Publication Details

Title: Conclusions-replacing myths with maxims: Rethinking the relationship between energy and American society
Format: Chapter
Publication Date: December 2007
Description: In his article assessing the proper role of method in the social sciences, L.H.M. Ling (2002) opens with a tale about a fish and a turtle. Once upon a time, Ling begins, there lived a colorful and proud little fish. He had lots of friends and loved the water surrounding him. He swam quickly, swiftly, and gracefully. One day he met a turtle, an old friend whom he had not seen in a long time. The fish greeted the turtle and said, "Hello, Sister Turtle, how are you? I have not seen you in a long time. Where have you been?" The turtle replied, "I am fine, thank you for asking. I was away on earth for an errand." "Oh, really? What is earth? Is there something beyond this lovely water?" "Very much so." "What does it look like?" The turtle paused. It was difficult to find the right words to describe something that the fish had never experienced or seen. But the impatient fish interrupted the turtle's thoughts. "Is the earth like water?" "Uh, no " "Can you swim in it?" "No." "Do you feel pressure as you go deeper?" "No, it's not like that at all " "Does it dance with sparkling lights when the sun shines on it?" "No, not really " Impatient, the fish got mad. "I have asked you many questions about earth, and all that you can answer is no. As far as I am concerned, that earth of yours does not exist." And with that, the disdainful and deeply disappointed fish swam away. The turtle sighed. "How can one know something new when one's questions are based on the prejudices of the old?" While obviously false - turtles and fish have not yet learned to speak in English - Ling's narrative reminds us of three important points. First, inhabitants of the same place can hold greatly variable views; they hold distinct values and beliefs, and adhere to often competing interests and motives. As a result, for example, wind farms are attractive landscape features to some and visual eyesores to others. Second, the tale reminds us that it is difficult to be critical and objective about something that we are a part of. All of us - whether we like it or not - are embroiled in a set of our own deeply held cultural assumptions. Sociologists Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss (1963) compared the study of other cultures to a blind person learning to see for the first time. Before given sight, a blind person does not observe the phenomenal world around us that everyone accepts as normal. Initially, when they begin to see they are confronted by chaos, forms, colors and vague visual impressions. Only very slowly and with intense effort can they learn to manage stimuli, create order out of the chaos, distinguish and classify objects. Similarly, our own culture is as much a part of us as our physical senses. Since it is taken for granted and invisible, it can be extremely difficult to evaluate in any objective sense. Criticism of our culture, furthermore, smacks of condescension and judgment. When confronted with such criticism, most people - like the fish - merely want to swim away. Our thoroughly entrenched social systems, Anthony Giddens once said, "are like the walls of a room from which an individual cannot escape but inside which he or she is able to move around at will" (Pickering, 1993, p. 583). Third, the story explains why conversations between people holding sharply different views often turn out to be very difficult. In his study assessing the history of science, Thomas Kuhn used the term incommensurability to describe the way that insurmountable communication barriers seemed to prevent different groups of scientists from talking to each other in coherent and meaningful ways. Indeed, philosophers such as Ludwig Fleck (1979), Thomas Kuhn (1962, 1977), and Derek de Sola Price (1966) have long argued that different groups of people promote and believe in different cultural practices through "thought collectives," "paradigms," and "invisible colleges." Attempting to communicate to such people from the outside can be akin to speaking to someone in a foreign language they simply don't understand. When applied to energy policy, the narrative suggests that analysts and scholars should never forget that the expectations, experiences, and levels of knowledge within a given part of society will always differ. Energy analysis is always encumbered by a certain number of fundamental assumptions. At the same time, heterogeneity of ideas often enriches perspectives, and operating at the nexus of diversity frequently leads to significant breakthroughs in understanding. As this book has attempted to show, the world of energy policy is no stranger to competing values, beliefs, and interpretations.
Ivan Allen College Contributors:
Citation: Energy and American Society - Thirteen Myths. 351 - 366. DOI 10.1007/1-4020-5564-1_15.
Related Departments:
  • Center for Urban Innovation
  • Climate and Energy Policy Laboratory
  • School of Public Policy