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