Monday, December 11, 2006

Small Groups Needed to Solve Problems in Science and Society

Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

But where are these small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens confronting the really large problems facing science and society in the 21st Century: climate change, loss of biodiversity, diminished natural resources and the challenges of sustainable development in a shrinking, hungry planet, to name a few?

Although such small groups are constantly forming around us, and many of them are fully engaged on parts of the puzzle, somehow, with respect to these systemic problems as a whole, they fail to coalesce, gain traction and drive change.  Why?

With this class of problems at the intersection of science and society, government and business, economics, politics, culture and religion, their failure is, at least in part, due to the problems themselves:  they are very deep, very complex and very broad.  A single-issue approach based on simple cause and effect models are highly effective at solving some problems—but not these.  These are systemic problems, a vast web of feedback loops and reciprocal cause and effect relationships that stubbornly resist change. Systemic problems require systemic solutions, multiple disciplines, integrated components and progress on multiple fronts at the same time:  a deep subject understanding in science and technology in addition to the social sciences and humanities and a huge array of "commercial" skills such as planning and management, marketing, finance, communications and media, operations, business development and partnering to name a few.

Small groups lack the breadth or depth to address such systemic issues; and large groups aren't any more effective.  Because this is a systemic problem with profound technical and social dimensions, neither small groups nor large institutions can make progress alone:  it is necessary to engage many distinct groups in our society in an extended dialogue to agree on the nature and scope of the problems and an approach to resolving them.  Small groups working on problems of this magnitude must work indirectly by forming partnerships with other groups, both small and large.

But perhaps the largest obstacle to collaboration and progress on these pressing systemic issues is our popular culture itself, which has become increasingly fragmented, and, even among the most educated segments, increasingly hostile to science and technology.  We no longer use science as a common lens through which we collectively study and understand our real world, analyze real problems, and assess real alternative solutions. Science and technology have been more than just a theme in the History of what has been called the American Century.  Science and technology have provided the social and ideological framework for American collaboration and innovation from Civil War to the Cold War.  From our emergence as a world power in WWI, to decisive victories over our ideological and totalitarian enemies in WWII and the Cold War, from Mark Twain to Harry Truman Americans have insisted, "Show me," and trusted their own powers of observation, experimental evidence, rational thought and argument and bold plans consisting of practical, incremental steps.

What happened? We have witnessed the triumph of faith, party and ideology over evidence.  Derailed by post-modern thought, political correctness and the isolation and arrogance of science itself, science has become an ideology, a matter of faith, a point of view functionally and morally equivalent with all the others.  As such, it can no longer serve as a lense or framework for collaborative innovation on big problems, huge problems, matters of critical importance affecting billions of humans and our relationship with Nature itself.

What can we do about it?  How can a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens affect change now?  We need to look for ways to foster, encourage, support and facilitate a dialogue between scientists and a wary public.  We need tools for engagement.  We also need channels for authentic scientific voices, not public relations, not promotional collateral, not more 'benefits' for consumers but honest, first-person accounts of how we know what we know.  We need channels where we can be informed as citizens who are expected to participate in a public process of making decisions and holding our leaders accountable.  And we need channels where we can be inspired as human beings, curious about our natural world and how it works.  And finally, we need to solve problems that arise in the development of these resources: a platform for collaborative innovation and problem-solving between science and society.

The time is right for a small groups with the right make-up to act as a catalyst, bring together other like-minded, creative individuals and small groups, and begin to work on a loose set of tools for engagement,  a channel for how we know what we know, and a platform for collaborative innovation and problem-solving between science and society.

COMMENTS from the original blog

2007-03-18 13:01:38 rgraff
This essay is right on point
This essay is right on point for an issue I'm dealing with right now.  There is a group in Philadelphia with a mission of reducing energy use in buildings.  To my way of thinking, such a group should at the outset carry out an analysis of where energy is used in buildings, what the cost ($$ and political) would be to reduce energy use for different types of buildings and different types of uses (e.g., residential heating, industrial cooling), and then develop programs to address the most cost-effective areas. Instead, the group has decided to have a three-day retreat to reach a "common ground" understanding of the issue (see for a description of the proposed approach).

My resistance to this approach is that the issue of energy use in building in Philadelphia is one that at the outset requires a scientific approach, not a "visioning" approach.

1 comment:

  1. I'm reposting and rereading your comment, Robert, seven years later. What do you think now?