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When Do Scholars Become Advocates?

Colin Tudge asks whether science has become a dishonourable profession

I keep coming across the same phenomenon: scholars of all kinds, but especially scientists and economists, no longer seeking dispassionately after truth as they are generally understood to do, but using their talents and their education to defend the status quo – the prevailing economy and mode of government and the ideas that lie behind them, moral and otherwise. They do this even though it is obvious to all thinking people that the status quo will not do. Indeed, there is an ever-mounting pile of government reports, paid for by us, proclaiming that we must change our ways – although “we” always means the populace at large; not, obviously, our leaders. Yet those same reports, by various sleights of hand, invariably finish by recommending more of precisely what we have now — as in Sir John Beddington’s The Future of Food and Farming, 2011, which has become the urtext of British agricultural strategy. Scholars of a certain kind, especially those who seek to climb the greasy pole, see it as their role in life not to find out what is actually true, and still less to ask what is good for humanity and for the biosphere at large, but to promote the ideas and the interests of whoever has most power and/or pays their salary. Of course, it’s fine to be an advocate if you upfront about it, and wear a little wig to advertise your status. But the moral position of advocates who masquerade as seers and defenders of truth is highly dubious.

It is tempting to suppose that the scholar-qua-advocate is a new phenomenon: after all, academe now depends to a greater and greater extent on grants from corporates, who now drive the world’s economy, and hold the whip hand over governments. So scholars who aspire to the greatest wealth and positions of influence are more or less bound to support the neoliberal economy in which the corporates flourish. But actually this isn’t new. Monarchs and their equivalents have always employed intellectuals to help to justify their actions. So it is that in Shakespeare’s Henry V Act I Scene II, the Archbishop of Canterbury proves at least to his own satisfaction and with reams of gobbledegook that Henry has a perfect right and indeed a duty to invade France.

So it was too that towards the end of the 19th century (1879) the American economist Henry George wrote Progress and Poverty, in which he explained how private ownership of land, and the accumulation of vast wealth without the need to work simply by owning land in the right places, explains why poverty increases while societies as a whole grow richer. Rich societies over time tend to become less and less egalitarian as the wealthy use their wealth to become even wealthier – so that, paradoxically, the increasing wealth of societies causes poverty to increase. We have seen this phenomenon writ large in Britain over the past 30 years. Once this is pointed out, it seems blindingly obvious. In the late 19th and early 20th century it was obvious too to intellectuals and politicians the world over, who hailed Henry George as the saviour of civilization, as indeed he might have been. But his ideas threatened the hierarchy. They required the very rich to become less rich, and to work for a living. Other intellectuals and politicians then rallied to the cause of the ruling caste and systematically side-lined George’s teaching until he was air-brushed out of history even more effectively than Stalin suppressed the memory of Leon Trotsky.

Nowadays, such air-brushing is clear to see. So, for example, scientists too eminent to ignore who dare to question the wisdom of GMOs, on whatever grounds, are actively done down. Other scientists appear mysteriously out of the woodwork not simply to deride the mavericks but also to question their general competence as scientists. I have witnessed this taking place, not least at a recent meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology at the House of Lords, where Gilles-Eric Seralini presented work showing that rats fed on herbicide resistant GM-maize and the herbicide itself developed more cancers over a two-year period than those fed on conventional fare. At the APPG meeting, scientific critics who professed to be “independent” (though in truth, financially independent scientists are a very rare breed) questioned Seralini’s statistics in coruscating detail. Everyone who knows anything about statistics knows that such cavilling is always possible. We can always argue, for example, about the appropriateness of a particular algorithm of statistical analysis in particular cases. The cavils by themselves mean nothing. The point is simply to repeat the work and/or apply different analyses, and so and so on. The Hungarian philosopher of science Imre Lakatos pointed out too that new ideas in science are extremely delicate – they don’t have a huge weight of data behind them precisely because they are new; and so, like seedlings, they must be treated tenderly. But when mavericks like Seralini come on the scene the critics turn out in force not in a spirit of humble inquiry but to put the boot in, to stamp out the heresies before they even have a chance to see the light of day, while seeking to blind lookers-on with esoteric maths, reminiscent of the late archbishop’s appeal to Salic Law. It is all most unedifying. But it is the norm.

The most recent example to come my way was at the August meeting of the Savory Institute in London. It was on what Allan Savory calls Holistic Management, which in large part means the management of grassland and of the herbivores that graze on them in ways that steadily increase the carbon content of the soil. His techniques have been tried the world over – in North and South America; Africa (Savory himself is Zimbabwean); Australia; and China. The results have been extraordinary – the barren uplands of Ethiopia and the crumbling, bare, loess hills of China, transformed within a few years into lush savannah, without irrigation and all the problems it brings; indeed without civil engineering of any kind except some terracing. Contrariwise, farmers in the US whose land habitually flooded have found that if they manage the higher ground as Savory recommends, the floods no longer occur.

With Britain already caught up in an escalating cycle of flood and drought (almost certainly related to global warming despite the deniers) it seems obvious that Defra and BBSRC ought, if they are truly to justify their support from the public purse, to be taking such ideas very seriously indeed. Overall we ought to be taking water as seriously as the Dutch have done since the Middle Ages and the Arabs did in Mediaeval Spain. But David Cameron’s great contribution during the floods of a few months ago was to promise unlimited sand-bags (until they run out) and, very properly, to praise the heroic efforts of the rescue services, including the army. Since then we have more discussion on the cost of drains and sea-walls and the rest but no discussion at all as far as I can see on possible changes in agricultural practice – even though there is abundant evidence worldwide and through all of history, and not simply from the Savory Institute, that agricultural practice is key to water management.

In short, with 10,000 years of agricultural experience behind us and all the fabulous resources of modern science, we are repeating the mistakes of all the civilizations of the past that brought about their own demise through lack of land management. Yet all the government has to offer is more of the same, while the upper echelons of academe continue to defend the corporate-government coalition that runs the world, with appeals to market forces to make us richer so we can eventually build more drains and sea-defences.

It won’t do. Intellectuals who seem content to be advocates should, as they say in Yorkshire, think on. People at large should be very angry – much angrier than they seem to be at the sheer awfulness of present day governance and the complaisance of academe. Above all, though, we must take matters into our own hands. We must bring about the Renaissance despite the powers that be. It’s sad that this should be the case, but it is.