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Freitag, 5. November 2010

Interdisciplinary thinking is the only meaningful way we have of tackling the huge complexity of the problems thrown up by global challenges

(English version of my former post)

At the Autumn Conference of the European Academy of Sciences and Literature Bad-Neuenahr-Ahrweiler on interdisciplinarity in research (7-8 October 2010) there were several talks (which I was unfortunately unable to attend personally) which have now been posted on the Net and which are exemplary for raising fundamental questions about the way we approach the theme of Global Change. In my view Prof. Gernward Gesang of Mannheim University and Prof. Matthias Kaiser of the University of Bergen have been particularly adept in presenting the theoretical and practical foundations on which the need for an interdisciplinary approach to the global challenges now facing us rests.

In my time as an undergraduate I often used to engage in discussions with students of economics and business studies about the extent to which market players could have a purely rational understanding of (economic) behavior. We - who were part of the interdisciplinary tripos of economics, political science and sociology - held the view that apart from matters of pure economic exchange every market player is obviously the prisoner of their own understanding of the role they play and its associated prescriptions as well as market power structures and the particular international context in whose focus the market stands. Our line was given all this how can a market players’ actions be motivated by purely rational considerations?

The almost euphoric nature of the discussions on Behavioral Economics in the past few years can awaken the impression that economics was one of the first sciences to discover the interrelations between economic action and individual motivation. Why is this a problem? Because the financial crisis was not merely a crisis of the mechanics of financial markets but also a symbol of the methodological failure of a part of economic science. At this juncture such a failure clearly reveals what happens when a branch of knowledge fails to advance and develop. But not only that: in the course of the 20th century the original holistic approach of economic science as propagated by Adam Smith and Max Weber has steadily become ever more one-dimensional.

This is something we cannot afford to ignore, given that the global problems confronting us in the future will be far more complex and wide ranging than the present financial crisis. The question thus is whether the branches of science dedicated to dealing with migration, demographics, climate change and other global problems in their efforts to meet such challenges on a proper footing are more deeply imbued with an interdisciplinary approach than was the case with economic science?

In his talk Matthias Kaiser referred to the world food problem to illustrate the necessity for interdisciplinarity in several stages (at various points I have added my own remarks).
  1. Population growth will significantly increase the demand for food in the next 50 years. 
  2. The challenges this brings with it are the relative and absolute increase in demand for higher-value foodstuffs which on the one hand are more detrimental to the climate while on the other the changes brought about by global warming in terms of more unfavorable cultivation conditions pose a threat to the whole of food production. 
  3. Any expansion of agricultural land and farming areas is hardly conceivable at the present juncture. On the contrary in many areas the productivity of existing marine and agricultural areas is already on the decrease. 
  4. At the same time obesity and malnutrition are becoming increasingly serious problems in developed countries. This means that existing stocks of food are not only wrongly distributed but also inefficiently used as can be evidenced by increasing expenditure on diet products. 
  5. The ways food markets are networked or their cross-market correlations (bio-ethanol, maize cultivation) exacerbate this imbalance via price mechanisms. 
  6. At present people favor meeting this problem through selective options such as aquaculture, vegetarianism, in-vitro foodstuffs etc. 
  7. However, as Kaiser emphasizes, the actual operations of the system are characterized by non-linearity, multiple imbalances, unknown parameters, uncertainty, networking and a low level of controllability. 
  8. Mono-disciplinary approaches will not help us out of this impasse. 
  9. Perhaps, Kaiser suggests, heuristic approaches could be the way out or alternative. 
In my opinion Kaiser does indeed offer an appropriate alternative. Only it is an alternative that demands both courage and critical inquiry. An internet-based world in which it is customary for vast numbers of internet users to scrutinize data and monitor conditions goes hand in hand with increasing expectations that decisions (quite rightly) will be subjected to greater scrutiny in terms of the relevant facts than used to be the case (think Stuttgart21). Accordingly heuristics should not be (mis)understood as a capitulation before the sheer diversity of data.

In the futurechallenges.org project we are now precisely at the point where we are faced with the methodological challenge of how to present such global complexity in a reasonably comprehensible and systematic form (in the first phase, however, only in the form of an outline) – in collaboration with academics who are experts in their particular field (in an earlier post I focused specially on the correlations between demographics and climate change).

What does this involve?

In the preliminary set-up phase of the project we all quickly became aware that even though there was already a huge body of research into individual global megatrends such as (in this case) globalization, new forms of governance, scarcity of resources, climate change, international security, and demographics/migration, research into the correlations or mutual dependencies of megatrends was more the exception than the rule. Accordingly we fixed our sights on a closer investigation of such interdependencies with experts from each of the disciplines concerned. In the above case, however, this meant asking demographic experts about the ways demographics interfaced with all the other five megatrends. It’s more than understandable that any answer to a question about interdependencies is bound to be incomplete. Simply because in order to present interfaces, an expert on migration, say, must also have previous (methodological and/or factual) knowledge about the issues involved in sustainability before he or she can even begin to identify the ways they interface with migration.

This is the point where the talk by Prof. Gesang which I mentioned in the first part of my blog post comes into its own. In his presentation Gesang categorizes interdisciplinarity as:
  1. Instrumentality, 
  2. Additivity, 
  3. Overview, 
  4. Experimental character, 
  5. Metaphoric, 
  6. Reduction, 
  7. Method und 
  8. Trans-disciplinarity. 
Gesang underscores that the first step should be to gain a cross-disciplinary perspective on the problem in hand so that in a second step of instrumental interdisciplinarity use can be made of the knowledge and instruments for gaining further insights into the field of one’s own specialty. Gesang believes that in this way other disciplines may be positively instrumentalized and he calls this a “prime example of interdisciplinarity winning the day".

The articles which the experts are writing for us about interdependencies are all still work-in-progress (if you have any questions about this study, please just get in touch with me). I find Gesang‘s taxonomy extremely helpful because it gives me the right analytical perspective with which to read the texts. We are currently considering how we should prepare the texts for the internet, how we should present them to interested readers. One of the things we’re considering is to post the top linked matrix of interdependencies in the Net and to let interested readers add to it themselves like an act of crowdsourcing. Another variant is to give the interdependencies described a graphics format. This is the point we have now reached and are still at in our discussions.

De facto interdependencies between various global trends have always been part of the fabric of life. It was only in the last century that our desire for ever deeper expertise lent a decisive impetus to the nurturing of absolute knowledge in single disciplines. However, we are now increasingly coming to realize that if we do not remove the glasses of single discipline expertise from our eyes, we have arrived at the end of the knowledge acquisition process. The problem is that in too many (but obviously not all!) single disciplines we have forgotten that we are still wearing our own particular discipline glasses and continue to view the world through them.

What might the outside world look like if we put them aside?