July 2013 Archives

Seeing the World Through Soda Straws

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Nicholas Christakis takes social science to task in an article in the NYTimes Sunday Review of July 19th. He complains that the social sciences haven’t exploded as the natural sciences have in the past few decades.

TWENTY-FIVE years ago, when I was a graduate student, there were departments of natural science that no longer exist today. Departments of anatomy, histology, biochemistry and physiology have disappeared, replaced by innovative departments of stem-cell biology, systems biology, neurobiology and molecular biophysics. Taking a page from Darwin, the natural sciences are evolving with the times. The perfection of cloning techniques gave rise to stem-cell biology; advances in computer science contributed to systems biology. Whole new fields of inquiry, as well as university departments and majors, owe their existence to fresh discoveries and novel tools.

In contrast, the social sciences have stagnated. They offer essentially the same set of academic departments and disciplines that they have for nearly 100 years: sociology, economics, anthropology, psychology and political science. This is not only boring but also counterproductive, constraining engagement with the scientific cutting edge and stifling the creation of new and useful knowledge. Such inertia reflects an unnecessary insecurity and conservatism, and helps explain why the social sciences don’t enjoy the same prestige as the natural sciences.

It should not be hard to guess that the article was written by an academician, working in one of these spanking new scientific micro-disciplines. I think he has it backwards. It is easy to probe the non-human world out there and get to know its innermost secrets. With that knowledge, we can and do conjure up all sorts of wonderful new devices. But so what. These new devices titillate us for a while until they are quickly replaced by system 2.0. And while this incessant process continues, the condition of the world deteriorates.

The new sciences have facilitated our move into a new geological era, the Anthropocene where our use of all the new technology (science in action) is changing the worldly context in which we evolved and require for life. Part of the reason for this is the emergence of the wonderful micro-disciplines that Christakis extols. None has the capability of seeing the whole system which the new sciences impact. By becoming ever more reductionist, the production of unwanted and untoward unintended consequences grows and grows. Almost everything, maybe even everything, we lump into unsustainability follows from the failure of the theoretical knowledge produced by scientists and applied by engineers to represent the real systems that form the context for their knowledge-in-practice.

It takes a good, old-fashioned social scientist to point this out. The more old-fashioned the better because these fields grew out of looking at systems in situ, not in the laboratory. Today, new sub-disciplines are creeping into academia, but not near the rate of the natural sciences. Christakis has an explanation for this slow pace.

One reason citizens, politicians and university donors sometimes lack confidence in the social sciences is that social scientists too often miss the chance to declare victory and move on to new frontiers. Like natural scientists, they should be able to say, “We have figured this topic out to a reasonable degree of certainty, and we are now moving our attention to more exciting areas.” But they do not.

If social scientists would ever be able to do as he says, that is, to claim sufficient certainty to call a halt to their work and move on, we would be in a very bad place. Unlike the worlds of natural sciences that look at a relatively unchanging context, the social world is never the same from one moment to the next. Even about 2500 years ago, Heraclitus knew this, writing, “You could not step twice into the same river.” No “scientist” could make much headway if the topics they study were like the incessant mobile river of Heraclitus. They would be able to make some statements about the expected value and degree of uncertainty of the condition at any time, but could not paint an exact picture.

Social systems are much more like rivers than cells and semiconductors. (At the quantum level semiconductors exhibit uncertain behavior, but not at the macro-level that makes iPads possible.) And because of this, the disciplinary fields that work to explain social systems and the individual human actors that constitute them are perforce broad in scope. If we are to ever understand why the world is in bad shape and getting worse, only the social scientists will be able to unravel the complexity of real systems. One reason for the present condition of Planet Earth is that people like Christakis have done much to delegitimate these fields relative to the natural sciences. Economics, which once tried to explain whole systems, is moving more and more towards a trying to be a natural science, just like physics. It’s a mistake because the humans they study are like rivers, never the same from moment to moment. What I learn today changes the context out of which I behave tomorrow.

What we need to cope with the complexity of today’s crowded and stressed world is systems thinkers, not people who see the world through soda straws. We may not have a new smart phone every six months, but perhaps, the atmosphere won’t heat up so fast. Natural scientists will never find the secret of flourishing. I’m not sure that social scientists will, but I would much rather have them working on the problem.

Can Frankenfood Save the Earth



If the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything in the world looks like a nail (to be banged into something). If the scope expands and all you have is a complicated technological system, than the world looks like a lots of problems waiting for you. That’s my quick appraisal of a provocative article that appeared in Yale Environment 360.

The author, Fred Pearce, reports on the evolution of a group, claiming to save the environment through technology. His article is entitled, “New Green Vision: Technology As Our Planet’s Last Best Hope.” Here’s the abstract from the Yale on-line magazine.

The concept of ecological modernism, which sees technology as the key to solving big environmental problems, is gaining adherents and getting a lot of buzz these days. While mainstream conservationists may be put off by some of the new movement’s tenets, they cannot afford to ignore the issues it is raising.

The article pits classic environmentalists, represented by Rachel Carson, against environmental modernists who would trigger an era of Schumpetarian “creative destruction.”

Schumpeter’s ideas are a kind of economists’ version of the biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s take on evolution as happening mostly in transformational leaps, which he called punctuated equilibrium, rather than through gradual, incremental change. Of course, the modernists see green technologies as the game-changers of the 21st century. In their view, all the planet needs is eco-versions of Steve Jobs… . Martin Lewis of Stanford University, a prominent environmental modernist, calls for the “de-ecologization of our material welfare.” Environmentalism has been taken over by “Arcadian sentiment” and has “become its own antithesis,” he says. “Only technology can save nature.”

These folks want to lock us up in a world disconnected from whatever “nature” is called in the future. Then the mad scientists can recreate the extinct creatures that once roamed the earth by using modern genetic engineering. I just viewed the film, Young Frankenstein, and am reminded of the limits of science and technology. What’s gone is gone. The promise of Jesse Ausubel’s “great restoration” where bison will roam across the American West and wolves overrun Europe or Stuart Brand’s notion of recreating passenger pigeons is just as Arcadian a dream as is that of the mainstream environmentalists they dis.

The modernist approach to conservation is to seek out technological substitutes for crops. We should, they say, give up cotton in favor of polyester or whatever else the chemists can come up with to clothe us. We should turn our noses up at wild fish and embrace aquaculture instead. Farmers should discard organic fertilizer in favor of chemicals.

You really should read the whole article to get the full thrust of the hubris of those who proclaim the death of environmentalism. Pearce does note that technology both giveth and taketh away. A point lost on the environmental modernist. Technology is, indeed, a wonderful thing. I spent eight years at MIT becoming an engineer and for a while thought I could do exactly what the modernists claim. But then I ventured out into life away from the academic cloisters where many of these folks have spent their entire adult lives. Lo and behold, the world turns out to be more complex than the machine that this movement, if that is what it is, thinks it is or fails to accept.

In many ways, the very condition these folks want to cure, unsustainability or some other descriptor that carries the same picture of how we have messed up the Earth, can be traced back to the uncritical, perhaps, addictive use of technology to solve problems it has created or at least can be seen as the proximate cause. But it never the whole cause. Technology is never far from people and its outcomes depends on the combination of human agency and the technical power of the devices and systems they employ.

Perhaps the so-called Arcadian environmentalists referred to in the article do not have the whole story right, but they have enough right not to be so easily dismissed. Humans evolved surrounded by nature (descriptive use, not expressing some value). Our cognitive system has parts that developed out of our interrelationship and experience. I interpret the essence of the environmental modernists as putting human settlements in a bubble from which we can look out through a window on what used to be called nature or environment, but now is only something we view like pictures at a museum. It’s we against them. Somehow I think our humanity will become lost as we become even more modern that we are.

Institutional Blindness



An extract from a the NYTimes article:

WASHINGTON — China’s growth has slowed significantly in recent months. But even its current pace of expansion may not be sustainable, the International Monetary Fund warned on Wednesday, unless China starts making significant and systemic economic changes — and soon. . . “A decisive shift toward a more consumption-based growth path has yet to occur,” the I.M.F. said. “Accelerating the transformation of the growth model remains the main priority.”

Life in China has historically, like many poor countries, been difficult, but is this the way to alleviate it? Continuous grown is not only not sustainable, but it is a primary cause of unsustainability. Ask those living in Beijing about the air they breathe.

Taking the First Step

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first step

Since my book has come out, I have had many readers ask me what can they do about reversing the present trends and put us on the road to flourishing. This is a very tough, but telling, question because the causes lie deep in the unconsciousness of our collective culture and of everyone. We are all part of a complex system whose response to human activities is far from predictable as is the case in any truly complex system.

Here’s my immediate response. Do not continue to apply technological and technocratic solutions based on scientific knowledge. While science can unscramble parts and pieces of the complex world, it always leaves out critical knowledge, knowledge that without which we get the unintended consequences that are plaguing us today. There is nothing new in this statement except to acknowledge that these undesired effects are becoming so great as to threaten the health of the Earth.

I have argued that the cause of our concern is our cultural addiction to two beliefs. One is that the Earth is a machine that we can know sufficiently well to manage it for our human desires. No, as I just said, it is a complex system that will stymie our efforts to control it. The second is our belief that humans operate by fulfilling an insatiable set of wants, creating a secondary, derivative addiction that shows up as hyperconsumption requiring more resources than the Earth can provide with obvious eventual consequences. Some, such as global climate change, are already becoming present.

The causes are addictions, that is, repeated actions using the same “solution” that appears to alleviate the immediate problem symptoms, but 1) fails to address its roots so that the same problem reoccurs, and 2) produces deleterious unintended consequences. Not just side effects, the popular word for unintended consequences that are presumed to be insignificant. These unintended consequences are just as much a response to the “solution” as is the primary response. They are not marginal, insignificant, or “side” at all.

We fall back on science-derived solutions for virtually all of our societal problems. Economists and political scientists, using their “scientific” knowledge, design our political economy and tinker with it when it goes awry, as it did in 2008. It still is not doing what it should if one thinks that unemployment and inequality are outcomes that need to be done away with. Geo-engineering will be the solution to global warming say many engineers. Gene therapy will alleviate or cure many of our dreaded diseases. We tout consumption as the cure for our flagging economy and as the way to human well-being. We measure the health of the economy by how much consumption has occurred. More consumption does not make the problems go away, either to the society or to the individuals that constitute it, but somehow we keep doing the same thing over and over again, with only temporary or no relief. This behavior fits the classic definition of addiction. Both planet and people suffer the unintended consequences.

Breaking addictive habits is very difficult. Rehab can start only after the addict admits to and acknowledges the addiction. Individual consumers can voice their self-knowledge if they become committed to break the habit. This is the first step: necessary, but insufficient. Societal addiction is very much harder to address. The same first step is critical, but who is the voice analogous to the awakened individual? The scientific, machine cosmology is deeply embedded in all primary institutions that make up the modern world: education, business, government policy-makers and even in capitalism and the free market structure. Somebody of authority representing all of these institutions will have to stand up and admit that they and the institution itself are addicted to a set of beliefs that are failing to cope effectively with the worldly context of the present.

This is the essential first step—acknowledgement of the failure of the current beliefs. Ironically, this is how Thomas Kuhn has successfully argued that science proceeds from one paradigm (set of beliefs and ensuing institutions) to a new one. Some scientist admits, perhaps only to him- or herself, that the present beliefs cannot explain the world, and replaces the fruitless pursuit of knowledge with one springing from a new and different fundamental belief. This belief becomes the foundation of a new paradigm, but only after the creator of the new ideas is able to convince the established institutional powers of its practical effectiveness. Franklin Roosevelt and his team knew that the old and “true” ways to runs an economy were the cause of the disaster they faced. They invented many new beliefs, and discovered which worked only by observing the practical results. But must we wait until the world collapses as it did effectively in the 1930s. It came very close in 2008, but not to the extent that public authority figures were willing to give up the old beliefs. They merely tinkered with the old “machine.”

So in answer to those who ask me, What’s next?”, I say, “Admit we are acting in an addictive pattern,” or simply, “I am a belief addict.” Only then, can we individually and collectively start to search for new beliefs that work. I do think I can offer alternatives to the beliefs driving the present addiction. There are just two. One is we turn to a model of complexity, not reductionist complicatedness, to describe the world. The other is that humans are caring, not needing creatures. Like Roosevelt and his crew of pragmatists, we can determine their validity only if we put them into play and watch what happens. So that completes my answer to those who ask what to do about the mess out there. Admit you are addicted to your deep-seated beliefs and try operating on the basis of complexity and care. Try caring first. I am quite confident you will like the results.

Mindfulness and Care



I hope you don’t give up on this blog. There is just too much going on to keep blogging on a schedule. There are too many ways to enjoy the summer, which has finally showed up in Maine after a week of pretty constant rain. I was inspired today by an article in the NYTines Sunday review section, entitled, “The Morality of Meditation,” by David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston.

The title is a bit misleading. It’s more about the impact of meditation on acting empathetically than about morals. The example used to relate meditation to enhanced empathetic behavior is an experiment where the behavior of a set of subjects who have practiced meditation for only a short time is compared to a control group that has not done any meditation. The researchers found that the meditators sitting in a chair amid two others (part of the experiment) get up and offer their chair to a disabled person entering the room far more than those that did not meditate. The two in on the game stay in their chairs to increase the “moral” pressure of the experimental subject.

What I found very interesting was the possible explanations offered by the author.

Although we don’t yet know why meditation has this effect, one of two explanations seems likely. The first rests on meditation’s documented ability to enhance attention, which might in turn increase the odds of noticing someone in pain (as opposed to being lost in one’s own thoughts). My favored explanation, though, derives from a different aspect of meditation: its ability to foster a view that all beings are interconnected. The psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo and I have found that any marker of affiliation between two people, even something as subtle as tapping their hands together in synchrony, causes them to feel more compassion for each other when distressed. The increased compassion of meditators, then, might stem directly from meditation’s ability to dissolve the artificial social distinctions — ethnicity, religion, ideology and the like — that divide us. (my emphasis added)

I believe that this explanation can be given to intentional activities other than meditation. Let me extend their arguments to mindfulness, in general, which I define as a consciousness of a world of many interconnected images, rather than a focus on a single or small set of images. I am using images as the metaphor for the mental patterns we produce in the cognitive system, pursuant to the work of Antonio Damasio and others.

I have written quite a few blogs about my experience as a Fellow of the Fowler Center at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case-Western University on a project to investigate the role of spirituality in creating interest in and commitment to sustainability-as-flourishing. Meditation was one of many spiritual practices that our group examined.

The most difficult part of our work, which lasted a little over a year and will be published later this year as a book written by the team, was to settle on what we meant by spirituality. It was critical that we come to some way of talking about it that would not be confused with religion or seen as some New Age fad. I had been thinking about spirituality for some time as I included it as one of the categories of care that, in my work, is the constitutive feature of human being. In my earlier work, I placed spirituality in the domain to taking care of self, along with subsistence, leisure, learning, and authenticity. Partly out of work with the Fowler group and partly because spirituality never fit comfortably alongside these other categories. I realized that spirituality or transcendence referred to a domain of consciousness distinct from those arising out of the material world and the action of human senses. Spiritual experiences and actions motivated by them may relate to material objects, but, in such cases, the objects are but symbols for something unworldly.

What, then was creating the actions of an actor in this domain? The object was not the target in the same sense as oneself or other beings, so the connection itself must be the motivating force underpinning the action. My route to this conclusion is primarily philosophical, and, even more specifically, phenomenological. So, I am delighted to read that this conclusion has been arrived at in scientific investigations. In any case, the importance to flourishing is that any sense of interconnectedness can be logically tied to care. Our cognitive system is constructed such that we respond to any and all perturbations from both inner and external sources. We do this to maintain the integrity of our whole organism. If we fail to respond in a way that does this, we risk being unable to survive.

Care as it appears in this ontological construction of human being is not the affective caring of Love Story or the myriad of sentimental tales that make up the bulk of literature. The ontological, not the psychological, sense of care is rare in that literature. It refers to the attention we place on the world we perceive through our senses and that coming from internal sources that trigger parts of our brains separate from those tied to the perceptual regions. Attention, itself, is a kind of care, and may trigger further cognitive processes ending up as physiological movements. Care is the name I give to the overall process of perturbing the brain, bringing something to our conscious attention and consequently acting. The specific action we take may reflect our emotional state, past experience, and the immediate state of our cognitive system, and so is more or less unpredictable, but any such action is a caring action.

Insofar as our neuronal structures include experiences of interconnectedness, our actions may reflect some intention to act in a way to acknowledge their existence. Further, depending on our emotional state as reflected in our body, our acts toward what we perceive may be empathetic or not. But if we develop a sense of interconnectedness in a positive sense, then we are much more likely to act in an empathetic way, defined as having a sense of what the target of our actions needs to survive or prosper at that moment. Without such a sense of interconnectedness, we have no reason to consider the state of the other in whatever (caring) action we take.

Spirituality, defined as a domain of care directed toward images that appear in our consciousness without apparent connection to our senses, has a meta relationship to the other three domains (refer to the diagram in a recent post). Actions in this domain, which we may call spiritual practices, create a broad consciousness of interconnectedness as contrasted with the explicit ties to the beings that constitute work, family, world, etc. Such a sense is essential to reverse the damage that has been done to the Earth and its inhabitants by our lack of care. Flourishing depends on such a consciousness and an accompanying sense that one can assess that he or she has taken care of all domains, at least for the moment. Spirituality and its practices must be part of the mainstream if we are to flourish.