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Hearts, minds, science and sentiment
A few years ago, I attended an exclusive think-tank in Europe, the topic of which related to some things that interest me about cities, communities, equity and mental health (1). I didn’t know very much in advance about how the meeting was put together nor who else might be there. I think this was deliberate, so that all attendees might turn up without pre-conceptions. It turned out that the constitution of the group was a rough mix of activists, urbanists, organizers, practitioners and scientists. I’d consider myself a member of that last group, but it was clear to me that we pointy-headed types were very much in the minority. Nothing wrong with that, I thought, and certainly in keeping with an enduring motivation of mine, which is to find some way to activate my research in the real world. Maybe here, I thought, I would get some valuable mentoring in how to make such things happen.
As these kinds of events go, the organization of the whole affair was exceptional. We were housed in magnificent surroundings, fed delicious meals, given ample free time, including some amazing field trips to break up some of the intensity of discussions during the meeting. The format of the meetings themselves, though not to my taste, was designed to maximize cross-talk among all the represented specialties (2). At about the mid-point of the meeting, we were encouraged to form smaller working groups to work on questions of mutual interest. Naturally enough, I gravitated toward the other scientists and found myself in the company of some really exceptional and successful researchers. One member of our group was a public servant who worked (roughly speaking) in knowledge translation. All of this made me ecstatically happy, as I couldn’t imagine a better group of people to think about how to activate research related to urban health and, as the tired cliché goes, bring it out of the ivory tower (3).
Things went well for our little band of evidence junkies. We had some useful discussions, a lot of fun, and we felt as though we had put together some workable proposals. We even believed we might have enough substance to write a paper about how scientific evidence could make its way into civic action. Our idea was to invent civil service positions for people who had the bandwidth to read the scientific literature and talk to the scientists but also had the inside track on how the policies that shaped cities worked. This idea was not exactly rocket science, as all we were really doing was proposing that there be specialist knowledge brokers, but as far as anyone in our little group knew, such things were not done often. Policymakers didn’t always have the time or training to read up on the science and scientists were seldom able to engage with policy. Most of the time, in our experience, these things happened on a kind of project-based ad hoc basis using an expensive consulting model. My own experience from the science side was occasional surprise at how the things I did that seemed simple to me were like voodoo to the policy side. On the other side, I’d had no shortage of reminders through the years of how little I knew about how the various levels and layers of government and policy worked to make things happen. Especially as there was a policymaking person in our group who thought this was a good idea, I think we were all pretty excited about things.
And then there was an earthquake. I don’t mean this literally, though there were a few moments when I had hoped that the Earth would swallow me. In a plenary session, where all working groups were meant to gather together and work out exactly what we had accomplished, a member of one of the other groups, through some alchemic combination of words and gestures that I was not able to compute, seemed to dissolve rationality in favour of feeling. Instead of calculated reason, evidence and statistics, it was argued, we should just all follow our hearts. My science brain went into a speed wobble. This proposal quickly gained astonishing momentum, but I wasn’t even sure I understood what these words had meant. I felt swallowed up by the argument that what really mattered was “lived experience” where, to my science noggin, lived experience was something that could be measured just like everything else. Now. I think that I have a heart much like everyone else’s. I can be motivated by love and empathy along with the best of humans. But faced with the proposal that research findings should be eschewed in favour of the feelies, I was cast completely at sea. I was sure I had somehow misunderstood a heavy accent or drifted off at a critical moment. Nevertheless, there was a palpable shift in that big room full of experts. The mood was lifted. Thorny technical issues seemed dissolved in a soupy elixir of chest-thumping ebullience.
The session ended. My scientific compadres and I slunk off to the pub to nurse our wounds and to get a bit tipsy. I hadn’t recognized it at the time, but, looking back on that day, I think I’d had a tiny personal experience of Enlightenment’s end. From the beginnings of the scientific revolution until some more recent time (4), there have been plenty of advocates for clear, rational, objective thinking. We might sometimes succumb to sentimentality, fantasies, delusions and soppy wishful thinking about the state of the world, but at core we’ve believed that we have largely consensual methods for sorting things out. Science is, of course, a work-in-progress always and when it is working properly it will always have measures of uncertainty. Scientific “facts” that aren’t open to revision are nothing but dogma and not science at all. But now, our trust in the authority of science has been replaced with something else that is much harder to define. In part, this is because many of us feel that we have been burned by our trust in science. It turns out that it’s very hard, perhaps impossible, to conduct a purely objective and equitable science. As damaging underlying biases have been brought to light, trust wanes. True science is also something that moves achingly slowly (5). In a world that’s burning down in a thorny matrix of impossible problems, nobody is much in the mood to wait on the sidelines until the boffins come up with the data. And speaking of data, we are now drowning in it. New technologies, omni-present surveillance and the rise of powerful new methods of data science have often replaced the sparse, careful experimental methods of the past (6).
There’s so much about this that I find worrisome. Most of all, it’s the concern that powerful post-Enlightenment methods that harness massive repositories of data can demonstrably effect large-scale societal change. Thanks to super-fast and efficient propagation of messages, a mere sentiment can sweep regions, countries, or sometimes even the entire planet without any of us truly understanding what has happened. Though the data pipeline in that meeting room might have been very much sotto voce, perhaps constituted by nothing less ephemeral than gestures, facial expressions, subtly shifting group dynamics and perhaps even the weather, maybe what I’d experienced might have been a tiny sample of this. On grander scale, this is something that we have seen take place more than once in recent geopolitical events. I have much sympathy with the complaint that we’ve now pissed away so much of our time that we can’t sit on the sidelines and wait for the scientists to sort things out. It’s true. We have done this. But to completely chuck aside all standards of evidence in favour of a chest-thumping faith in how we are all feeling at the moment doesn’t seem like a solution.
So what can we do?
As a scientist, I’ll admit freely that this is the question I always struggle with. Generally, I don’t think scientists are trained to fix things so much as we are trained to identify and explain things. When I give talks about how cities or buildings work I’m often asked how to put my ideas into action. I’ve sometimes tried, consciously or not, to wriggle out of the responsibility to help make change. I’ve even said things like “I’m the explainer and not the designer. It’s not my job nor my expertise to design.” I cringe now when I think of these occasions, but I would argue that this mind-set is not entirely my fault. This is a very different kind of story, and one I’ll probably wade into in future posts, but most academics in my field (7) are generally neither trained nor rewarded for wading into practical problem-solving. A good friend of mine, Upali Nanda, who is behavioural scientist in the private sector, describes herself as a “pracademic (8).” I really like this term and I wish that there were more opportunities to learn, teach and practise this kind of approach in my own academic environment. At the moment, there are too many barriers preventing this from happening. Reward systems in academic settings are very much tied to traditional disciplinary dividing lines set up centuries ago in a world that doesn’t much resemble the 21st century. Universities and funding institutions offer little more than lip service to the importance of transdisciplinary research, in part because we really don’t know how to do it. When we academics do step outside of our cloistered environments in universities, it’s often in the role of consultant and treated more as a lucrative side-hussle than as a central constituent of our jobs.
So where does this leave us? I’m not inclined to suggest that we “blow up the system (9)” and if the fact that I still believe in standards of scientific evidence makes me seem antediluvian then so be it. But at the same time what’s clear is that digging in and railing against new trends that discount analysis and understanding in favour of action and change will not work. We need new approaches. And whatever they might be, one element will be an attitude of generosity and kindness so that there’s broader understanding of the basic tenets of scientific method and how it can be used. But at the same time, there’s a need for greater sympathy for nimble pracademic approaches that might lead the way to solutions to our wicked problems. There may not always be enough time to satisfy the pecadilloes of Reviewer #2 (10). Some of these approaches will no doubt come about through our new capacities to work with massive data sets and the novel opportunities they afford.
I still think it would be a good idea to expand scientific knowledge brokerage in civil service vastly. But there’s also plenty of latitude to raise awareness among non-scientists of how science works so that there’s less confusion about where this kind of evidence comes from and how it can be useful. Perhaps most importantly, it is also time to adjust (11) university systems to make them more responsive to a world that’s crying out for rapid change if it’s going to survive.
(1) I’m being coy about the identity of the group, not because it’s some super-secret Illuminati group but more because I’m going to say some unguarded things about my experiences and I don’t want to have to worry more than the normal amount about being brusque, dismissive, or offensive.
(2) Though humans being what we are, there was an unassailable momentum towards the formation of one or another kind of clique. As the days of the meeting went by, firm groupings became established.
(3) Ivory being a questionable substance these days, not to mention something that is very white indeed, I wonder if it is time to retire the cliché.
(4) I’m not sure when the hegemony of rationality began to die. Some have said it started to happen in the 1960s when the role of big business and big military in the affairs of science began to be revealed.
(5) I well remember one of my first presentations to a room full of design professionals, trying to sell myself as someone who could bring more scientific evidence to their game. After describing achingly comprehensive research programs that I thought might advance their projects, the CEO of the organization politely pointed out that when a tender for a project appeared, they often had hours rather than years to make an offer. What I had to offer at the time was not helpful.
(6) When I grew up, we did experiments with samples that we hoped were representative of populations. Now it almost seems as though the entire populations themselves are laid out before us for study.
(7) I’d be willing to gamble that what I’m about to say is true of many different fields, but I really only know my own.
(8) I actually thought that Upali had invented this word and was sad to discover that she hadn’t, though I would still maintain that she is one of its finest practitioners.
(9)We tried that in the 60s and, well, ok boomer, where did it get us?
(10) If you’re not a scientist who regularly submits papers to starchy scientific journals, you might not recognize the jargon here. Reviewer #2 is the person who finds fault with every tiny detail of your work and universally insists that you don’t understand statistics. Review is anonymous so you’ll never be able to track them down to kick them in the knee.
(11) Adjust is such a tiny word for the scale of work that needs to be done here.