Wednesday, May 28, 2008

An Astrophysicist, I am not

My first exposure to a blog was El Gentraso, by John Whitfield, which I found after reading his excellent book In the Beat of a Heart. I love this blog. It's smart, witty, and often deals with ecological issues. Unfortunately, El Gentraso has been completely silent since February. My withdrawls from El Gentraso prompted me to find a replacement. So for the past few days I have been poking around the blogosphere, avoiding my various deadlines, looking for a smart, witty, ecologically relevant blog. While I am currently "dating" a variety of blogs to see if they can replace El Gentraso , I found numerous other sites that frankly disturbed me. Many of the blogs that came up in my search for "ecology" were not ecology at all. They were, by my definition, environmentalism.

Now, I know I'm a bit of a fuddy-duddy about definitions sometimes, but I really feel like the increasing use of the term "ecology" as a synonym for "environmentalism" to be disturbing. One is a science and the other is a belief. The very words tell you this. An "ism" is "a distinctive system of beliefs, myth, doctrine or theory that guides a social movement, institution, class or group" (from Wikipedia). An "ology" is "a field of study or academic discipline" (also from Wikipedia). While a good definition of ecology is sometimes lacking, it is most often defined as the study of how organisms interact with their environment. Wanting to recycle to save the environment does not make someone an ecologist (though many ecologists do want to recycle to save the environment). The distinction is difficult for people for some reason, but perhaps these examples may help:

I make someone sign a legal contract when they buy my house - does this mean I am a lawyer?

I drive a car, does this make me a NASCAR driver?

I appreciate the beauty of a clear, starry night, does this make me an astrophysicist?

The distinction between ecology as a science and environmentalism is important to more than just my sense of academic snobbishness. The most awful stereotype I run into is not the female in science issues, but the ecologist as left-wing radical. Every time I introduce myself as an ecologist to a right-wing member of the public, they stop listening to me because they assume that my statements on the environment are politically driven, not scientifically grounded. I fight this stereotype in my non-majors class when I teach students about endangered species and global warming. I fight this stereotype with the driver of the airport shuttle. As a graduate student, I would introduce myself at bars as anything but an ecologist because I couldn't take being asked how it was possible to get an advanced degree in tree-hugging.

I appreciate that people strongly believe that the environment is important to protect. I believe that there is increasing evidence to suggest that it may be to the benefit of humanity in the long-run to preserve the services that nature provides (fact sheet on pollination services). However, I also believe that bad things result when science is conflated with agenda and belief. Of course, given the arguments on just this issue that I have had with some of my colleagues, perhaps I am wrong on this point. In which case, I am a NASCAR-driving astrophysicist.

1 comment:

John Whitfield said...

Hi River,

Thanks for your kind words about my book and blog. I've not given up blogging, just taken a break, mainly 'cos I haven't felt like I had anything to say. (I try to keep blogging as unlike work writing as I can, so I don't have any adverts, and if I don't feel like writing, I try not to force it.)

Anyway, there's a couple of brief new posts up there now, and I h ope there'll be some more regular stuff for the next while.