Jaak Aaviksoo: When science doesn't help

Jaak Aaviksoo.
Jaak Aaviksoo. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

Science is hitched to the buggy of different moral decisions to legitimize the latter and achieve a desired goal. That is why we can see scientific arguments wielded by all interest groups in the so-called forestry war in Estonia, Jaak Aaviksoo writes.

The claim that the world is becoming more unpredictable is, of course, a well-worn cliche, while it is also probably true. It keeps us from being at peace and makes us yearn for more security, sensible debate, fewer conflicts and feel that we do not want a war.

And it doesn't really matter whether we are talking about presidential elections in America, the pulp mill project or the forestry development plan – we still tend to end up with irreconcilable confrontations where what lies at the end of the tunnel is not light but moral destruction of the other side. How to solve that conundrum without resorting to war?

Many feel that it is possible to find a single impartial and objective truth that would bring the sides together, that a scientific approach is the solution. That is a dangerous illusion.

To understand why, we need to start with the realization that what separates us is first and foremost a different understanding of good and evil, not truth and lies. Science is concerned with the world such as it is in that it explains cause and effect, helps us understand the consequences of decisions and plan steps for achieving desired results, but it cannot make value judgments. Science has no will or morality.

However, science is powerful and therefore dangerous. Science has also played a part in creating this modern instability – transport technologies made possible physical and the internet informational globalization that work together to mix and erode communal, national and religious value matrixes or behavioral environments that have kept us together.

That is why the moral compass is no longer pointing in the same direction for everyone. This in turn creates instability and feeds the fear-induced conflicts it spawns.

Psychology is arriving at the conclusion that a person's (moral) decisions and choices are first and foremost intuitive, based on a subconscious value matrix and their rational/scientific explanations serve as explanatory and communicable additions rather than the foundations of decisions. Different matrixes yield different decisions.

Science is hitched to the buggy of different moral decisions to legitimize the latter and achieve a desired goal. That is why we can see scientific arguments wielded by all interest groups when talking, for example, about the so-called forestry war in Estonia where, to simplify a little, we could say that more science cannot yield a solution and is contributing to an ever-fiercer conflict.

All proof-based arguments are equally correct and reasoned in the world of science. The problem is that these arguments lack a common measure and their weight in value debates depends not on how truthful they are but on one's political or value-based preferences – some like apples and some oranges.

Failure to understand this distinction leave us not with an academic debate but attacks by soldiers of science against entire fields of the latter, which we have already experienced in the pulp mill and forestry debates.

This reminds me of the time when every scientist also had to be a "militant Marxist." In a democratic society, however, a scientist's value judgment weighs just as much as that of their fellow citizen, irrespective of whether the latter is "scientifically" justified or not.

Naturally, we must welcome (forest) scientists' recent public address (link in Estonian) and interdisciplinary cooperation it is hoped to produce, but it can in no way replace a broader dialogue of values in society that can only be built on mutual trust. Fostering the latter is what we should start with, while avoiding polarizing aspects and quasi-scientific arguments, for example, regarding a ceiling for felling volume or the definition of forests for as long as possible. Instead, we should first dedicate ourselves to hearing each other out.

Perhaps [former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves'] Ice Cellar Initiative is not a bad example to follow and a text of the forestry development plan everyone finds agreeable can be reached once the temperature has fallen enough. Science could then be used to realize the common value choices in that text.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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