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 it isn’t new. Monarchs and their equivalents have always employed intellectuals to help to justify their actions. So it is in Shakespeare’s Henry V Act I Scene II, where 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 a most unedifying spectacle. 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.

Colin Tudge, Wolvercote, August 4 2014.

7 thoughts on “When Do Scholars Become Advocates?

  1. It’s an excellent article and very challenging.

    I was worried about the sentence about the rich would have to ‘work for a living.’ I’d make it something like:
    ‘very rich and powerful to become maybe a little less rich, but crucially, much less powerful.’

    And, crucially, less powerful. It is how rich they are that’s the problem, in that their take limits everyone else’s. But it’s more about how powerful they are, power over everybody else. It’s that they’re monopolising everyone else’s access to nature, which gives them power over the proles, who, having nothing of their own, have to accept whatever wages are offered them by the rentiers. Henry George always wanted to stress that he was for the rights of all men and women, and the promise of his remedy is that it would be to the great benefit of everybody. He put no limit on individual wealth, he just affirmed everybody’s equal right to the natural wealth of the world. Of course, if everyone’s right to the natural wealth of the world were satisfied, this would necessarily limit individual wealth, transparently fairly and naturally.

    But, I see what you mean by ‘work for a living,’ as opposed to collecting rent, but it just jarred me a bit. Maybe something like ‘they have to produce wealth rather than collect the economic rent that rightfully belongs to all.’ That still comes down to what you say, but I just worry whether it’s a mistake to attack ‘the rich’ rather than a system. Of course, though, it’s perfectly true that the very rich have deliberately designed a system and subverted a clear description of a just economy, (and we also live with the centuries old designs of Mayer Amschel Rothschild). It’s just about exactly who are these ‘very rich.’ Can we say that rich people are part of a great ancient conspiracy to take control of all wealth?

    We’ve all grown up with neoclassical economics for a century now. But, yes, I guess not many economics professors ever hold it up to the light and challenge it much in a Georgian spirit of enquiry. Henry George is never mentioned in economics, yet, strangely, Nobel Prize winning economists do. Their comments fall into a vacuum.

    Milton Friedman said:
    “In my opinion, the least bad tax is the property tax on the unimproved value of land, the Henry George argument of many, many years ago.”

    It’s a shame that he didn’t spend his career reviving the insights of Henry George.

    I think maybe I worry that mention of the ‘rich’ might cause people to immediately think of socialism. Then again, yes, the governance in the naked interest of the super-rich, therefore super-powerful, is the problem, clearly, blatantly. And maybe ‘made to work’ sounds a bit prescriptive, and I think Henry George’s remedy is not prescriptive, it’s an unchaining.

    Progress and Poverty was the most widely read book on political economy ever, and had huge and positive influence for a while until it was gradually hushed up. It can be downloaded free here:
    http://www.henrygeorge.org/pcontents.htm

    1. “Can we say that rich people are part of a great ancient conspiracy to take control of all wealth?”

      Ha ha…but surely it depends on scale and proportion?

      I think we might gain some traction from characterizing this ‘great ancient conspiracy…’ (what an apt phrase!) although perhaps arguably not quite as an eponymous fact, yet rather more, as a degraded caricature of “religion.”

      After all, one could ascribe to the religious impulse, the intentional object of seeking redemption or enlightenment by obtaining (spiritual) wealth; this could be interpreted metaphysically & experientially as entheogenic/ecodelic insight perhaps or transcendent yogic virtue; possibly understood as a sacred pathway or process of ceremonial mysticism; maybe conceived Hermetically as an esoteric alchemical doctrine, or technical occult praxis, or as a transpersonal method of individuated transformation and development. In fact, arguably as any adopted method or conscious technique of cognitive, evolutionary change by coherent symbolic means.

      These suggestive contexts all have in common one singular notion ~ that of intention, motivated by aspiration.

      However, if the declared sole object of some elite ancient society or “conspiracy,” is to control (all) great riches, as it were, to be in sole possession of the powers of the Greek (deity) Plouton, fully owning and restricting the entire “pleroma” of planetary wealth, then this has a most corrupt, sinister and lethal inflection…as though transcendent divinity or abundant virtue and nature’s profligacy, were something that shall be made more efficient or automatically improved by sheer artifice or dogmatic design; or alternatively, seized by force & constrained to serve these conspicuously godlike interests ~ thereby rendering all moral qualities and civic virtues into consumable commodities to be branded and sold as indispensable aids to augment the “quality of life” of all us lesser mortals.

      In short, it/they would assume the unassailable power of wholesale appropriation, and the right to sell back to people the very keys to their own existence.

      That is indeed a perfect product! it’s a license to meter every aspect of each and everone’s “very own” life. Only the inevitable and ultimate price tag is a perpetual mortgage. This is some kind of diabolical pact and it seems to me to be ever more widely in evidence .

      In former times it was just called slavery.

      Now the only ethical argument for such a hypothetical condition is “duty of care…” ie enlightened guardianship of the vulnerable and least advantaged. Anything short of that is really some form of bonded servitude….and we certainly witness plenty of that everywhere, these days.

      This is of course the American way.

      It is also the way of organized crime and international piracy, of venal oppression and intimidating threats of perpetual aggression and torture.

      Only when one really deeply analyses this horrific situation, does the proverbial penny start to hit the mechanism and the veil of “reality” begin to tear.

      The core issue as I see it is not about the algorithms doctoral quants deploy, but is therefore actually about universal sovereignty, the soul of each individual, experienced directly through a just and convivial biospheric community of interaction that truly embodies and resonates with the infinity of the cosmos.

  2. Excellent article and so admirably readable Colin! A veritable trove of insightful, learned truths. Erasure is such a dire and iniquitous tactic, it is surely our inter-generational duty to see to it that great minds and great work is never permanently elided or eclipsed. So many unsung heroes ~ and particularly, heroines! to celebrate, honour and recall.
    Graciñas Señor…

  3. Dear Colin,
    Excellent piece of thought! And very relevant for my current academic experience (currently doing a PhD with Olivier de Schutter but coming from the food security domain in hunger-stricken countries).
    I was in a WPHNA conference in Oxford two weeks ago and Geoffrey Cannon mentioned that I should absolutely contact you, as we may have parallel interest.
    I am developing and advocating for the idea of Food as a Commons (or impure public good), in opposition to food as a private good. That could parallel the antislavery movement (decommodification of human beings) and it really presents an alternative to the current industrial food system.

    You may have a look at some recent writings:

    http://theconversation.com/staying-alive-shouldnt-depend-on-your-purchasing-power-20807

    http://es.slideshare.net/joseluisviveropol/food-as-a-commons-reframing-the-narrative-of-the-food-system

    http://www.iss.nl/fileadmin/ASSETS/iss/Research_and_projects/Research_networks/ICAS/89_Pol.pdf

    I think we could have a fruitful exchange on how to better approach this different narrative, the political implications and the flaws that need to be further sharpen.

    best regards

    Jose Luis Vivero

  4. Please. please get yourselves a Facebook account and a Youtube channel and spread the word ASAP. I am sure people do not realise the threat to the world’s food and human existence big corporations present and many average folk will need to be targeted with appropriate messages that can get through.
    People need to know how to stop puppets like Owen Paterson and friends from prostituting this country in the name of dubious help to eliminate world hunger.
    Thank you for a fantastic post. I wasn’t born in England but do care about this little island like I would for any part of the world. I wish I could write the way you do Colin. I hope many people will see your article in time to do something about this unfolding situation with Roundup Ready GM maize to be planted next year and will stop it.

  5. As regards scholars’ abandonment of their duty, there seems much direction and control, from somewhere, over where scholars even study in the first place. Fred Harrison, in The Traumatised Society, mentions a Financial Times editional (April 12th, 2012) lamenting that four years had passed without a proper holding to account for the crisis of 2008. And on the same page was a letter from Dr Hugh Goodacre at University College, London, explaining that candidate selection for posts and advancement was skewed towards the specialist study of abstruse economics, this being the favoured area of US academic journals.

    As Harrison points out, the enduring financial crisis has taken so much away from tens of millions of people, and they are utterly failed by a profession of economists who seem to have been rendered incapable of understanding its causes, because their focus has been deliberately turned away from real life into an impenetrable mathematical world. Of course, this field sold its soul a long time ago; Economics as an academic discipline has been abstruse for a century since neoclassical economics was forged to hush up Henry George.

    It can sometimes be really hard to resist the notion of some intelligent design behind the various crises the world lurches into.

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