CHRIS HARRIES , thank you for raising the issue of the “tyranny of rationality” (11) Comment 11 on the Scalping of Mt Dismal.  I agree it is very pertinent.

Science, like all other areas of human knowledge, can be used for good or ill.  Politicians, for example, use “pre-packaged science” for their purposes, ignoring hydra-headed complications or alternatives if they don’t fit the model they’re pushing.  At best, this is usually irresponsible, but at worst it is destructive and utterly criminal.

Scientific “rationality” has been imported into social theory, economic theory, management theory and so on.  Once it becomes a quest for the coldly calculated efficient, in and of itself as the main purpose - efficiency for the sake of efficiency - then “a final solution” can be an outcome.

I am not one of those who would seek to deny that “Social Darwinism” was incorporated into the rationale for public policy decision-making across the political spectrum in Australia through much of the 20th century - The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, which enshrined the White Australia policy for more than 60 years, was provided with a “rational scientific” basis by Social Darwinists, who mis-applied “survival of the fittest” to the notion of genetic superiority of the “white race”.  Nor would I seek to deny that “Social Darwinism” was part of the intellectual justification for the Holocaust.

Once “scientific rationality” is stripped down to “facts” without consideration of the human, or indeed of the natural world, but with a focus just on “efficiencies” of an operation, a Wannsee can be an outcome, at one level or another.

On January 20 1942, just 67 years ago, a meeting of senior German officials was held at a lakeside villa at Wannsee, outside Berlin.  The purpose of the meeting was to prepare an efficient plan for the systematic destruction of European Jewry, the convenor, Reinhard Heydrich, informing the bureaucrats responsible that “the final solution of this question should begin (by ensuring that) transportation problems play only a minor role, and questions pertaining to deployment of labour not impede the course of this operation”. 

I give this example to show as starkly as possible what can happen when the coldly rational is the main determinant of public policy and its subsequent implementation.

The coldly “scientifically rational” does not necessarily differentiate between right and wrong, it does not incorporate values beyond so-called “facts”.  It can (and I would suggest almost invariably does) exclude consideration of ethics, morality, humanity, compassion and in a sad paradox, reason itself.  It replaces these fundamentals with pride in efficiency, in the entombment of facts in euphemism, designed to obscure.  Weasel words.

My favourite rationalist, but in this case a “management rationalist” rather than a scientist, although he argued his case “scientifically”, is Robert McNamara, who tried to bring the industrial efficiency of the Detroit assembly line to the Pentagon in the 1960s, and apply its particular logic to military strategy in Vietnam.  “Terminate with extreme prejudice” was the name of the game.  Coldly rational, employing wide-scale resettlement of people in “strategic hamlets”, wide-scale “search and destroy” operations, massive carpet bombing, whole-scale defoliation of thousands of hectares of forest.  Coldly rational, completely immoral, inhumane, criminal, tragic, desructive and costly.  It failed.

McNamara’s lineal descendant was Donald Rumsfeld, “shock and awe” proponent.  “Stuff happens”, he liked to say.

There is nothing kind, clever, connected in social-environmental-economic terms about the “pre-packaged scientific” justifications for forestry operations in Tasmania.  All the “pre-packaged scientific” justifications are just that, divorced from the entwined social-environmental-economic imperatives which should inform our behaviours.

Our policies and actions must be imbued with more than the quest for “efficiency”.  The linkage between social-environmetal-economic are intrinsic to good public policy, because they direct attention to the ethical, the moral and - yes - the emotional.

Yann Martel (Mann Booker prize winner in 2002, and author of The Life of Pi) said this last year:
“In a technocratic society, we are dominated by overly reasonable people who reduce life to some sort of equation.  They reduce our life to a corporation… and these people are dangerous.” I agree.   

Peter Henning

Peter Henning A response to Chris Harries, the “tyranny of rationality”:  Comment 11 on the Scalping of Mt Dismal.
There is nothing kind, clever, connected in social-environmental-economic terms about the “pre-packaged scientific” justifications for forestry operations in Tasmania.  All the “pre-packaged scientific” justifications are just that, divorced from the entwined social-environmental-economic imperatives which should inform our behaviours.