Ray Ison, Professor in Systems at the UK Open University since 1994, is a member of the Applied Systems Thinking in Practice Group. From 2008-15 he also developed and ran the Systemic Governance Research Program at Monash University, Melbourne. In this blog he reflects on contemporary issues from a systemic perspective.
As some of you may know rhino and elephant poaching are amongst the most complex issues that have to be addressed at this historical moment. Poaching is occurring in contexts of poverty and unsustainable livelihoods for local people and in areas where agricultural and rural development need creative and innovative thinking and practices. This is clearly an arena where those equipped with systems thinking in practice capabilities are needed. This new post has just become available:
The Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation
Science (CBCS), at the University of Queensland in partnership with the
Luc Hoffmann Institute are offering an exciting postdoctoral fellowship
at the interface of science and policy that aims to foster conservation
innovations at the frontier of agricultural development. The successful
appointee will engage with stakeholders and policy-makers to understand
how information on the drivers and threats to biodiversity at different
scales is perceived and used by decision-makers and practitioners to
support innovative conservation solutions.
The position is part of a broader Luc Hoffmann
Institute initiative that involves the Stockholm Environment Centre, the
World Conservation Monitoring Centre and Cambridge Conservation
There will be exciting opportunities to work
across the conservation science and policy interface in collaboration
with leading conservation scientists and practitioners.
The successful applicant will work closely with
myself, Hugh Possingham, James Watson, and Helen Ross at the University
of Queensland and Malika Virah-Sawmy - the Sustainable Consumption and
Production Research Lead at the Luc Hoffmann Institute.
For further information on this position please contact me at email@example.com or Malika at firstname.lastname@example.org - Please note that you can only apply via the online application system and not via email.
Your help in distributing this through your networks is much appreciated.
"The past has not been erased, its erasure has not been forgotten, the
lie has not become truth. But the past of proof is strange and, on its
uncertain future, much in public life turns. In the end, it comes down
to this: the history of truth is cockamamie, and lately it’s been
Implicitly, if not explicitly, within this claim sits the question of what the role of the institution we call a university is within an unfolding 'public life'? Have universities become makers of cockamamie?
If you are reading this post then I invite those of you who are connected with, or concerned about universities and what they are becoming, to reflect on Lepore's examination of the following thought experiment?
"Most of what is written about truth is the work of philosophers, who
explain their ideas by telling little stories about experiments they
conduct in their heads, like the time Descartes tried to convince
himself that he didn’t exist, and found that he couldn’t, thereby
proving that he did. Michael P. Lynch is a philosopher of truth. His
fascinating new book, “The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data,” begins with a thought
experiment: “Imagine a society where smartphones are miniaturized and
hooked directly into a person’s brain.” As thought experiments go, this
one isn’t much of a stretch. (“Eventually, you’ll have an implant,”
Google’s Larry Page has promised, “where if you think about a fact it
will just tell you the answer.”) Now imagine that, after living with
these implants for generations, people grow to rely on them, to know
what they know and forget how people used to learn—by observation,
inquiry, and reason. Then picture this: overnight, an environmental
disaster destroys so much of the planet’s electronic-communications grid
that everyone’s implant crashes. It would be, Lynch says, as if the
whole world had suddenly gone blind. There would be no immediate basis
on which to establish the truth of a fact. No one would really know
anything anymore, because no one would know how to know. I Google,
therefore I am not."
As you sit in your next meeting, or look at the pronouncments that come from University senior management, or strategic planners, consider what 'trajectory commitments' their language reveals. Are they knowingly or not followers of Larry Page, or do they understand what is actually entailed in 'observation, inquiry and reason'? More importantly how is your university, or any university, positioning itself to serve a society that runs the risk of not knowing how to know!
Some in universities might consider that the historical practices of proof construction still play some role in University and academic life:
"In the West, for centuries, trial by combat and trial by ordeal—trial by
fire, say, or trial by water—served both as means of criminal
investigation and as forms of judicial proof."
The profound shift from 'proof through ordeal' to 'proof through deliberation' is entertainingly revealed in the novels of Diana Norman (writing as Ariana Franklin). This shift was one of the more significant institutional innovations of the last 1000 years, though one would not always believe so in the combatative arenas of University funding and decision making where there is an increasing propensity for senior managers to believe they can discern winners and losers in a globalised academic battle for hegemony!
As Lepore notes:
"Between the thirteenth century and the nineteenth, the fact spread from law outward to science, history, and journalism."
To this we might add the creation of universities as arbiters of religious belief and then fact? After all:
"Empiricists believed they had deduced a method by which they could
discover a universe of truth: impartial, verifiable knowledge. But the
movement of judgment from God to man wreaked epistemological havoc. It
made a lot of people nervous, and it turned out that not everyone
thought of it as an improvement."
So to what extent does your university purvey a utilitarian, epistemologically naive, pedagogy, whether by commission, or omission? For example, by priviledging narrowly conceived research at the expense of transformative learning and/or research, because, as Lepore says:
"we no longer take responsibility for our own beliefs, and we lack the
capacity to see how bits of facts fit into a larger whole. Essentially,
we forfeit our reason and, in a republic, our citizenship."
Citing Lynch and Jefferson, Lepore offers insight and possibility for reclaiming purpose in the being and doing of a university:
"He [Lynch] thinks the best defense of reason is a common practical and ethical
commitment. I believe he means popular sovereignty. That, anyway, is
what Alexander Hamilton meant in the Federalist Papers, when he
explained that the United States is an act of empirical inquiry: “It
seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their
conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies
of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from
reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend
for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
I would put it differently: how can we create and re-create the circumstances for the design and enactment of systemic governance so that common practical and ethical commitments (knowing how to know and do) emerge coherant with our circumstances of living in a climate-changing world? And how might universities embrace this imperative as their reason d' etre? Unfortunately these concerns appear largely absent from the recent UK Green Paper (Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, November 2015) critically reviewed by Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books.
N.B. My thanks to David Waltner-Toews for alerting me to the article by Jill Lepore.
It was a rewarding time, as it always is when young researchers are offered a reflexive space to consider what it is they do when they do, or claim they do, research.
Patrick Steyaert and his SAD co-animators have developed an excellent program, worthy of celebration after 10 years. I was also lucky to be able to join in the celebrations held for the retirement of Bernadette Leclerc, a key figure in the program, who I have known since the time she so ably supported the production of our book 'Cow up a Tree', published by INRA.
LEARN. eds (2000) Cow up a Tree. Knowing and Learning for Change in Agriculture. Case
Studies from Industrialised Countries.
INRA (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique) Editions, Paris.