Commentary on Azariah & Macer and Goldsmith

- Frank J. Leavitt, Ph.D.
The Jakobovits Centre of Jewish Medical Ethics
Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, ISRAEL
(Home Tel/FAX: +972-2-9963048)


Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 6 (1996), 130-131.
I'm not sure anymore that there are specifically "Eastern" attitudes to nature, as opposed to "Western" ones. A couple of years ago I tried to start writing a book on "Asian bioethics" but I made little progress, and finally gave up because I came to the conclusion that the idea that there is a uniquely "Asian" ethics, uniquely gentle to the natural ecology, is a forced and artificial idea. Anyone who thinks that only Europeans and Americans go around trashing nature while Asians stand in quiet dignified awe of it, ought to look at Japanese whale hunting, or at the surprisingly high acceptance of biotechnology in Thailand (See Dixon's review of Darryl's survey (1)) - not to mention the disdain for nature in Israel's rapid urbanization - and compare these things to the strong environmental movements in the West. Also, ancient Western spiritual tradition, the Druids, the Norse, the Gaelic, seen to have been no less nature-oriented than Eastern religions. This does not mean that I am particularly "pro-West". In fact I think of my own country, Israel, as being more Asian than Western. But we have to be fair and to admit that things are not always so simple as we would like them to be.

It also has to be said that being ethical and being "environmentally ethical" are not necessarily connected. Many bourgeois, urban, high-tech people are honest, decent, give charity and self-sacrificingly help others. And earthy, natural, environmentally friendly people can be elitist and vicious. It is often remarked that Nazism was in large part an attempt to revive the primitive authenticity of Teutonic nature religion (e.g. ref. 2). And it is often remarked that Hitler was a vegetarian.

The appearance of Goldsmith's review in the same issue of EJAIB with Azariah and Macer's paper should make us notice an ambiguity in the use of the work "ecology". "Ecology" can mean a philosophy of loving nature, being thrifty, "sustainable", environmentally friendly, not littering. But it can also mean a scientific and usually highly mathematical study of "ecosystems"" i.e. plants, animals, humans, soil, water, climate, etc. in their mutual interactions, growth, decay, survival, evolution, etc. The conference which Goldsmith reviews was a healthy wedding of environmental philosophy ("ecology" in the first sense), with environmental epidemiology, (which is a medical application of "ecology" in the second sense). It is the kind of interdisciplinary work that we need.

Among the articles which particularly interested me in the conference which Goldsmith reviews was Dale Jamieson's article on the question: how certain do you have to be about research findings before it is ethical to communicate them to the public? (3) The question is especially important in environmental research which have a scare potential. One example is Goldsmith's own research into possible carcinogenic effects of microwaves in military radar and in cellular telephone applications (EJAIB (1995) 5: 92-94). Another example is the global warming issue. We have learned to get emotional about human contribution to the "green-house effect", to ozone depletion, etc. But I don't think the connection has yet been conclusively demonstrated. Santer et al. in a recent article in Nature use sophisticated models to suggest an anthropogenic effect on global warming, but then painstakingly list the uncertainties in their work (4) and the author of the "News and Views" article could not say anything stranger than that Santer et al "have provided the most convincing demonstration yet that human actions may have made a contribution" to global temperature changes (5).

But does the existence of uncertainty mean that people shouldn't publish findings? Obviously not, because only by open publication and discussion can we progress in knowledge and sort out uncertainties. What has to be avoided is not scientific publication but overemotional responses. And here the blame lies not with scientific publication but with popular news media.

References

1. Dixon B. Biotech in Thailand. Biotechnology (1994) 12: 954.

2. Viereck P. Metropolitics: from the Romantics to Hitler New York, Knopf, 1941; and in second edition as Metapolitics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind. New York, Capricorn Books, 1961.

3. Jamieson D. Scientific uncertaintly: how do we know when to communicate reserearch findings to the public? The Science of the Total Environment (1996) 184: 103-107.

4. Santer et al. A search for human influences on the thermal structure of the atmosphere. Nature (1996) 382: 39-46.

5. Nichols N. An incriminating fingerprint. Nature (1996) 382: 27-28.


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