How scientific are you really prepared to be? Interview with David Rothenberg

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According to Pauline Oliveros, “deep listening is listening in every possible way to everything possible.  This means one hears all sounds, no matter what one is doing. Such intense listening includes hearing the sounds of daily life, of nature, and of one’s own thoughts, as well as musical sounds.” [1]

Q: How did you get into deep ecology?

D: I would like to start with a different topic, something that I think should be of particular interest to people concerned with Holistic Science. The most important message I have for you is that science and the arts have very different criteria for truth.As a musician I like to play music with whales, birds and insects. I can play such a duet once and something interesting may happen.  I can play live with insects and record some interesting musical moment and I might say “yes, this is interesting I’ve learned something. My music has been expanded out into the world of animal aesthetics here. This is beautiful.”Now a scientist might ask: “Does it mean anything? How do you know that the insects care about what are you doing? How can you prove it?”I say, “I can’t prove it because it is not science.  It is just one moment that seems artistically interesting to me.” To turn it into science I would need to create a rigorous experiment with controls and all these difficult things repeated over and over again. Subject the work to statistical analysis, all the tools of science, what makes something scientific. In science claims have to be tested, repeated, checked out very carefully. And that’s how scientific knowledge advances.Art doesn’t move forward this way. Somebody may have just done one beautiful thing five hundred years ago and we still appreciate it. We don’t ask whether it’s better or worst than the art we make today. Whereas in science we can say Galileo looked through a telescope and discovered the moons of Jupiter, what a fantastic discovery, but we have gone way beyond that today and know a lot more about what’s up there in the sky than he could ever fathom.  His experiment is historically interesting, but not scientifically relevant to today because we have so many more detailed ways to collect information. Art does not progress historically with the same clarity that science does.So if you want to create a more Holistic Science, you should ask yourself, “how different from normal science is Holistic Science supposed to be?” Does it start with the negative view that reductionist science is wrong and we should do something completely different?  Or does it admit that a certain amount of reducing the worlds experience to numbers and to statistics and mathematics, to a kind of logical ruled-based thinking is how science works in the first place. How radically different can science be and still be worthy of the name science?  If you want to call what you do ‘science,’ you should follow the scientific method and build on what science is doing rather than reject it in total because you don’t like its coldness, the dullness of the language, or the fact that it seems to get to specific before looking at the whole.The science of ecology is the study of interconnected systems—biology, geology, hydrology all these things that are too often considered in isolation from one another. But for ecology to be scientific it has to still follow the rigorous rules of what counts as scientific knowledge, a methodology that is pretty well established. Yet there is a side of ecology that wants to be philosophical, that wants to be moral, that wants to be political, and not only scientific. And sometimes people interested in these wider issues use the same word ‘ecology’ but they are not doing science in the usual sense. So you have to think: are we going to change what is meant by science or admit that a holistic approach suggests a move beyond science to something else.This is the first question I would pose to anybody who wants to use the phrase ‘holistic science’—How scientific are you really prepared to be?


[1] 1 Pauline Oliveros, “Acoustic and Virtual Space as a Dynamic Element in Music,” Women, Art, and Technology, ed. Judy Malloy, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), p. 213. Excerpt taken from Three Ways Toward Deep Listening in the Natural World, David Rothenberg.(

To see more about David Rothenberg’s work



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