unmanaged process of cultural evolution won’t work well or fast enough, then the only alternative is a managed process of cultural evolution. First, we must decide upon the objectives of our public policies—the criteria of selection in evolutionary terms. This is a conversation that must reflect our values, in addition to the best of our scientific knowledge. Then we must evaluate alternative practices with respect to our selection criteria, including unplanned variation and the rigorously controlled variation of a scientific study. Then we must begin to implement the best practices that we identify, always cautiously and mindful of the fact that complex systems are richly context-sensitive so that what works in one setting might need to be adjusted to work in other settings. Cookie cutter solutions are certain to fail.

What I have just described is the scientific process, which can be regarded as a highly managed process of cultural evolution. It’s a fallacy to think that science must be settled in the laboratory before it can be applied to real-world settings. The scientific process needs to take place in the real world in conjunction with laboratory research. Knowledge will always be provisional at its frontier. Fear of Action needs to be avoided as assiduously as Fear of Knowledge.

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Of related interest:

Wilson, D. S., Hayes, S. C., Biglan, A., & Embry, D. (2014). Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37, 395–460.

Colander, D., & Kupers, R. (2014). Complexity and the Art of Public Policy: Solving Society’s Problems from the Bottom Up. Princeton NJ: Princeton Univesity Press.

Biglan, A. (2015). The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives and Our World. Oakland CA: New Harbinger Publications; 1 edition.

Richerson, P.J. (2016). What are the Roles of Scientists in Policy-making? Social Evolution Forum, January 2016

3 Comments

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3 Comments

  1. Jukka Aakula says:

    Excellent text.

  2. Dustin Eirdosh says:

    David, great piece! I have personally seen the challenges that a fear of knowledge and action can have on groups working towards sustainable development. From an educational perspective these issues relate to the broad field of teaching for “Nature of Science” – the philosophical, psychological, sociocultural and ethical issues connected to science. Like critical thinking, teaching for Nature of Science understanding remains illusive! We need more applied research into the role of evolutionary studies in effective Nature of Science learning.

  3. Rory Short says:

    “What I have just described is the scientific process, which can be regarded as a highly managed process of cultural evolution.”

    David an attractive vision for society and something the implementation of which we in South Africa still need to work towards for sure.