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Ecology: Science versus Poetry?


Ecology - Science or Poetry?


A debate between Alastair McIntosh and Robert Muetzelfeldt



Published in Sylva: Journal of the Edinburgh University Ecological Society, No 58, 1994-95, pp. 5 – 11.



Is ecology a science? Should ecology be seeking to emulate other sciences by taking a reductionist approach, or is ecology only achieving its true purpose when overviewing entire systems with an holistic approach? This is the question we posed to Robert Muetzelfeldt (RW), Lecturer in Ecological Modelling and Knowledge Based Systems at the institute of Ecology and Resource Management, and Alastair McIntosh (AM) who runs the MSc course in Human Ecology at the University’s Centre for Human Ecology. Today, when the word ‘ecology’ has taken on many different meanings, we thought it would be interesting to engage these two people, both deeply involved in the subject and yet with very different approaches, in a debate concerning the nature of their discipline. True to the spirit of the age, this dialogue was conducted through e-mail.



I think it’s unhelpful to argue about whether ecology, by its nature, is a more holistic science than more numbers-based sciences, such as physics. How can we answer this? By counting up or sampling all the questions that ecologists address, and all the questions that physicists ad­dress, and classifying them as needing a reductionist or a holistic approach?

Rather, I’d suggest that the interesting issue is: when ecologists are being reductionist in order to answer an ecologi­cal question that requires a reductionist approach, how does their reductionism dif­fer from that of, say, physicists? And when ecologists are being holistic, how does their holism differ from that of physicists?

I’ll concentrate on comparing the holis­tic approach of the two disciplines. What we notice immediately is the dichotomy of symbols and text. Physicists integrate using formal, symbolic systems. Ecolo­gists integrate using written text. Not all ecologists, of course - some ecologists de­velop computer simulation models, with a claim that these integrate knowledge. How­ever, those ecologists who go on about holism are in general not sympathetic to computer-based modelling seeming, in fact, to be constitutionally against any attempt to treat ecology according to the cold and hard language of symbolic mathematics or logic.

So, I’d like to propose that we focus down on a particular question: is there something special about ecological ques­tions requiring a holistic approach for their solution that requires us to use a soft (prose, poetic) type of approach, when similar types of questions in many other sciences are answered using symbolic-based ap­proaches?



First, I think it depends what kind of “ecological questions” you are referring to. I have no problem whatsoever with ~reductionist, mathematical approaches for ecological questions like, for instance, sim­ple population dynamics. By extension, I can accept and value modelling for more complex systems understanding, such as carrying capacity dynamics in a varied eco­system provided we remember we are dealing with limitations to our understand­ing which will be both explicit and implicit. Explicit limitations are things like data shortcomings of which we are overtly aware, and can, for instance, apply sensitivity analysis to. Implicit limitations in­clude assumptions in a model that we don’t realise we are making, and information filtering due to our perception plane, or worldview, being prejudiced in accordance with the need to fit reality into our model.

I think these implicit or covert limita­tions increase with complexity. They cer­tainly become overwhelming when human factors enter the equation. Human behav­iour has now become the most significant ecological variable. We are the end-users of a substantial proportion of the world’s photosynthetic product. Some of this is used for growth, reproduction and main­taining homeostasis, but one respect in which we differ from other species is that much of our consumption goes far beyond levels of homeostatic sufficiency. This ex­cess consumption is psychogenic.

A model which deals with the big eco­logical questions of our times must there­fore be capable of modelling individual psychological and collective sociological behaviour. I believe this to be impossible. I think you cannot model the soul or psyche, because the psyche is in essence poetic. Poetics is a level of symbolism far beyond the mathematical in complexity. Indeed, traditionally, the mathematical was judged by poetics and not vice versa - people believed that good mathematics would fulfill aesthetic criteria of elegance.

In short, modelling is valuable in lim­ited ways, many of which can be of great importance as parts of the whole. But the big issues facing us as humans and ecolo­gists involve being able to understand and influence one another. A computer helps mainly in that it aids communication. To think that we can be modelled is to mis­place energy and resources. To suggest that global ecosystems can be modelled without taking account of human psychospiritual considerations is, as the ethologists would say, displacement activity.



You say that you believe modelling individual psychological and collective so­ciological behaviour to be necessary for effective models, and to be impossible. I would question both whether it is in fact necessary, and whether it is impossible.

Even accepting that “human behaviour has now become the most important eco­logical variable”, it does not follow that it needs to be modelled; it may simply need to appear as an input in an ecosystem model. For example, we can model agroforestry systems without including humans ‘in the loop’. Indeed, I’d be pretty disturbed if you were suggesting that we should not engage in the ‘displacement activity’ of modelling agroforestry systems just because humans have a big effect on them! I must confess to a number of displacement activities, but I never realised before this dialogue that modelling was one of them. Displacement from what, I wonder? Writing poetry?



Displacement, not necessarily from writing poetry, but from living it!

I would say that for human behaviour to be an “input” to an ecosystem model, you are implicitly modelling it. How else do you input it? Your model is thus predicated on presumptions of human behaviour. Not to be explicit about this is to claim a false objectivity.

      Your own example of modelling agroforestry systems “without including humans in the loop” illustrates the point. Human values determine the choices made by the agroforestry managers, and the whole model is thus predicated on human behaviour. As such, it cannot but be a portrayal of an anthropomorphic ecology.

I see two basic ways in which we can know reality. The holistic model is poetic. The word poetic derives from the Greek poesis, meaning “the making”. The poetic is when we relate to something because it resonates, it has a good “vibe”, it feels right. The other way is the linear way of rationality - rationality being that which pertains to the ratio, to measuring. Our capacity to measure is limited. Computers help, but ultimately we cannot count the whole of reality. Hindu philosophy recog­nises this. The word maya, cosmic delusion - the root of evil in the Hindu system - is derived from the same root as words mean­ing “to measure”. Maya is delusion be­cause it involves us weaving a little web of reality around us into which we invest consciousness. But it’s not reality. It’s only our measured construct thereof. The ulti­mate illustration of such constructs in my view are such contradictory concepts as “artificial intelligence” and “virtual real­ity”.

I’ll believe you can model human fac­tors when you can model poetry, because poetics is, in my view, our primary way of relating to complex reality.



    The claim that modelling human factors is impossible because of our essentially po­etic psyche leaves us with the question of whether human activity would be modellable if it weren’t psychogenic. Mod­ellers would claim that even psychogenic activities can be predictable - for instance, in models of human travelling. If we accept that the modelling of psychogenic activity should not even be contemplated then we are left with an even more fundamental problem for modelling - how can we truly know what activity is psychogenic? Maybe red deer, or even Sitka spruces, have psy­ches. Your acceptance of population dy­namics models is inconsistent with your criticism of other models which do not include human psyche considerations - there’s a fair bit of poetic feeling in procrea­tion!



I would accept that you can usefully model parts of an ecosystem. So you can model traffic systems, or even population dynamics. I don’t doubt that and I greatly value it. But an attempt to model an ecosys­tem means trying to play God if you’re trying to be in any way comprehensive about “understanding” the reality of it.



Let’s focus down with a particular ex­ample. The Assynt Crofters’ Association is involved in a joint proposal with the Uni­versity of Edinburgh to the European Un­ion to fund the establishment of a wide-ranging computer-based information sys­tem for “flexible and sustainable long-term management”. This will include GIS, knowledge-based systems and models. The use of knowledge-based systems reflects a recognition of the value, even the neces­sity, of the symbolic-based approaches that I have been advocating in our exchange. So what would you consider to be the con­straints imposed by human psyche consid­erations on modelling this most poetic of human societies?



The constraints imposed by the psyche are implicit to the nature of nature and the nature of human nature. What can you usefully computer model in a crofting cul­ture? Optimal deer carrying capacity levels - yes, given human values of what are optimal. Optimal forest species mix - per­haps, but for what end? Will the model optimalise economic return or native spe­cies diversity (for which we hardly need a model)? Whichever, it cannot model that arrangement of nature in which,

Out on the moor,

The rainbowed splendour of diffracted dew­drops,

Present at every sunny dawn,

Catches the shepherd’s eye,

Who sees dew on grass,

By tumbling stream,

Are riches in abundance –




There seem to be quite a lot of things that you do not believe about formal, sym­bolic approaches. Tell me what tests you could imagine applying to some model­ling/symbolic-reasoning approach that would cause you to change your mind about its value. And I’m not now asking you to give me examples of where you accept that modelling already has some value. Rather, I’m asking you to think of some situation where you think I would claim that model­ling has some value, and you would disa­gree. Then we can apply some test whose result could go either way. Otherwise, we’ll be ‘believing’ or ‘not believing’ this or that till the cows come home, and not progress.

Incidentally, I find your style of argu­ing by opinion and poetry difficult to cope with. I’m no good at poetry! Hey, wait a minute...

There was a young lass from Assynt,

Whose sheep were nutritionally skint,

I sorted her muddle,

With one shot of my model;

Now her RAMs delicious with mint!



Part of my concern with symbolic ap­proaches to modelling ecosystems is that so many of our assumptions about reality embody implicit values. I’ve no problem with values, but I do have problems when they’re not overt. Econometric modelling is full of this. Utility gets translated into a symbolic equivalent, money, with implicit behavioural assumptions such as time value and the resultant travesty of discounting.

There’s one example to rise to your challenge with. How would you model utility without recourse to cash quantifica­tion?

Another - how would you model the deep processes of love which, in my em­pirically informed belief system, not only animate but also give meaning to all reality processes. This matters, because if we are manipulating reality as we inevita­bly do in our lives, learning to dance with the rhythms of love is, arguably, what life is all about.

I see your objection, and frustration, arising that, once again, we’re speaking different languages and worldviews. But understanding that is an important part of our dialogue. I am maybe being horribly naive about benefits of modelling which I’m being too short-sighted to see. On the other hand, you may be modelling and shaping decisions on a worldview which drives out processes of magic, music and spirituality that are actually central to our being human.



We need to address the problems facing the world - we can’t just sit back and do nothing. Any attempt at generating solu­tions must involve some form of model­ling. This might involve drawing on a large body of ineffable experience, or it might involve using more formal methods, such as simulation modelling.

We also know that natural systems are characterised by interactions between their components, and that the problems that we face now are new problems. These two points, together or separately, suggest that internal models, based on experience, are inadequate for coping with the range of problem scenarios that we are faced with.

We have a right to expect that the ra­tionale for proffered solutions is explicit and transparent. We should be sceptical of solutions that we are expected to take on trust. This does not mean that solutions offered without formal justification, gener­ated by intuition, are generally wrong. They may be right. They might even be more right more often than solutions generated by formal models. It’s just that we have no basis for assessing the nature of a solution in advance - and in any case, whose intui­tion do we trust?

There is an awful lot wrong with the current practice of modelling. Parameter values can be fiddled to give good agree­ment between model and data; it is possible to choose from the set of equally plausible model assumptions those that produce the results you want; it is impossible to find out what goes on in many models. However, these are problems with the current meth­odology of modelling, for instance the im­plementation of models as large computer programs, and they do not invalidate the premise that a given system is modellable.

It is true 5that some natural systems behave chaotically, and even that it may be hard to know which systems are chaotic and which ones aren’t. However, there is also a lot of regularity and pattern in nature, and modelling represents a powerful tool for exploring issues concerning the limits of chaos.

I am quite happy to believe that the prevailing modelling paradigm, the use of mathematical equations to represent change over time, could well be replaced by some other approach, perhaps based on qualita­tive relationships, in the future. That is not what this debate is about. Rather, it is about explicit versus implicit methods for devel­oping an integrated, holistic view of com­plex natural systems. The explicit is the formal and symbolic; the implicit is the poetic, the intuitive, the psyche. Certainly, let us value our feelings, let us let our hands wander over the surface of roughly-hewn wood. Let us, indeed, be forever sceptical of technological fixes. But let us also value the conceptual tools that the mind con­ceives which give real expression to our poetic notions of holism, integration and connectedness.



You say that our debate is about im­plicit versus explicit approaches to knowl­edge. I think this embodies a false pre­sumption of the possibility of objectivity. I think it probable that all logic is narrative resting within a wider mythical metanarrative and as such, logic is only one approach to knowing reality. As David Hume, the philosopher of the Scottish En­lightenment, famously put it, “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.”

Modelling is explicit only within the worldview or frame of reference of the narrative it rests in. This is why the ques­tion I put to you about how you would model, for instance, the pre-fiscal construct of utility in economics is critically impor­tant and completely unanswerable! Utility is a metanarrative of cash economics, not a function of it. Utility precedes the neoclas­sical economist’s dubious and damaging presumption that money can reflect utility preferences. Poetics reveals such metanarratives through narrative, music, art, dance and lovemaking.

I’m aware that my style of writing may be concealing the degree of uncertainty I have in what I’m saying. For instance, is logic really part of a narrative, or is it metanarrative? I’m not really very sure. I just know, as Alan Watts points out, that there is a difference between watching the wild geese fly past and marvelling at the music of their sounds and the rhythm of their wings and the elegance of their forma­tion and totemic symbolism of their sheer being and feel to oneself, “Wow!”… and watching the wild geese fly past and won­dering where they’re going and what they’ll eat when they get there and how their aerodynamics work and maybe, also, go­ing “Wow!” As a lover of both poetics and science, I want to have my “Wow” squared!

But problems can arise if modellers have any sort of sociopolitical influence, for their models may give them the power to assume narratorial control. With this, they may construct a “virtual reality” using “artificial intelligence” and a simplified worldview (“input data”) in a way which effectively leads to the exercise of power. The one who tells the story constructs the reality and remember - the key to credible story telling is to get others to forget that you’re making it all up!

The poet may also broker power using narratorial control, but this is normally less successful since the innate truth or falsity of poetics is often intuitively obvious to the human psyche.

Exclusive adherents to the “Church of Reason” are dangerous because they may contribute to the illusion that we are eco­logical managers over nature, instead of rational partners in a nature which is sculpted and upheld by the poetic dynamics of that providence by which we live and die and live again, forever.

Am I rejecting modelling completely? No, and I am sincerely impressed, indeed touched, by the humility of your closing remarks, Robert. Such care and caution is the mark of a true scientist and can hardly but lead to poetic sensitivity. Modelling does have a role in certain carefully defined circumstances as we have earlier discussed. But it must be humble. It must rest within and not usurp the qualitative. As such, I would say that modelling, to be of value to humankind, must hold an important place in science as, of course, a spiritual discipline.






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