The University Record, March 12, 1996

Faculty Perspectives: Flights from Reality

By Bruce Oakley
Professor of Biology

It was on Valentine's day that Dr. Andrew Rosschair of American Studies at NYU fluttered into town, as a leading consort of the wing of academe with the lofty ambition of curing our modern miasma. The biologists were packed gill to gill to hear him speak on "Where does science studies meet cultural studies?" With soaring metaphors he unfurled his message of social salvation through recreating a humane world. Having taken a front row seat, I found myself in the riffle of magical metaphors that came tumbling and dancing forth in a curiously clipped Scottish accent. These streams of criticism swept our emotions into a chasm deepened by his understand able resentment of science and technology whose sophistication annoys the untutored ("This book is dedicated to all of the science teachers I never had," A. Ross). His response to social inequities would be to disable what he sees as the principal power structurethe scientific-industrial complex. What value system and structural mecha nisms would replace capitalists and their damnable technocrats? That was largely for others to develop. But in general terms, he said we should yield to newly empowered clusters of ordinary people, who would have their own rationale to ensure humane outcomes for individual lives.

Ross's malodorous scolding of scientists understandably reminded me of Robert MacNeil's observation that the cod "fish odor in Halifax descends like a cloud of Presbyterian reproach." This is an ironic linkage to Ross's as sertions, considering that the Canadian codfish industry had considerable citizen input and pressure, but recently collapsed. Ross appears to believe in simple solutions that can be provided by simple people without meticulous collection and analysis of data. I believe the commercial extinction of cod shows that effective resource manage ment requires both profound expertise and transcendent wisdom. It is a tale worth examining.

Less than a decade ago you could drive into fishing ports near Halifax, Nova Scotia, and step from your car into the pervasive odor of processed codfish. The summer air in Halifax is different nowsimple, renewing ocean breezes that delightfully fling an effervescent spray. But off Nova Scotia and coastal Newfoundland the shimmer ing fades into a somber stillness in the deep, green waters. Out to sea lies the depleted Grand Banks, an ocean area as large as Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy combinedformerly the richest fishing resource in the world. For centuries in the Maritime Provinces, cod has summoned a reverence reserved elsewhere for God. For 500 years cod elevated the human settlements in Newfoundland above privation by providing up to a billion pounds of protein to feed the world's burgeoning population.

It was in the early 1960s that huge European trawlers armed with improved fishing technology depleted the codfish stock. An 84 percent reduction in harvestable cod between 1962 and 1977 triggered Canada's unilateral expulsion of foreign trawlers from a 200-mile protective fishing zone. This prospect of Canadian control created a gold rush-like optimism in 1977 whose intensity contributed to the gathering tragedy. In the next 15 years the population of spawning cod oscillated, and then plummeted 97 percent. The decree of July 2, 1992 banned fish ing on the Grand Banks and marked the commercial extinction of the cod fisheries. Among the many ripple ef fects of the collapse of this "renewable" resource was a spreading loss of thousands of jobs and the diversion of fishing pressure to neighboring waters. Just within the last year, 6,000 square miles on the Georges Bank were closed.

The cod did not collapse from a mysterious disease or troubled waters. The cod population was decimated by overfishing permitted by regulatory agencies that used the best of traditional approaches to estimate the number of cod in this vast area and to decide how many could safely be caught each year. Their models were flawed and their data too sparse; tragically, they overestimated the size of the cod population. For years the catches stayed deceptively large because the remaining cod clung together, which allowed fisherman using improved electronics and nets to find and remove them. Cryptically, but inexorably, the cod population was dwindling. When the reali ty of the stock decline was beyond denial, the technical recommendation to reduce the catch by 50 percent was softened to 20 percent to avoid "social and economic repercussions of a particularly drastic nature." Politicians, government bureaucrats, scientists, ocean going trawlers, nearshore fisherman, fish processors and the general public may each have had their own reality, but for the cod there was only one! The demise of the cod may be be yond restoration, for these aquatic communities are complex and the grievous ecological damage is poorly under stood.

How rare it is to witness the self destruction of a benign civilization; a demise desired by none. Root causes are beginning to emerge. One important lesson, familiar to Michiganders, is the considerable risk of depending on a single industry (autos or fish). A second more subtle but deep consideration is that a shortage of vital technical in formation leaves holes that selectively release only optimistic decisions. When confronted by uncertain resource availability, we choose short-run scenarios that will put food on the table. Hoping cod were plentiful didn't make more fish, but it surely made more jobs.

Fisheries' scientists attached considerable uncertainty to the estimates of the number of cod remaining. None

theless, politicians required projections years beyond what the data warranted. As is their annoying habit, scien tists appended qualifications to these required predictions. However, from the outset and at each successive step, these qualifications were weakened and ultimately were stripped away, conveniently retaining scientific authority while transforming uncertainty into public reassurance.

The sorrowful saga of Newfoundland's collapse is a story of ordinary people trying to clothe and feed their youngsters.

Any early heroic recommendations to put one-third of the populace out of work by undertaking a "triage for the future of the fishery," would have been denounced as unacceptably harsh. The fatal plunge of cod fishing was not caused by demonic scientists or tyrants or by the cruel capitalistic exploitation of oppressed workers. Such sim plistic views are the doctrinaire constructions of the tiresomely naive. As always, the causes are more intricate. Inescapably they focus on ordinary humans like us, who do not come ready-made with the requisite knowledge, courage and foresight. If, because of its outcome, we must treat this collapse as evil, then it is what we have been warned against beforethe banality of evil. Prisoners of our atavism, human reason does not easily deflect our primal tides.

Bringing these lessons home, we need to use education vigorously to counter the current cacophonous criticisms of science and technology intended by some to debilitate science. Successful scientists, engineers and practioners need to consider expanding their roles as educators. Will current LS&A graduates be able to address the technical issues that will most impact their lives? Will the letters LS&A have a disappearing 'S' for most graduates? Will an "I don't need it" mentality imperil our children?

We might first address the prevailing dominion of non-science courses in a typical undergraduate's education. Consider a year course for all non-science concentrators on "What you need to know about radioactivity, drugs, genes, ... and reproduction to surmount today's complexities."

Second, scientists, engineers and practitioners need to cooperate with humanists and social scientists to address the challenge posed by new findings and new inventions. Science and technology can already provide for com fortable lives. What is lacking is collegiality and civility. So we need to inculcate ethical guidelines and social conventions and press for patterns of reward that facilitate cooperation and restraint. We are all precariously civi lized. It should not be the burden of humanists alone to provide ethical guidance for every new finding and inven tion of import, nor the burden of social scientists alone to devise methods to ensure applications with positive so cial outcomes. It is reasonable to expect help from the scientists, engineers and practitioners who, after all, make and deploy the discoveries.

Third, human society needs academics with the courage to collect evidence, to make evaluations and to instruct students to do the same. There are few constructive benefits in romanticized notions based on radical relativ ismthat all evidence and rationalities are equal, or that all cultures or all decisions are equally beneficent. Ab stinence from value judgments is the graveyard of caring and compassion. Further, to dismiss the collection and evaluation of evidence is to miss the common thread of increased order that binds the tapestry of natural and cul tural evolution. Webs of ordered complexity help to stabilize plant and animal communities. From caves to con dominiums, from Lascaux to Luxor to the Louvre, material civilization is most fundamentally characterized by creating more complex systems that counter the physical-chemical tendency for material disorder. With important artistic and spiritual exceptions, there is a close linkage between added order and added value. Of course, there is little risk that a sensible, modern civilization could collapse, is there, Newfoundlanders?

With Ross mired in his word-painting of a farragoed fresco of insinuation and innuendo, expect few remedies from him that inform cogent decisions. To sail out of our modern miasma will require captains with more pro found notions than tinkling a bell to cross the ocean.

Scientists can feel and care. Consider driving north of Halifax with me to stop in a once-quaint fishing village. The cod have been netted, removed and rendered. And the ships? Sold, abandoned, sunka schooner embedded and tilted in muck that dribbles over her gunnel beneath her heaved, rusting, brindled belly. Examine the aban doned clapboard houses. These gray, warped shells with rough, pachydermed surfaces in cheerier times held hearts that fell with the receding mast and rose joyously on its return. Think of the small feet that pattered down these sandy paths. Oh, you remember the way, by Sally's and shaggy Rex, around Ian's trapswatch out for the sand burrsnow just one turn more to our secret path and hidden cove. Here on the beach there is only the ap proaching receipt of another watery sheet that slides near as it has for billions of years; refreshing the cold white sand, erasing all traces ... eternally, earnestly hoping to clarify man's silted mentation. A sheet of contemplative watersliding, gliding and rippling with implications.

 

 

You may wish to examine Higher Superstition by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1994, 344pp. It is a reflective rejoinder to academic attacks on science and its applications.


The opinions expressed here are those of individual faculty members and do not represent the official posi tion of the University of Michigan or of the faculty governance.


The Editorial Advisory Board invites participation of all faculty in Faculty Perspectives. You are welcome to send letters to Bruce Oakley, Professor of Biology, 3127 Nat Sci 1048; 763-4242; e-mail: boakley@umich.e du. Articles should be less than 1,900 words.