Letter: ‘Intelligent Tinkering’ Author Responds to Review

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I am grateful to Environment Hawai`i for running a lengthy review of Intelligent Tinkering: Bridging the Gap Between Science and Practice in its February issue, but was disheartened by Susan Cordell’s grossly distorted overview of my book’s content, arguments, and spirit, and by her on-going efforts to portray me as an anti-science zealot. But rather than beating this dead horse by rebutting her accusations once again (gluttons for punishment can read more about our respective views in our 2007 opposing editorials in Restoration Ecology), I would like to briefly discuss the larger problem of trying to resolve conservation conflicts with science.

As part of my research for Intelligent Tinkering, I interviewed a broad spectrum of individuals within Hawai`i’s environmental community. These interviews revealed an incredible diversity of fundamentally different conservation philosophies and battle plans. Many people clearly believed that their perspectives and actions were justified by science and that natural resource management issues in general should be resolved by “the best available science.” Ironically, however, these beliefs were driven not by the science itself (which few non-scientists read or understand), but rather their support for the scientists’ personal value systems, which tend to be far more environmentally friendly than the general public’s.

I love science; I have devoted most of my life to studying, performing, and teaching it, and if I were king there’d be a lot more of it. But because science is a tool, rather than an ideology or religion, it cannot tell us what to do or believe in, and it cannot resolve our philosophical and practical differences. Even in the rare instances when people agree to base their resource management decisions on a particular research program, they can and often do argue over the best way to perform, interpret, and apply this research in the complex real world. Moreover, the great majority of environmental battles actually revolve around political and philosophical rather than scientific or technical issues.

In addition to the undemocratic nature of putting an elite group of scientists in charge, the track record of “science-based” policies has been mixed at best. Science can be used to legitimize absolutely horrible ideas and actions. To take just one example, consider conservation’s historically close but generally unacknowledged relationship with racism and eugenics. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, America’s world’s fairs displayed living indigenous peoples as “hideous brutes fit for extinction” to jeering crowds while leading scientists measured their physical features and intellectual intelligence to publicly prove their white supremacist theories. This science-based eugenic perspective permeated many subsequent conservation programs and helps explain why the dominant scientific view up to the mid-20th century was that because Hawai`i’s native species were “inferior,” they should be “invigorated” by stronger and fitter alien species.

Throughout my time in Hawai`i, I was continually inspired by my conservation colleagues’ passion and dedication. However, I was also saddened by the intensity of the arguments that some individuals and factions had with one another. I believe that rather than futilely trying to resolve our differences with science, we should spend less of our precious time squabbling with each other and more time building greater public support for our collective work. One model I propose and discuss in Intelligent Tinkering to help accomplish this goal is to develop inclusive “adopt-an-acre” restoration programs for highly degraded lands that could encourage a diversity of approaches (including academic science!), foster healthy competition and camaraderie, and generate greater public engagement and support for our critically important work.

— Robert J. Cabin

Cabin is an associate professor of environmental science at Brevard College in North Carolina. His next book, Restoring Paradise: Rethinking and Rebuilding Nature in Hawai`i, will be published by the University of Hawai`i Press later this year.

Volume 22, Number 10 April 2012

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