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Editorial: Everything has limits

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2008. Editorial: Everything has limits. the Exchange 15(3): 2, 12–14.

"Knowledge is as food, and needs no less
Her temperance over appetite, to know
In measure what the mind may well contain;
Oppresses else with surfeit, and soon turns
Wisdom to folly, as nourishment to wind."
—John Milton, Paradise Lost

One recurring lesson of science is how each discovery builds upon the previous discovery: the more we have learned, the more we discover that there remains to learn. Paradoxically, this lesson leads us to unconsciously absorb the belief that growth is without limits, for each new discovery reveals new horizons, each of which conceals new discoveries that will themselves lead to new horizons, and so ad infinitum.

Yet deep within even the most optimistic of us, a tiny voice whispers that it is not so, that there are limits to what we can know—and more specifically, that there are limits to what we should know and what we can do with what we know. As Milton noted, sometimes we need time to digest new knowledge rather than glutting ourselves with still more. It's not necessarily that any knowledge should be forbidden so much as Milton's wry notion that undigested knowledge often leads to <ahem> unpleasant emissions.

Such unpleasant emissions lead us, in my usual roundabout way, to the concept of greenhouse-effect gases and global warming, and to the consumption that underlies the problem. Whether or not you believe that "peak oil" has arrived (, and that we'll run out of the last economically accessible natural oil during the lifetimes of most readers of this newsletter, it's clear that peak oil is in sight—sooner for those with better vision, or later for those with various forms of intellectual myopia. The scientific optimism we've learned from the ongoing march of scientific discovery tells us we shouldn't worry, that there are always alternatives waiting to be discovered, and that we can, after all, synthesize oil. Whether we're prepared to pay the higher cost of those alternatives is another story.

Somewhere in another world, Thomas Malthus is having the last laugh after a couple centuries of scorn. His proposal that there are natural limits to population growth fell into disrepute as new scientific advances made it possible to grow more food and cure more diseases. But Malthus turns out to have been astonishingly prescient about an unpleasant reality we are gradually coming to recognize: that there are limits to growth. Recently, it's become apparent that we're running out of many chemical elements that are essential to our prosperity; see the January 2006 issue of Scientific American for one example. These kinds of problems are particularly unpleasant if we're accustomed to gazing over the horizon in search of solutions; when we forget to occasionally cast our gaze downwards to the muck at our feet, we risk tripping over something unseen and finding ourselves face down in that muck.

As scientific communicators, we find ourselves embedded in a culture of relentless optimism and excitement about new discoveries and new implementations for old discoveries. This makes our work more than just lucrative: it makes it fun. It's why so many of us love working with scientists, because they're always turning over stones and finding something cool, or at least finding the kinds of fascinating, if faintly revolting, things that live under rocks. But we have a small advantage our scientist colleagues lack: we work at one remove from the science, and thus, can more easily achieve a modicum of critical distance. And that distance is necessary for us to grasp something the scientists may have missed, and hold fast to what we grasp—the scientists may be too busy holding up a rock with both hands.

Most scientists focus so intently on their research that they grow blind to other issues of equal or greater importance. If you've ever seen a scientist interviewed by someone hostile to their research, you've seen this phenomenon: the scientist, enthused, elaborates on the wonders of what they've found, and when the interviewer starts pointing out inconvenient truths, the scientist deflates and flops around like a wilted balloon in a strong breeze. Each new attempt to invoke logic provokes yet another seemingly irrational jab. Eventually, the painful interview ends, with neither side quite understanding why the other is being so unpleasant.

What is really going on is that scientists and the rest of humanity have different preoccupations, and different concerns. Particularly today, more than 40 years after Rachel Carson's publication of Silent Spring, a seemingly unending stream of technological disasters (from Bhopal, Chernobyl, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the 1980s to ozone depletion and global warming today) has made the public increasingly skeptical about the unalloyed benefits of science and increasingly fearful about its side-effects. That's a paradigm shift that most scientists and technologists have failed to notice, possibly because the public itself has internalized this unease rather than making it explicit.

The scientist floundering during a hostile interview shows how the problem can trip us up when we least expect it: Scientists are very good at persuading each other using the language and rhetorical approach of science, but that language and approach can both fail dramatically when scientists must discuss their work with someone who lacks skill with the language and distrusts the rhetorical approach—the general public and governments, for instance. Serious problems may result from this failure to understand their new audience: when scientists don't understand the context of their audience (distrust) and the audience's preferred rhetorical approach (often appeals to emotion rather than pure logic), the communication fails.

The consequences of that failure can be dramatic and severe. In China, for example, the Grain for Green Project represents the largest conservation set-aside program in history. Under this project and associated conservation efforts, the Chinese government is attempting to reforest or revegetate (with grassland species) on the order of 1 billion acres (yes, billion) of degraded land. It sounds great on paper, but it's also a textbook example of how science can go wrong when scientists focus on the science and ignore the surrounding reality. The problems began with a failure to consider both of the scientist's audiences. For the government audience, which is certain that reforestation is a laudable goal, the scientists failed to communicate the message that trees are not an appropriate solution everywhere, particularly in the most arid areas of China. As a result, some researchers have estimated that more than 50% of the tree planting (possibly as much as 85% in some areas) will fail, and that the afforestation may even exacerbate environmental problems through depletion of the deep soil water that is required to sustain life in arid regions. For the general public, both the scientists and the government they advised through their research failed to clearly consider the needs of the people affected by the project. For example, farmers who abandon unsustainable agriculture in areas covered by the project receive annual grain subsidies and financial compensation for up to 8 years if they plant trees and other vegetation. Unfortunately, the government policy makes no effort to retrain the displaced farmers before the program ends so that they will have alternatives to farming as a way to earn a living. When the program ends, many of the farmers will be forced to return to their old way of life.

That's an overly simplistic and unnuanced description of Grain for Green, but it illustrates the key problems. The scientists failed to communicate the limitations of their research in such a way that the government would understand that trees are not the best solution everywhere, and they failed to clearly communicate the impacts on the general public of implementing the policy. If this sounds familiar, it's because the problem is by no means limited to China. We face similar problems in the developed world, possibly exacerbated by how the modern economy focuses on short-term profit rather than long-term sustainability. Economic growth has become such a government priority that few in government think about the consequences of that growth.

It's unrealistic to assume that communicators alone can change things, since we usually lack the power and credibility of our scientist colleagues. Moreover, those colleagues often lack the power to shape policy—witness the reckless government disregard of warnings from key science advisors on a wide range of issues. But we can nonetheless invoke the ghost of Malthus and ask ourselves what the limits are to any new discovery or technology. That's particularly important if we're the only ones asking that question. This is where our communication skills might save the day: by understanding the language, rhetorical and other needs, and communication styles of those we are attempting to persuade, we can craft our words in such a way that they convey the right message, and convey it clearly enough to be understood and to persuade the listener. Moreover, we also understand how to learn about audience needs and how those needs might differ from scientist and government perceptions of those needs. This critical distance gives us an opportunity to advocate for policies that will better meet those needs.

If you've ever doubted that the work you do is important, I urge you to think about the limitations of what your scientists colleagues are researching, about the consequences of their discoveries outside the field of science, and about the barriers to making key decisionmakers understand those limitations. This is where we can truly make a difference.

My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved