Seeing Eye to Eye

Consider this burning farmhouse in Zimbabwe. It belongs to Ben Freeth, a farmer who’s recent life and times would take the edge of the slings and arrows that might be disturbing our own sense of personal harmony. You think you’ve got it bad!

There are various reports of the events that led to the burning of the Freeth homestead; some dry and matter-of-fact and others that paint a picture of an icon of the end-days of a civilisation in terminal decline. Some reports also show Freeth with his head bandaged. He and his family were recently abducted and beaten by those who believe there should be no white farmers left in Zimbabwe. It’s not a pleasant picture.

Without digging into the rights and wrongs of what’s happened there, Zimbabwe now is clearly a picture of the despair of dislocated, severely incompatible world views in terminal collision. It’s all along the lines of the Lord of the Flies. When different people see different things, and fail to even begin to see how and what it is that others see, you end up with situations that can spin wildly out of control. Just like in Zimbabwe, or at the root of any war.

Clearly, if by some magical transformation of psychology, farmer Freeth could transform the minds of all those who assail him to see and and to know exactly as he sees and knows, his immediate anxieties would cease. Or, if by some horrendous experiment in mind control, we had all been completely inculcated into the world views of Pol Pot or Hitler (as so many had), there’d have been less opposition to those tyrant’s plans. The point being that diversity of point-of-view is both the source and solution to power plays that get out of hand.

We all see things differently; sometimes dramatically, sometimes via subtle shades of grey. Those shades are layered via the experiences we have, genetic predisposition, social influence, or perhaps through being abducted by aliens. Whatever the source, our minds are a nightmare collage of upturned perceptual paint pots fused into blots of outrageous tonal complexity. If you want to follow that thought, give the insights of Hans Georg Gadamer a run.

If you want to understand how any particular crisis arose, to dig into the controversies that give us pain, or to simply become more informed about any issue with which you are involved, you need to dig into the minds of those with whom we are at odds.

I am perpetually amazed at the refusal of people to recognise the simple fact that different people see things in different ways. In academic, scientific or deep-policy circles, all this translates to the multiplicity of ‘paradigms’ that might apply to tell different stories about situations we might be seeking to control. I am perpetually stunned that so many ‘good scientists’ working on noble causes – like the causes of and prospects for global warming – refuse to take any interest in that ‘psychological’ side of things. They would generally know about the co-existence of paradigms that might not be quite the same as their own. But their usual interest stops precisely there. I am stunned that we can have slings and arrows of invective thrown through the medium of the media or through the ‘learned press’; without the parties ever conceding that there might possibly be multiple ‘truths’ to the situations they contest. Truths are defined within these paradigms. A truth constructed within one paradigm might be a fallacy from within the construct of another. What you might see as false might be a truth to someone else. Both contestants are arguing entirely up the wrong tree! The argument is not about the truth they each see; its over these different ways of seeing the ‘facts’. The pathway to resolution is within the layout of the stones each camp erects as a pyramid to the beliefs they each hold. We need to do some archeology of the mind to understand what’s really going on.

But, despite the fact that few if anyone would deny that different people see things in different ways, how many contestants to any debate ever bother to dig down to these fundamental layers to understand the true nature of their debate?

I’ve witnessed intelligent, informed scientists debating like hissing-spitting children in pre-school playgrounds. I’ve witnessed entire professional careers destroyed by those whose empowerment privileges their own view over the views others might hold. I can certainly attest to that; my own career as a transdisciplinary ecological economist was destroyed by the scientific myopia of un-reflexive bureaucrats entrenched through far too much power.

It almost seems that some people simply love the excitement of shouting their point of view. It almost seems that they simply don’t want to hear. It seems that they just want to hear their own voice.

When it comes to issues like the conflagration of an entire community like Zimbabwe, or the conflagration of the planet through the machinations of global warming, you’d be thinking it might be worthwhile to devote at least some time to really getting down to understand what’s really going on… Rather than to continue on with the blinkered shouting and screaming between those who occupy different squares on the war-game that climate change has become.

But no! Even in such high profile efforts as the Stern Review, there’s never any genuine discussion or consideration of the fundamental need to understand contested points of view. There’s only ever a claim for the ascendency of one view – a compressed ‘consensus view’ shaped by the hair net of selective perspectives – without the systematic de-construction of any other views that might prevail. One adjudicated, ultimately privileged view is claimed. The others are appendixed off into the crowd of the fringe. Dutifully noted, maybe, but relegated all the same. Contrary arguments are arguments from beyond the sanctum of the ‘peers’. They are arguments with nothing to contribute. All that’s at least implicit when you claim the ascendency of one viewpoint over all others. Our experts listen only to the music of their peers. How, then, do they ever explore the possibilities of lateral thinking and ideas that might transcend from the realm of heresy to the realm of the mainstream?

Remember Galileo Galilei? Remember one-size-fits all medicine bags filled with nothing but leeches?

I expect more from folk who are paid by the pound of their intelligence. I expect more from those who are paid to contribute to intellectual debate: our academics, public sector scientists and leaders. I expect a vastly greater degree of intellectual maturity; a preparedness if not a devotion to the challenges of understanding – really understanding – different points of view. I do not respect those who simply assert their views by shouting, or by privileging their positions with power. The rejection of insight from the fringes is simply cowardice or evidence of insufficient intellectual depth; or both.

The Australian Prime Minister was busy suggesting, just this month, that he is sick of climate change deniers. He’s going to declare war against them! The implication is that their views are now to be taken as heresy. Invalid. That’s substandard leadership at its managerialist worst. It’s embarrassing.

Rather, what I would prefer to hear, is that ‘leadership’ is now intent to hold deliberative discourse to debate contrary points of view to depths not considered before. I want to hear of an intent to initiate a forum of a deeper, more reflexive, shared learning kind; not for yet more public deliberation shaped on the model of expert panels and judicial arbitration. The worst case outcome from genuinely insightful, levelled-playing field, discursively accommodating deliberation would be improved understanding of the deeply-seated axioms – the very epistemological foundations – for these discursive perspectives. (Any scientist, politician or bureaucrat adviser who does not know what ‘epistemology’ means should, seriously, be sacked). Thus far, all debates concerning ‘climate change’ have been (implicitly or explicitly) conducted through hierarchically- and perspective-privileged ‘expert’ review. I do not accept that the ‘hearing of evidence from diverse points of view’ by the various and numerous ‘climate change expert panels’ we’ve seen so far have taken my recommended path. They have all been conducted as ‘enquiries’ for the adjudication of expert elites. The process of delivering insights for expert panel deliberation is not a debate shaped by the prospect for maximum learning. It’s a process more akin to the hearing of evidence in court. The learning is all one-way and increasingly filtered on its journey to the ears of politicians and those who shape policy.

There are ways and means through which fundamental debate (or debate into the fundamentals of different perspectives) can take place. The key is talented and highly systematic facilitation. Read John Dryzek, John Forester or James Bohman for some clues. Read Peter Senge’s latest text (The Necessary Revolution) for some context. There is no excuse for ignorance of the insights these authors provide. But ignorance is in plenitude. I blame those bureaucracies charged with advising our political leaders for their abject ignorance. It is not good enough for them to re-play the same game the Church played at the time of Galileo Galilei. (Yes, we did ‘get there in the end’, with respect to understanding the earth’s revolution around the sun. But the journey was a blood bath and took way way too long as a model for dealing with a crisis like global warming).

It’s time for the character of the current climate change debate to rise above the level of a scrum in a pre-school playground. We need to take a wrecker’s ball to the silos of the ‘establishments of experts’ that currently blights the ascendency of knowledge. It’s time for the human race to progress from the illiteracy of closeted expert-driven autocracy. It’s time for an age where the very concept of ‘experts’ becomes a quaint reminder of our partial-reductionist, managerialist past. We should, as I recommended in my previous post, incite a very necessary sea change for the climate change debate.

Roderic Gill holds a PhD. in Ecological Economics from the University of New England where he is also currently an Adjunct Professor. He has supervised over 18 PhD theses that have dealt, both directly and indirectly, with the issues discussed above. He has a strong interest in the capacity of internet-based collaborative learning as the foundation for ‘dealing with’ fundamentally complex environmental issues.

A Sea Change for Climate

The Great Climate Change Debate is an exercise in the management of chaos. Or, if you like, is a process akin to the herding of cats. It has all the classic symptoms, including an ever-unfolding cascade of incomplete and always non-definitive science through which to explain what’s going on. Just like chaos, the more we look the more we find to look at. There’s debate across the scientific fleet. And not all the players are identified. Just like chaos, there are dimensions wrapped around dimensions of knowledge that sometimes mix, and othertimes don’t. This is not a game that a single expert can control; because it’s a game way way beyond the understandings of any one area of expertise. But the game’s being played just like these games are always played; the old battleship fleet of expert committees and report-writing under an hierarchically-organised pecking order of authority forged in the market places of disciplinarily-exclusive, self-referentialised peer review. The machinery in charge of the whole shebang is a machinery more suited to the administration of trains.

Climate Change is wild horse with an agenda of its own. Predictions might guess the next move, or maybe not. This horse has a mind of its own.

I have attended many meetings and been introduced to much in the way of ‘cutting-edge’ scientific research concerning the directions of Climate Change. I have even written an official report recommending how at least one core government agency should organise itself around the issues involved. But the unsinkable Titanic is still in search of icebergs. The floundering ship of state is loosing the debate.

Why? Because the culture of response we are busy applying is simply out of tune to the nature of the issues at hand. The machinery we are applying to this writhing nest of issues wrapped by the logo of Climate Change, is machinery of entirely the wrong sort. Or, putting it another way, every aspect of the controversies and anxieties we now see are an entirely inevitable outcome of trying to pretend that Climate Change will respond to the methods we are now applying to its control.

This front page feature in the Australian newspaper is a flag worthy of deep reflection. It’s a siren call to suggest the need for a fundamental restructure of our way of seeing and of our way of dealing with all the issues correlated around the challenges of Climate Change.

Basically, the story flags the failure of science to retain control. The article flags a groundswell of public (community) sentiment that’s now pretty easy to find. The ‘folk’ are ever harder to impress with the magnitude of the ‘scientific facts’. The ‘folk’ are becoming like a herd of cats.

The premise of the current ‘debate’ is pretty simple: Science tells us that anthropogenic (human caused or at least, human-influenced) climate change, is a fact. We, the rest of the world, need to change our game. The experts have forged these facts through the black boxes of their expertise. The experts have organised their evidence in the usual way. Hierarchies of expertise have been erected through the scaffolding of inner-sanctum peer review. ‘Scientific Consensus’ on the issues at hand has been distilled and delivered through the best tradition of Scientific Objectivism (and even Positivism – to ensure the pyramid holds up on the broadest possible foundation). The machinery of Science (‘Good Science’) has delivered its ‘results’ (or at least its progress reports). The expected result should be an ensuing catalysation of profound change. The button has been pushed and the folk should respond. But they are not. Something else has hijacked the Scientific Establishment’s best intentions to guide the trains of state.

Now, the ‘folk’ are beginning to doubt. Worse, they are beginning to snigger. Just like this piece on the front page of the Australian newspaper. This ‘old codger’ with 80 years of connection to his local beach, has seen no rise in sea levels. He stands defiantly (in his swimming togs) to suggest, by implication, that the boffins have got it all wrong! It’s even worse. Consider the imagery here. Here he stands, a man of undefined expertise, challenging the mighty machinery of scientific expertise, without even the armour of clothes! Here he stands, near naked and defiant. That’s how tenuous the scientific community’s credibility has become, with even the most unassuming constituency of the community marketplace.

Has the Scientific Establishment now reverted to a mumbling crowd of misunderstood experts despairing that the world no longer listens? It doesn’t help that the divisions of view and dissension from the tail ends of the Scientific Community’s consensus bell curve are frequently aired in public; and held to suggest that there really is no consensus at all. Indeed, the bell curve is now pretty stretched. Community dissenters can pick and choose from any outlying scientific viewpoint that best meets their particular self-interested needs. The Oil Industry can pick customised scientific colours to recommend their own agenda of business as usual – and forever. Coal fired power generators have customised science on tap. The automobile industry plays the game of ‘gaps’. They look for holes in the Scientific Debate to recommend a refocus on jobs-jobs-jobs, instead (which really translates to profits and cash flow). Farmers, fishermen and the airlines are all playing the same game. That bell curve of scientific facts is being squashed to a parallel bar. The Scientific Establishment is eating itself. And, as the establishment of objectivism falls or fails, the ball passes to that usual crowd. The ball has now been passed to the politicians for resolution. That’s the agenda for the Great Debate in Copenhagen in December this year.

When I first tinkered with economics as an undergraduate lecturer, we all used to tell our students that ‘economics can only go so far’. At the end of the day, we’d say, when we have delivered the ‘facts’, if there are controversies of welfare to resolve, that’s the job for politicians. Not us. The best we can do is estimate the benefits and costs. It’s up to the politicians to decide what’s best from a social point of view. I always noted that this rather astounding ‘cop out’ was most readily accepted by economics-major students. But half my students were from science. My science-major audience always found that particular stance harder to accept. They’d been weaned on the harder core of Scientific Objectivism: we are there to consider and deliver the facts. Facts are facts and facts should rule the debate. The culture of ‘Expert-Driven Systems’ was the religion to which they were tuned.

It’s this culture of Expert-Systems thinking that is the core issue at stake. So far, the character of most of the debate, rhetoric and governance of Climate Change has been shaped by the culture of Expert-Systems thinking. There are facts out there to find. We shall find them. We shall deliver them. And that is the best we can do. Believe in our black boxes! We are the experts!

But consider this gentleman featured on the front page of our only national newspaper. Does he appear to be conforming to the expectations of the Expert-Systems culture of scientific persuasion? Does the newfound Cargo Cult stature of the Copenhagen conference suggest that Scientific Opinion now rules the debate? Aren’t we all, now, standing wrapped, heads raised, hoping for the manna of solutions to be delivered when our political heads meet to debate? It’s a dead-end process with which we are all now engaged. The best to come from the ‘failure of science to convince’ reasserted surge of political empowerment will be some essentially worthless spin. The best we can expect is some carefully worded statements flatulent with meaningless ‘targets’ and empty statements of intent.

Really, there are two pathways left. If there is any truth at all to the predictions of ecological catastrophe to come, path one is a cascade of extinctions and, ultimately, the extinction of all life on Earth. Path two would be to reconfigure the culture through which we will subsequently deal with the issues at hand.

Essentially, the Expert-Systems model is no good. It’s a worthless setting through which to explore and deal with issues as deeply complex as Climate Change. While I probably should establish this contention of complexity more formally than I have thus far, suffice it to say, for the purposes of this discussion, Climate Change is a perfect icon for complexity, if not chaos. The issues are astoundingly broad and transdisciplinary in scope. They are dynamic, emergent, and frequently beyond the resolution of any one’s model (model of understanding or model in a mathematical sense). We can never know it all, or predict with any degree of precision. The more we look, the more we find. We will never, ever, reach the destination of complete understanding. So stop bothering to try. That’s the nature of complexity science. That’s the science that matters here.

If there’s one thing we should have learned from our experiences with the contemporary phenomenon of internet-based ‘social networking’, it’s the power of collective engagement as a model for culture shifting change. Crowd sourcing, discursive democracy, deliberative participative process; call it what you will. When the facility of focused collective engagement is purposefully deployed, change happens of a rather definitive kind.

My thesis is relatively simple. The overwhelming confusions of the Climate Change Debate are beyond the capacities of expert process to reconcile. So, rather than continue on our current course to simplify and fantasise about definitive answers and courses of action, embrace the exact opposite. Embrace the astounding discursive breadth of the debate instead. Embrace difference, embrace perspectives not our own. Dig into viewpoints other than your own. Explore the thinking behind and underneath the outlying points of view. It’s only when we embrace differences of this kind that real collective learning can begin. Break open the black boxes of expert points of view. Air the assumptions and axioms that drive the points of view we each hold. Expose them for open-review. That’s the best way to articulate our own convictions and at least understand the convictions of others.

I keep on talking about the need for internet-based gateways. I am convinced that we need portals through which to facilitate the conversations we need to have. Without devices such as this, the field is simply too messy to comprehend. We need to organise our breadth of ‘knowing’ through the machinery of fundamentally interactive exchange. The internet provides the capacity for at least some of the infrastructure of this kind.

I am not advocating endless open-ended debate. I am advocating a clearing house and communicative highway through which to present and open our various understanding of the issues at hand and through which to outline plans through which we should proceed. We need to adopt a culture of ‘proceeding as though we are wrong’. We simply need to proceed. We need to proceed now. But we don’t yet have all the facts. We will never have all the facts. We will probably never even have half of the facts. But we still need to proceed. If we know and accept the vulnerabilities of our expertise, we can proceed with necessary humility and caution. If we share our stories and our experiences as we proceed, well facilitated open-communicative engagement can spark a ‘collective brain’ of a vastly more enlightened kind than any single discipline could ever apply. Facilitation is the key. The communication we need needs to be purposefully facilitated by people who know what they are doing Not just by simply building a web site or two! Or through holding a conference of ‘world leaders’ in Copenhagen.

After we have re-engineered our culture down to a degree that admits humility and less than perfect omniscience-in-all-things, we can proceed with an ‘eyes-wide-open’ collaborative approach. If we assume the possibilities that we might actually have some of our facts all wrong, we’d be tuned to finding those errors along the way. Errors are OK! They are a symptom of learning and learning is what we really need to be doing. And, best of all, if we do open the doors to more collective engagement on issues of this kind, we get a higher degree of collective ownership of the understandings we apply and of the pathways we choose to travel. The absence of collective ownership in relation to the phenomena of climate change is precisely the root cause of the problems we now face. The abject immaturity of the current culture of ‘your fault, not mine’ and ‘not in my backyard’ is the foundation stone for the accumulative disaster of human-influenced Climate Change. We need to deal with the issues at hand from within a culture that’s quite the opposite of that which caused the problems that now have the potential to kill us all.

This story is continued in the next post: Seeing Eye to Eye

Roderic Gill holds a PhD. in Ecological Economics from the University of New England where he is also currently an Adjunct Professor. He has supervised over 18 PhD theses that have dealt, both directly and indirectly, with the issues discussed above. He has a strong interest in the capacity of internet-based collaborative learning as the foundation for ‘dealing with’ fundamentally complex environmental issues.