The Anthropocene-Fallacy: Learning from Wrong Ideas
This timely and important essay is an edited version of a paper that Henrique Schneider (CH) delivered as the opening at the IV. ECAEF/CEPROM Conference in Monaco on Dec. 10, 2019.
The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change. While it is not an academically established definition, as of yet, it is proposed to have begun in the 1950s. This article posits that the concept is erroneous in at least two ways. First, it relies on a normative, activist, appropriation of science. Second, is disregards the system-property of the ecosystem, which is marked by the continuous interaction between the system and its parts, or agents. But more than this, the idea of the Anthropocene is a case study for how activist agendas appropriate science and academia depriving it from an important academic feature, its skeptical method.
Science or activism?
“Anthropocene Syndrome: a complex of environmental degradation, biological annihilation in the form of species losses, non-communicable disease epidemics, climate change, and increasing incivility in public and professional discourse” (Prescott & Logan 2017, 19). This quote is indicative of many problems. First, it is a normative claim disguised as an academic piece; second, it is uninformed; and, third, it does not conform to the academic method.
Markers of the normativity in the quote are expressions such as “annihilation” and, ironically, the complaint about incivility in professional discourse. These indicate undeclared subjective preferences that might preclude the authors from applying the scientific method. More specifically, these preferences hinder the authors in reaching a conclusion that is independent from their own opinions. That, in fact, happens in the text, when the authors present their solution, similarly marked by normativity and reflective of their own opinions and not of a scientific argument. “The Symbiocene can transcend these trends. The health of people, place, and planet requires compassion, education by example, civility, and diversity of thought” (Prescott & Logan 2017, 41). Tellingly, the “scientific” word Anthropocene is identified as a problem, and the equally “scientific” expression Symbiocene, which seems to be at the same level of but contrary to the Anthropocene, is a solution.
The article is uninformed because, in spite of circa 150 endnotes, it does not once critically address its own assertions. There is not one counter argument, not even one that is refuted. All documentation is nothing but supportive for the normative claim of the authors. This might be a method, but it is not the scientific method, which method is characterized by steady skepticism, the multivariate test of theses or hypothesis with experiments and data or with pro- and counter-arguments in order to reach a conclusion that is independent from one’s intuition or opinion. In this skeptical method, not even the conclusion is definitive but invites to further skeptical investigation (Gauch et al. 2003).
Critically, one might argue that Prescott and Logan are just two scientists, their article is just one article (granted, an invited article that did not pass peer review), and the journal in which it was published is not ranked. The problem, however, goes beyond this article. The concept of the Anthropocene is indicative of how of activism is permeating academia, and even science; transforming both from an institutionalized skeptical method of discovery and creation of knowledge to a process of rationalization of opinions.
These academics sit in boards of multinational companies and other entities, often because of their scientific and academic pedigree. The very idea of having academic, or scientific, advice in these boards is because science is organized skepticism in the form of an expert opinion. Most importantly, methodological caution as it is embedded in the scientific method usually leads to proportional actions (Topitsch 1962). If this should cease to be the case, the case for academia as well as for its link to the practical world weakens, too …
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*Henrique Schneider is a professor of economics at the Nordkademie University of Applied Sciences in Elmshorn, Germany and chief economist of the Swiss Federation of Small and Medium Sized Enterprises in Bern, Switzerland.