Friday, June 8, 2007

On Corruption

Here's a topic of some interest. I was listening to the film "All the King's Men", a superb film with Sean Penn and a host of good actors about the rise to power and the relationship to corruption that accompanies it, based on the book by Robert Penn Warren. Corruption, as the main character points out, is part of the human condition ... we all, all of us, have a shadow.

The problem is that we function within a society and within communities that refuse to acknowledge this fact. We not only aspire to the ideal of the "good soul", we actually believe it, some of the time, that a person can be "good" and have no shadow. This may be a residual of the Christian mentality, that divides the world into the divine, and evil incarnate, and suggests that people can be fully one or the other. We require of our politicians that they present an image of "goodness" to the public, with no taint of "corruption", and when they fail to do so, as they often do, we "reduce them in rank", or make them "walk the plank".

Societies that have corruption built into officialdom are not the answer, of course. This simply flips the image but leaves it unchanged. Stipulating that all official transactions be corrupt is no better than stipulating that politicians and statesmen are not allowed to have a dark side.

We remember Clinton for his shadow as much as his strengths, and this is viewed as humiliating for him, and a sad fact for everyone else. What if it were something else? What if it were the beginnings of an acknowledgement that even the best of us, those with the most responsability in their hands, of necessity have a dark side. The dark side, by its very nature, is rebellious... it is the part of us that rebels against the rules and the status quo. It is the reason so many people get into trouble over it. Part of who we are does not want to leave the shadow in hiding.

We also confuse the presence of corruption in all forms with a lack of integrity. This is subtle. Corruption is what happens when we are not allowed to acknowledge or accept our own shadow, individually and socially. It seeps out around the edges, under the table, between our legs (literally). It bites us in the backside. As individuals, we may find ourselves in situations where lying, stealing, covering up, and so on become necessary to keep the shadow out of the limelight. This leads us into situations where our integrity becomes compromised, in order to maintain that public image of "cleanliness and godliness".

There is a notion in both Christian traditions, but also in Buddhist, that "right thinking" will keep one out of trouble. But it is more complex than that. "Right thinking" does not mean excluding the shadow, but including it... otherwise, it cannot be effective.

It is perhaps time that we acknowledge the integrity of the self, not by denying the presence of the shadow, and not by sensationalizing it, as does much of modern entertainment, but by accepting and recognizing it explicitly. It is our shadow that provides us with passion and drive and energy to fully engage in the world. To imagine that we can accept these qualities but deny their source within us is not only illusory, it is unhealthy. This is part of moving away from an world of orthodoxy towards a world where paradox is accepted. The more ways we find to acknowledge the shadow in our lives and the lives of others, including, even especially those with responsibility, the less we shall encounter corruption, which is a consequence of denial.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

A Crisis in Science, and A Call for Change

There is a crisis emerging in science, unfolding right at this moment. It is a crisis in funding, but also in organisation.

Essentially, the scientific infrastructure has been organized to the needs of disciplinary science, specialist science, especially that which leads to new technology, whether electronic, biological or other. This way of doing things has been hugely successful in generating technology, but it is under increasing pressure to do more, and the system is beginning to crack along the seams.

Within the social science arena, scholarship has been organized for decades towards a critical stance with regard to the popularity of technology-driven science, a kind of polarized response to the obsessive and overly narrow organisation of the physical and biological sciences.

As indicated in an earlier post, the system has evolved under pressure from within and without towards a much greater multidisciplinary focus. Mixing the disciplines serves innovation but not always technology, however, it most strongly serves a more ecological, whole systems perspective necessary for dealing with the environmental crisis and the changing population demographics.

Funding agencies and universities have adapted to the changing nature of scientific research in a variety of ways. Funding agencies have used the cross-disciplinary focus to increase the numbers of people funded, and have accommodated multidisciplinarity by introducing mixed peer-review committees, but the overall system remains fundamentally grounded in a peer review process. Peer review as-a-process is profoundly disciplinary in focus - it requires that people around the table discussing proposals know enough about the work being proposed to be able to make a reasonable judgement about its overall worth and relevance. This ability is increasingly diminished in the presence of multidisciplinary work - even when members of the disciplines relevant to the work are present, if they have not worked together in similar ways they will not necessary understand the worth of the work proposed. This is causing a breakdown in the system, even though the public discourse covers the problem up with disarming talk about multidisciplinary committees. The system is not working as it is supposed to. The more multidisciplinary and cross-disciplinary one's focus, the less likely one will get a good hearing for what one is proposing.

Universities, likewise, have "bent" the system by creating new departments that are the result of amalgams of older groups of disciplines, but this process has likewise backfired - many of the new disciplines are even more defensive of their "disciplinary territory" as were the older disciplines from which they emerged. The universities are structured along disciplinary lines, and hence true multidisciplinary work lies in the cracks between disciplines. Multidisciplinary work, by its very nature, is paradoxical, and disciplines are orthodoxies. The two do not mix well.

In addition, the public is increasingly demanding that science, on-going, state-of-the-art, actual science, be couched in a language that the broader public can understand and follow. This is especially true in medical science, but a similar push is underway in other areas of research as well. As a general case, the scientific community has no idea how to react to this pressure, except to increase the number of press releases and attempt to make a few documentaries... neither an effective response to the growing demand.

The irony of this complex situation is that funds are drying up for truly innovative work on the margins of modern science, and there is a retrenchment towards a classic disciplinary focus in both universities and funding agencies, even for disciplines that never had a "classical stage"! In Canada, the system is in crisis. In other parts of the world, if the crisis isn't already declared, it soon will be.

In an earlier blog, I also discussed some of the difficulties with the current scientific review process in a multidisciplinary context. Current journal policy requires "adequate" citation of earlier work, but the measurement of "adequate citation" is no longer standard, as it once was within a narrower disciplinary context. Now it depends on who is doing the evaluation, and their reactions are beginning to look like a random field.

The organisation of science, science funding, and science dissemination is due for a major overhaul, past due. It will either stall, or suffer from a massive revolt from within the ranks. Many scientists who have made the jump to a multidisciplinary focus will not go back to a disciplinary one - even if the funding arrangements require this to occur. A new generation of researchers has been trained in a more multidisciplinary focus, it will be hard to put the genie back into the box!

Perhaps it is time that scientists swallow their pride and open their discourse to the public. Already some funding initiatives have been launched that allow the public to contribute money directly, via the web, to support relevant science funding. Perhaps committees might be set up via the internet to oversee publication - not only scientists, but members of the public, under joint arrangements... I am certain if a call went out, there would be people interested and willing to participate. Time also for the universities to modularise their knowledge more effectively. Rather than be organized in disciplinary units, perhaps they might be reorganised into "project units" - a radical idea, I know, for most academics. There are many other ways to "democratize" science, and they need to be discussed.

The crisis is not going to go away. It's going to become a lot deeper and darker than it already is.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

The Practice of Blogging versus Scientific Review

In my musings, I have talked already extensively about how our sense of identity is shifting. We see ourselves increasingly as focussed in the now instead of defined by our history, we see ourselves as multiple and inconsistent and less as simple and uniform, and we organize ourselves and our lives less as centres and more as members of the periphery.

Blogging is, of course, one of the ways this shift manifests itself. As a blogger, I contribute to a movement of bloggers, what I have to say is no more or no less important that what anyone else has to say. I am not central, and certainly not centrally important. Rather I am important because what I say improves the value of the periphery, of the ever growing margins of our world.

In the scientific community, the sense of contributing to a collective effort has existed for some time, but it is mixed up with the idea that one must be defined by history. In the world of science, what I write about must be "built on the shoulders of giants", the ones who preceded me. When I submit a paper or an article, it is expected of me that I should cite (identify) all relevant thinkers and their works, all "centrally important" previous contributions, before I can be expected to talk about my own insights. It is a question of "not reinventing the wheel" and "acknowledging the work of my predecessors".

In the blog world, however, this would be impossible. With over 70 million blogs, still growing at an exponential rate, there is no possible way that I could identity and acknowledge all relevant material. Indeed, it is not expected of me. Instead, the blog world operates not by the acknowledgement of indiviudals, but by the acknowledgement of the collective. If a large enough number of people acknowledge the material I write, then it is considered "important". This is a form of acknowledgement based on periphery rather than centre. In the blog world, I cite material I have encountered that I believe is relevant, with no expectation that this is in any way complete.

While in the world of science, this is considered "wrong", in the world of multidisciplinary science, this is increasingly the level of possible practice. As long as one contributed to a limited disciplinary range, one could reasonably expect, with considerable effort, to read and know the relevant literature of earlier thinkers and to be able to cite them as appropriate. But the more one's contributions broaden in a multidisciplinary context, the less this is true. I have long felt as a scientist with a very broad multidisciplinary focus, that I can never master the references of each discipline in which I operate, I give up the effort from the get-go. I rely on colleagues to tell me what they might be, and I "suffer the slings and arrows" that scientists fling my way when I don't get the references right.

The blog way is the way of the future, the way of "collective thought" rather than the individual thoughts of an elite. There is no reason why science, science writing and scientific review cannot be organized in ways closer to the ways of blogging than to the current practice. Science will have to give up a certain number of assumptions and values, however, to do this. Such as that the scientist owns more "truth" than the broader population. Science needs to review its own needs for rigour and scholarship in relation to a different way of promoting "good thinking", "critical thinking", etc. Although the blog way allows a lot of strange stuff a "fleeting success", much sound thinking also rises to the top... and scientific review also allows a lot of stange stuff its heyday. They constitute dramatically different ways of organizing thought collectively, but both are effective. The blog way, however, is aligned with the emerging understanding of the self, whereas the scientific process is still rooted in an older vision of who we are. As such, it will have to change, like-it-or-not.

Thinking Back to My Emergence on the Job Market

While reading a blog posted by futuresubject about the kinds of questions one may have as a young person arriving onto the job market, I was reminded of my recent thoughts concerning my own career. I remember when I finished my Ph.D. I had very similar questions and concerns as futuresubject about my future ... how was I to distinguish myself in a productive and contributory manner to the world? As futuresubject suggests, I felt myself to be similar to hordes of other young people in a similar situation. Although judged by my professors as being someone bright with a lot of potential, there were no particular features that distinguished me from others.

I had done my doctoral studies in astrophysics, because, I suppose, I was interested in the "broader picture" of the world. At the time, "environmental studies" was a fledgeling discipline with no clear future, and, besides, it involved studying biology which was never my strength.

I went on to take a job in a field called "remote sensing", actually much closer than what we called "environmentalism" today than was astrophysics. This suited me, but, again, there was very little to distinguish me from many others.

However, in a relatively short period of time, my unique nature as a person emerged and impinged on my career. I brought to bear a wider scholarship and set of readings on my research than many researchers more senior than I were able to do, and from this developed a unique research programme, originally somewhat contraversial for my peers, that focussed on the relationship between the use of spatially or geographically oriented analysis tools and cognitively-informed perspectives. From there I developed into other lines of inquiry, bringing in the health sciences and the arts, and my social conscience brought me to head up important initiatives in the world of research.

This resulted, over twenty years of professional life, in a unique career path quite different from those of my colleagues and most other academics. But what was it about me in my early days that spoke to these developments?

I'm not entirely sure, but I believe the result was the result of "who I am", more than my "pedigree", my history up to that point. Certainly my training in astrophysics contributed to what emerged, however. Nonetheless, I've become the person I am because, to a certain extent, I couldn't become anybody else! If I could have told the young man I was, 25 years ago, not to worry so much about my destiny, that time would take care of itself, I would have. I've learned to accept who I am, weaknesses as well as strengths, and to worry less about the future.