Being policy-relevant vs. asking uncomfortable questions

Another very interesting post by Jörn Fischer.

Ideas for Sustainability

By Joern Fischer

Many scientists working on sustainability issues are in this business because they are concerned about the state of the world. It seems self-evidently reasonable that, therefore, we ought to try to use our science to improve the state of things.

Most scientists, when they think of being relevant, or changing the state of the world for the better, automatically think of informing or influencing policy. This can be a very useful way to change things for the better. For example, new protected areas have been declared on the basis of scientific input to policy; and restoration activities in degraded landscapes have been improved by scientific input delivered to government and non-government organisations. Seeking to inform policy therefore can be a useful activity for scientists trying to improve the world.

When looking at my own work, some of it has been policy-relevant, but some has not – but…

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Measurement of Intelligence, Eugenics, and the Theory of Second-Best

Recently, I added a new field to my list of interests–intelligence (which consequently was already the topic of a post here). A few weeks ago I stumbled upon a book by the Fortune columnist Daniel Seligman, titled A Question of Intelligence: The IQ Debate in America. It was published in 1992, but a quick internet research reveals that the state-of-the-art in psychometrics has not changed much since. Regarding facts and their causal interpretations, the book is quite balanced–although it might be worthwhile to combine it with Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers to get an even more balanced perspective. Where I do not agree with Seligman at all is in the area of political implications, particularly in the context of eugenics. Continue reading

GMOs in Happyville

In a paper published in 1992, Paul R. Portney told a nice story about a fictitious town called Happyville. In that story, the director of a local environmental protection authority faces an uneasy task: he has to make a decision about whether to treat water to remove a natural contaminant Happyville’s residents believe to cause cancer. However, according to experts, it is highly unlikely that the contaminant has any adverse health effects–which the residents refuse to accept. Water treatment imposes costs. Eventually, it is the science-denying residents who would pay them. But the director knows that this would be irrational. What should he do, then? Refuse following the irrationality of the public? Or accept people’s will despite knowing that they are effectively harming themselves? There is no simple answer to that. And, obviously, Portney’s story is not just a nice gedankenexperiment, as it has, e.g., obvious relevance for policies related to genetically engineered food crops. Continue reading

A plea to our leaders

One of the (implicit) messages of my blog is that to achieve sustainability, we have first to figure out what we want as a society. The open letter below is a call for just that.

Halt and Reflect

Whether you are a national leader, a journalist, an engaged religious person, or a school headmaster – this letter is directed to all of you who have a special voice in your community.

As global citizens and scholars, we urge the world’s societal leaders, at all scales, to instigate discussions on the simple question: “What is it that we value?”

We are a group of scholars with formal academic training. Many (though not all) of us would consider themselves “next generation scientists” – that is, many of us will be senior academics in the not too distant future. A minority of us already work in senior academic positions.

Traditionally, many people chose science as a career path because they were interested in how the world works. Many insights have now been obtained on this. Young people still enter scholarly training because they want to understand the world – but increasingly…

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A Basic Income Research Programme

It is a great vision, particularly popular among the political Left: that the citizen could enjoy the freedom of doing with his life whatever she wants. Work, make arts or devote oneself to family or the community. Of course, basic income would not bring with itself the total freedom, but it would make the unconstrained choice of one’s way of living much easier. So far the assumptions, at least. It would be interesting to know, however, whether and–if yes–how this idea can become reality. For so far the vision of basic income is not much more than that–a vision. A beautiful one, but largely lacking an empirical and scientific basis. Continue reading

Progress as Changing Patterns of Dependence

Progress. Hardly any word describes better what is special about the last 200-250 years of human history. Up to then, technological, economic, social progress was scarce, the European Medieval was characterized rather by regress, for instance. But then, then came the Great Transformation, the Industrial Revolution, and changed everything. Today, it is clear to (almost) everyone that the pursuit of progress is what defines humanity, even though it is not the whole definition. Yes, we have difficulties when it comes to agreeing on what progress is. But we mostly identify progress, at least implicitly, with technological progress – all the nice innovations, not necessarily technical in a narrow sense, but also e.g. institutional, that make us less dependent on nature. This is, indeed, what defines social progress in the end – our ability to overcome scarcities and obstacles “created” by nature, be it with regard to natural resources for production, be it our psyche. When it comes to the former, however, it may be argued that we do not really become less dependent – we only change the source of dependence. Continue reading

Who Is Responsible for Achieving Sustainability?

Most people in the world would probably agree that sustainability is a good idea. We would probably not agree as easily on what sustainability is. And it is highly improbable that we would agree on who is responsible for achieving sustainability. Is it us consumers in rich countries? Or rather the governments in poor countries? Or is it the UN? Or maybe transnational corporations? Can this broadly put question be sensibly answered at all, or should we rather discriminate between different aspects of sustainability – by which we return to the question of what sustainability is? In what follows I would like to offer some possible answers to these questions. Continue reading

Some Thoughts on Intelligence

In our society, it is good to be considered intelligent. A high IQ is supposed to be correlated with higher earnings, and who would not prefer to have an intelligent government representative (seemingly not very often the case). There would be nothing wrong about this if our understanding of what intelligence is would not be as narrow as it often is. What is measured by IQ tests and what we mostly mean when talking about “intelligence” is actually only a small part of the story – I would call this part the “logic-analytic intelligence”. There are, however, other kinds, and those are being unduly neglected. Continue reading

Nothing to Lose But Credit Cards

The influential Spanish sociologist and network society researcher Manuel Castells paraphrased the famous quotation from Marx’ and Engels’ Communist Manifesto in a very interesting way: “Proletarians of all countries, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!” became a sentence about today’s citizens of Europe, “They have nothing to lose but their cancelled credit cards!”. It is an expression meant to symbolize the failure of two intermingled societal constructs: financial capitalism and consumer society. Continue reading

Working until 67 or what?

There is a debate going on in most European countries about the need to postpone retirement to account for demographic transition taking place in the rich societies of the Old World. The main argument is that conventional pension systems, within which the current workforce finances the pensions currently paid to the retirees, cannot be sustained any longer. The disproportion between the working parts of the population and the pensioners has become too large. To overcome this problem, it is proposed to change the law and increase retirement age. However, many oppose such proposals, particularly the political Left, maintaining that we already do work too long. In fact, it may well be that both sides are right (or wrong) at the same time. Continue reading

Welfare State, “Parasites” and Bureaucracy

Recently, the German minister of labour Ursula von der Leyen has been criticised for her reform of the pension supplement system (through which low pensions are supplemented by payments from the government budget). The critics accused her of having built into the system a lot of bureaucratic hurdles – as a result, so the critics, the group of people eligible to the system’s services would be very narrow and the criteria of exclusion are very hard to defend from an ethical and practical standpoint. While von der Leyen’s critics are probably right, there is another problem here that gained less attention: the efficacy of bureaucratic screening that is supposed to minimise cheating. Continue reading

The Dangers of Ghettoisation

In recent years we have observed an increasing tendency, both in “developing” and “developed” countries, toward urban ghettoisation. This trend is a very dangerous one, not only because it undermines societal bonds, but also because it is self-reinforcing. The more ghettos we have created (or allowed to emerge), the more difficult it becomes to reverse this tendency and to restore a stable society. Continue reading

How Much Education Is Good?

A common demand of Greens and Leftists* in many conutries is that access to higher education should be eased so that wider parts of the population could enjoy it. Indeed, within inter-country comparisons of the quality of education systems, the share of young people enjoying higher education is seen as a positive variable (indicating, e.g., that the Polish educational system is, at least in one respect, better than its German counterpart). But is this a sensible view of education? Could it be that there is some optimal level of education (from the point of view of the society)? If yes: how much education is good? Continue reading

Don’t Force Neonazis to Go Underground

Today a somewhat off-topic post (unless you define sustainability in an extremely encompassing manner).

Recently, the German society has been shaken at its foundations. After two hardly known neonazis had committed joint suicide and a video made by them had surfaced, authorities have realized that at least 10 murders on foreigners (that were extensively covered by the media), committed since 1998, were not isolated acts of violence – they were a thoroughly planned and organized series of murders. The murderers called themselves the Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund (NSU) and were possibly supported by numerous individuals from the neonazi scene. Following this shock, another wave of calls to delegalize the NPD (Germany’s National-Democratic Party) unleashed. I ask myself: what for? Continue reading

Time for New Forms of Democratic Decision-Making

Democracy is in a crisis, at least in the so-called developed world. Peoples lose connection to their elected governments, and vice-versa. Elected representatives – the main institutional feature of modern parliamentary democracy – repeatedly show that they are unable to properly fulfill their duties. As a result, authoritarian and populist movements gain ground – Hungary is only the tip of the iceberg. So, maybe it is time to think about what democracy really is and whether the current institutional framework is still up to the needs of our time. Continue reading

Social Limits to Growth

There has been much talk and controversy about ecological limits to growth (in GDP or related measures), at the least since the famous Limits to Growth report to the Club of Rome was published in 1972. However, much less (if any) attention has been given to other possible sources of limits to growth. The reason is not that none have been identified – indeed, as early as 1976 Fred Hirsch, an Austrian-British economist, wrote his pathbreaking but largely ignored book on Social Limits to Growth, in which he pointed out to social scarcities that effectively impose limits on economic growth. He argued that so-called positional competition that is promoted by growth leads to ever more frustration within the allegedly ever better off society.

Continue reading

The Postindustrial Society’s Dilemma

Many economists and commentators are celebrating the alleged advent of the postindustrial society – a society whose economy is based on the services sector, with industry playing a negligible role at most. Indeed, the economies of the United States and many European countries are already post-industrial – the secondary sector (i.e., industry) accounts for about one-fourth of GDP in these countries, while services account for more than two-thirds. However, the recent (and still not overcome) crisis has shown that a postindustrial society has problems of its own. In an illuminating article a Polish journalist describes the postindustrial society’s dilemma – and since I cannot expect all of my blog’s readers to understand Polish, I shall summarize the article in what follows. Continue reading

Is Europe’s Population Problem Really One?

One of the biggest challenges currently facing many European countries (as well as, e.g., Japan) seems to be the contraction of its population – i.e., exactly the opposite of what is the problem globally. When you ask a politician or an economist, or a demographer, you will be told that this challenge is a really daunting one – it calls into question one of the foundations of European wealth, the welfare state. However, tough as the demographic overthrow is in the short to middle run and seen locally, it is worthwhile to ask whether it is in the long run and when a global view is taken, too. Continue reading

London Calling 2011

Last week London (among other British cities) faced a wave of terrible riots. Excited by the death of a minor criminal, they ended after 5 deaths, numerous injuries, 2000 arrests, and over £200 million worth of material damages. The riots have shown us that what sociologists thought possible in “failed states” only is thinkable in rich countries as well – chaos, looting, widespread violence… And all that without any political or social demands involved. A complete loss of control. Continue reading