Recently I’ve seen and read a lot of hero/heroine narratives. But no more than is usual in journal articles I’m sent to review and edit. They now seem to be popping up in research impact plans and claims about impact.
You know these heroic narratives – they are everywhere from nursery rhymes to popular films. It’s the knight on a white charger who slays the dragon, the cowboy who rids the town of lazy barflies, the cop who cleans up the burb and sends all those good-for-nuttin drug dealers and pimps to the big house.
There is a research version of this kind of narrative. You know them too I’m sure. The researcher/lecturer/professional rides into town – usually this is an impoverished neighbouhood/really dumb class/group of people/ hopeless policy agenda. Through the process of intervention/teaching/participatory or action research/evaluation the impoverished neighbouhood/really dumb class/group of people floundering around/hopeless policy agenda becomes…
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I recently saw an old friend for the first time in many years. We had been Ph.D. students at the same time, both studying science, although in different areas. She later dropped out of graduate school, went to Harvard Law School and is now a senior lawyer for a major environmental organization. At some point, the conversation turned to why she had left graduate school. To my utter astonishment, she said it was because it made her feel stupid. After a couple of years of feeling stupid every day, she was ready to do something else.
I had thought of her as one of the brightest people I knew and her subsequent career supports that view. What she said bothered me. I kept thinking about it; sometime the next day, it hit me. Science makes me feel stupid too. It’s just that I’ve gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that I actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid. I wouldn’t know what to do without that feeling. I even think it’s supposed to be this way. Let me explain.
For almost all of us, one of the reasons that we liked science in high school and college is that we were good at it. That can’t be the only reason – fascination with understanding the physical world and an emotional need to discover new things has to enter into it too. But high-school and college science means taking courses, and doing well in courses means getting the right answers on tests. If you know those answers, you do well and get to feel smart.
A Ph.D., in which you have to do a research project, is a whole different thing. For me, it was a daunting task. How could I possibly frame the questions that would lead to significant discoveries; design and interpret an experiment so that the conclusions were absolutely convincing; foresee difficulties and see ways around them, or, failing that, solve them when they occurred? My Ph.D. project was somewhat interdisciplinary and, for a while, whenever I ran into a problem, I pestered the faculty in my department who were experts in the various disciplines that I needed. I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn’t know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn’t have the answer, nobody did.
That’s when it hit me: nobody did. That’s why it was a research problem. And being my research problem, it was up to me to solve. Once I faced that fact, I solved the problem in a couple of days. (It wasn’t really very hard; I just had to try a few things.) The crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn’t know wasn’t merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite. That realization, instead of being discouraging, was liberating. If our ignorance is infinite, the only possible course of action is to muddle through as best we can.
I’d like to suggest that our Ph.D. programs often do students a disservice in two ways. First, I don’t think students are made to understand how hard it is to do research. And how very, very hard it is to do important research. It’s a lot harder than taking even very demanding courses. What makes it difficult is that research is immersion in the unknown. We just don’t know what we’re doing. We can’t be sure whether we’re asking the right question or doing the right experiment until we get the answer or the result. Admittedly, science is made harder by competition for grants and space in top journals. But apart from all of that, doing significant research is intrinsically hard and changing departmental, institutional or national policies will not succeed in lessening its intrinsic difficulty.
Second, we don’t do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don’t feel stupid it means we’re not really trying. I’m not talking about `relative stupidity’, in which the other students in the class actually read the material, think about it and ace the exam, whereas you don’t. I’m also not talking about bright people who might be working in areas that don’t match their talents. Science involves confronting our `absolute stupidity’. That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown. Preliminary and thesis exams have the right idea when the faculty committee pushes until the student starts getting the answers wrong or gives up and says, `I don’t know’. The point of the exam isn’t to see if the student gets all the answers right. If they do, it’s the faculty who failed the exam. The point is to identify the student’s weaknesses, partly to see where they need to invest some effort and partly to see whether the student’s knowledge fails at a sufficiently high level that they are ready to take on a research project.
Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.
Rush Hour Synopsis: A feature documentary about the odyssey involved in commuting to and from work in three large contemporary cities: Los Angeles, Istanbul and Mexico City. Rush Hour is an intimate approach to the personal stories of three commuters who spend hours of their lives going from home to work and back, reflection a common reality shared by billions of people. What is the impact of these lost hours on their relationships an their quality of life? What really direves them to make this journey every day? What does this say about our cities and our way of living them? This is not inherent of a specific area of the world, neither it has to do with gender or class, but rather it is a global issue that has to do with the way we have developed and conceived our largest cities.
Further info: https://www.citylab.com/life/2018/05/awful-commuting-unites-us-all/560624/?utm_source=SFTwitter
Can ecological distribution conflicts turn into forces for sustainability? This overview paper addresses in a systematic conceptual manner the question of why, through whom, how, and when conflicts over the use of the environment may take an active role in shaping transitions toward sustainability. It presents a conceptual framework that schematically maps out the linkages between (a) patterns of (unsustainable) social metabolism, (b) the emergence of ecological distribution conflicts, (c) the rise of environmental justice movements, and (d) their potential contributions for sustainability transitions. The ways how these four processes can influence each other are multi-faceted and often not a foretold story. Yet, ecological distribution conflicts can have an important role for sustainability, because they relentlessly bring to light conflicting values over the environment as well as unsustainable resource uses affecting people and the planet. Environmental justice movements, born out of such conflicts, become key actors in politicizing such unsustainable resource uses, but moreover, they take sometimes also radical actions to stop them. By drawing on creative forms of mobilizations and diverse repertoires of action to effectively reduce unsustainabilities, they can turn from ‘victims’ of environmental injustices into ‘warriors’ for sustainability. But when will improvements in sustainability be lasting? By looking at the overall dynamics between the four processes, we aim to foster a more systematic understanding of the dynamics and roles of ecological distribution conflicts within sustainability processes.