Science without blinders

It was an experience I never expected to have when joining thousands of colleagues in the March for Science.

I mean, demonstrations are not new to me, as a citizen active in the peace movement and the environmental movement, but hey, this was me, the scientist, marching with other scientists, demonstrating for – the factuality of facts. Worrying, in fact, but necessary. We heard speeches against the suppression of scientific insight in Turkey, Hungary, Russia and the USA, but not in sociology, economics or ecology. However, I am convinced that only a science not producing fake news (“new drug beats cancer”, “genes explain criminal behaviour”, …) and alternative facts (sociology: “the environment is just as social construct”; ecology: “humans are not part of the ecosystem”; economics: “humans are autonomous individuals and the economy does not need resources”, …) can successfully defend itself against climate deniers, creationists and others, whatever their motives are.

However, science still has to do some homework to be able to present itself as free from disciplinary and ideological blinders which undermine its credentials, and rapidly so (the Catholic church took 500 years to admit that Galileo was right – we don’t have that time). The fact that there are limits to growth (Meadows et al. 1972) has still not penetrated standard economics, let alone the insight that distribution counts (Piketty 2014) and that justice and equality are the basis of healthy societies (Wilkinson, Picket 2009). This happens not necessarily out of bad will or because biased scholars keep looking the other way, but when World Views – in this case of standard economics – act as reality blinders (Spangenberg 2016a).

A World View consists of an ontology including an anthropology, telling how the world and how human beings indeed are, and epistemology describing the kind of knowledge we have about them, and an axiology defining what values we accept.

The standard economic world view describes a world consisting only of monetary flows. Environmental economists recognised that society and the environment also contribute to production and thus extended the system boundaries to include them into the economy. Thus in this world view the economy is the metasystem, and society and the environment are subsystems. Naturally enough, the laws of the metasystem apply in all subsystems (for instance, demand creates new supply, the system always tends towards equilibrium, maximising utility is the purpose of all activities) while the laws of the subsystems do not necessarily apply to the metasystem, or can be ignored due to their minor relevance (like the entropy laws from thermodynamics or the social dynamics shaping human behaviour). As a consequence, processes are considered reversible and thus overshot (e.g. in climate) acceptable, resources are never scarce, unemployment is always voluntary, and markets and competition are the optimal instruments to regulate society and the environment.

Ecological economics has a different World View: nature is the metasystem, and embedded in it is society with its subsystem economy. Suddenly the laws of nature apply to the economy, companies are entities full of social processes, systems evolve irreversibly in path dependency with bifurcation points, resources can be scarce, in particular sinks, humans are social beings and regulations are social processes. Suddenly the same facts get a different meaning, and instead of slow motion in climate policies urgent action is requested (Spangenberg 2016b).

Interestingly, both World Views are internally coherent and cannot be falsified from within; reflectivity does not do its job inside the constraints of the world view. Disciplines relying on established knowledge run the risk to end up in this trap, at best losing any opportunity to contribute to sustainable problem solving, and at worst becoming a liability hindering necessary action (Spangenberg 2011).

So I appeal to the disciplines to look out for the symptoms: every discipline in which it is possible to have a comfortable and rewarding life while (or by?) ignoring new emerging issues which claim to require explanation and integration into the acknowledged body of knowledge of the discipline is sick. The cure may be painful, including dropping long-held, dear beliefs, even junk concepts on which the own career has been built, but it is a necessary collective effort to rescue the respective discipline from obscurity. Whistle blowers to the front!

Joachim H. Spangenberg, PhD, Research Coordinator, Vice Chair, Sustainable Europe Research Institute SERI , Vorsterstr. 97, 51103 Köln-Kalk, Germany


Meadows DH, Meadows DL, Randers J, Behrens WW. 1972. Limits to Growth. A Report to the Club of Rome. Universe Books, New York.

Piketty T. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-first Century. Harvard University Press.

Spangenberg JH. 2016a. Blind Spots of interdisciplinary collaboration. Monetising biodiversity: Before calculating the value of nature, reflect the nature of value. Cadmus 3(1): 115-128.

Spangenberg JH. 2016b. The world we see shapes the world we create: how the underlying worldviews lead to different recommendations from environmental and ecological economics – the green economy example. Int. J. Sustainable Development 19(2): 127–146.

Spangenberg JH. 2011. Sustainability science: a review, an analysis and some empirical lessons. Environmental Conservation 38 (3): 275–287.

Wilkinson R, Pickett K. 2009. The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. Allen Lane, London.

Featured image credit: CC BY-ND 2.0 by Nicholas Jones

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