“I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it.” (George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant.”)
Reading through Donovan Hohn’s New York Times Article on Marc Edwards, “Flint’s Water Crisis and the ‘Troublemaker’ Scientist,” bought to mind George Orwell’s comments on the British Empire in his famous story “Shooting an Elephant.”
Orwell’s story focuses on the moment when he, as a young British Colonial Police Officer in Burma, realized that the British Empire was morally wrong and unsustainable. He describes how he had to kill an elephant that had gone rogue, killed a man, and then calmed down. He kills the elephant not because it poses a danger, but because a watching crowd of Burmese is watching him, and he has to maintain his status. Because the story was published in 1936, a year before he went to fight as a volunteer with the Republicans in Spain, he takes a moment to mention that the flawed British Empire is still not at the level of fascism.
The narrative of Professor Edwards, and science in general, as the hero of the Flint Water Crisis, or of other environmental crisis, is a difficult one to dismiss. Hohn does portray Professor Edwards as a hero, but as one with flaws, and as one whose hero status has come at the expense of others whose contributions were critical. In spite of this, Professor Edwards’ status as the hero of the crisis has remained strong in scientific and policy-making circles. His experience, and outspokenness, are held up as an ideal for how scientists are to behave in such situations.
Part of the reason why a larger narrative, where Professor Edwards is not shown as one of many contributors, is that the scientist-hero narrative is so extraordinarily useful. It is useful not just to the scientific community, which holds him up as a hero even as he brutally critiques the values of 21st century academic authority. A figure like Dr. Edwards is incredibly useful to anyone fighting for clean water, or accurate environmental data. The Flint residents whose suspicions Dr. Edwards confirmed are less useful in creating this narrative.
For all of these flaws, then, Dr. Edwards is pushed through as the hero of the crisis, because of the very real risk that a flawed empire based on hierarchical expertise will be replaced by one that permits even more destructive behavior. Bruno LaTour’s 2004 article, “Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” raises a similar point. LaTour wonders if critiques of scientific knowledge, which have the potential to improve science, were instead allowed to become excuses for undermining certainty, and positive action, in areas like climate.
The question for a scientist interested in the environment and health protection reading a critique of scientific expertise is this: will it lead to a better science, or will it lead to an undermining of scientific authority so complete that action on the environment, or public health, becomes impossible. Perhaps part of the answer depends on how successful science is in absorbing an embracing the critique- but would even that be complete?
(Note: Originally published with an incorrect title for George Orwell’s story.)