My Scientific Outlook, And How It Was Formed
North Joffe-Nelson, 9/9/20
When I found my first wolf track I followed it for days. Always the naturalist, I took the fast rising wolf populations in Northern Wisconsin as a mandate to drop out of community college and pursue the tracks full time. What I came to find over the succeeding years was that attitudes regarding wolves in the state were much more pronounced and evident than the wolves themselves. After one long and unsuccessful attempt to track a specific pack of seven wolves in Price County, WI, I emerged to learn from a local paper that they had been euthanized weeks prior. Watching this discourse play out in the forest, community, state, and country began to shift in my interests from wolves to wolf policy, amidst a broader shift from the natural world to the interface that we have with it.
That experience has shaped my personal scientific orientation to one that considers foremost how derived knowledge is used in policy and treated in a political environment. In that way, my outlook revolves around a concern for consensus building as much as knowledge building, and thus takes a prevailingly skeptical eye towards post-positivism. In politics, things are only true if people think they are, and so out of practicality, my own outlook has been shaped in this way.
My main concern is how scientifically derived information is digested by stakeholders and the broader public. My own existential pondering of truth and objectivity aside, I find that the public generally expects its government agencies to take a post-positivist approach, prioritizing the elimination of bias from their perspective in a pursuit of information amid a world defined by a tangible framework (Creswell. 2014). While post-positivism may come from a place of self awareness regarding its inherent flaws and likewise centers around process rigidity in an attempt to resist implicit bias, it is still haunted by its roots, at least in its reception by a general audience — proposing that numbers cannot lie. This creates a standard for objectivity that it cannot live up to, especially so in a political environment where differing opinions on issues are rooted in differing values, not a lack of information or certainty. This amplifies and vilifies the intrinsic weaknesses of such an approach — that it’s narrow! — and allows for a disingenuous appeal for certainty before action. For an illustration of this effect, try looking up the recommended daily value of salt, or if you want to spend a whole weekend on it, try climate change.
What’s needed, I believe, is an acceptance that post-positivist scientific understanding is not a panacea for environmental problems in which certainty does not help to reconcile conflicting values. A constructivist approach, one that is calibrated to understand the world based on interactions between humans and their environment (Creswell. 2014), may better provide insights on how to craft policy in a political environment where a wolf can represent one of many things depending on one’s own outlook — a treasure, a danger, an economic liability, or a muse.
Creswell, John W. (2014) Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications.