Not all science education is helpful

Objectivity must be the focus of environmental education and leave all the normative science as opinions where they belong.

As preparation for the upcoming sustainably FED eCourses on food, ecology and diet, I decided to sample a few university sector MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), specifically on EdX where 3,500 free online courses are available for anyone to enrol.

I had done this before and been informed if not inspired. But I tried again with a course on sustainability and another on food supply.

This time around I was disappointed — the understatement of my COVID lockdown — as both classes were dreadful. The production was average, the sound quality patchy, and the presenters more wooden than shaker furniture. 

I reminded myself that this was material from the ivory towers where dynamism and communications skills are not on the list of talents required of staff. Despite the subsidy of access to recording studios and an interviewer’s stool, no doubt the smell of the oily rag passed for a production budget.  

A sigh and lowered expectations kept me going into the second and third week’s worth of lessons with no improvement. 

I was cringing all the time.

As any true sceptic would, I asked why I was so underwhelmed.

Was it the content?

What content? 

There were plenty of words, only most needed explaining. 

There was plenty of theory, but most of it was either impractical or untested.

One of the courses seemed to be a primer on the jargon without even providing definitions. There was no content worthy of the name.

Examples were an afterthought. Years ago, somebody wise said that learning was better with examples. Whoever was responsible here didn’t get that memo.

Perhaps it was the intellectual farting pretending to be content that reeked.

I have worked in the ivory towers of five universities in my career. There is snobbery. Few academics would admit to it but they are out of touch. The real world is ‘out there’ and it shows in the lack of practicality in the learning they offer.

Students studying insect biology in a a laboratory
Students in the Biotrack lab-Alloporus

What about the flavour?

The messaging in both the sustainability and the food supply course was consistently political — socialist to be precise. 

The theme was that capitalism is at fault and woe betide us all if there isn’t redistribution of wealth to redress inequity. 

Laudable and probably correct but not objective science. 

Only one interviewee was savvy enough to articulate the political element without party affiliation, but then he was touted as a political economist so he should know. Most of the other academics were saying, “Oh my God, the sky is falling in and it’s all the fault of exploitation”, and, therefore, the solution is to trash the economic paradigm that is the cause of all our distress. 

None of these learned folk seemed to realise such socialist-leaning plays into the hands of those at the other end of politics who would weaponise environmental issues for their own political ends. I believe that George Monbiot was hinting at something similar when he claims the left and the right easily swap places.

All this naivety happens before politics gets stuck in to create an evidence-free zone around the issues. 

Maybe it was this normative flavour that made the courses tasteless. 

sFED follows the definition of normative science where information — words such as ecosystem health, biological integrity, and environmental degradation — presuppose a policy preference and are, therefore, a type of policy advocacy.

What about objectivity?

It would be great if everyone could be objective, dispassionate and pragmatic. Only we can’t. Human values and opinions get in the way as do our emotional responses to any challenge to the worldview created from our particular value set. 

Teachers are supposed to rise above this human instinct, but they couldn’t in the MOOC courses I audited. 

Yet the topics couldn’t be more objective—just a reminder of the problem the courses addressed.

How to get sufficient nutrients into people’s bodies for a hundred years in a secure way that puts a lid on fear responses, and stops people from fighting each other… when there are 8 billion people.

Intensive agriculture, regenerative agriculture, rewilding, green deals, technological supply chains, trade agreements, development aid, alternative finance, and others are like outfits in the naked emperor’s walk-in wardrobe. 

They are solutions that might look good but are begging for an objective makeover.

large crowd walking down a city high street
Photo by Han Min T on Unsplash

Should you take a MOOC?

Sure, go for it. 

Naturally, we would suggest one of sFED’s offerings, but there is nothing wrong with education. 

Do as many courses as you have time and passion for completing—even the poor ones. We learn in many diverse ways and being critical is one of them. I know from experience that many of my best ideas came when I was listening to a talk or reading an article that made me cringe.

Then look for the irony. 

Sustainability is political, always has been.  Sustainability is all about values and opinions and people will debate values endlessly. This makes everything to do with the environment, including food security, about politics. 

It is a thousand years plus political issue. All the more reason for the core science education on the topic to be relevant, objective and pragmatic.

Hero image modified from photo by Baim Hanif on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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