We already have a ‘Progress Studies’ – so why do we need a new one?

progress Joseph Wright

Joseph Wright: A Philosopher Lecturing with a Mechanical Planetary, 1766 (Source

  • What is progress?
  • How can it be measured?
  • What are the prospects for future progress?
  • How can social and economic progress occur with minimal impact on the environment?
  • Why is is that progress made by humankind since 1800, and especially since 1950, has been unappreciated by so many people?

Many of these questions have been with us for centuries.  But three trends in the last five years or so have moved them towards the centre stage among academics, social commentators and politicians:

  1. A questioning of social democratic norms and a retreat from some aspects of globalisation, as exemplified by the Brexit vote, the continued popularity of Donald Trump, and a shift towards populism in many parts of the world
  2. An increase in concerns about environmental sustainability, particularly regarding climate change and plastic pollution
  3. An increasing number of commentators are becoming more vocal in championing a more rational, humanist, and positive view of the world.  These people – who range from academics to public health professionals and data scientists to journalists – have been given the contentious collective term ‘new optimists‘*

Is the time right for ‘Progress Studies’?

Partly as a response to these trends in the zeitgeist, Patrick Collison (an ‘entrepreneur’) and Tyler Cowen (an economics professor) are promoting the establishment of a new field of study called ‘Progress Studies’:

“Progress … is understudied. By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up.” (Collinson and Cowen, 2019)

Collinson and Cowen appreciate the challenges facing this nascent discipline: they admit the costly and time-consuming process of reorganising departments, timetables, staffing and degree programmes (not to mention, I would add, complications in secondary education and the transition to higher education).

Undaunted, they propose a ‘school of thought’, akin to climate science, which would arise from a ‘decentralised shift’ of some of the time and priorities of academics.  In time, communities, journals, and conferences would be devoted to these questions.

Fragmented scholarship?

They appreciate that “[p]lenty of existing scholarship touches on these topics, but it takes place in a highly fragmented fashion”, and they point to several subjects which can claim to have contributed to studies about progress.  They focus on economics, business studies, psychology and history (specifically ‘applied history’).

I would add philosophy to this list – for what would Progress Studies be without a robust philosophical base?  It could consider, for example, what the telos (final goal) of progress should be, and it could consider the notion that citizens might only sign up to progress if it is imbued with meaning for them (see, for example, Laïdi, 1998).

Politics is also absent from Collinson and Cowen’s list – but the chances of continued progress (of any conception) would be stymied without political backing, or at least aquiescence.  Sociology can stake a claim too: Diane Coyle (2019) points to a Twitter exchange in which Professor Gina Neff argues that “the rise of the industrial revolution gave rise to the entire disicpline of sociology to empirically measure the changes happening to people & society as the the economy changed. It was ‘Progress Studies 1.0’, if you will.” (Neff, 2019).

We already have a ‘Progress Studies’ – Geography

However, the authors’ most egregious omission is Geography.  I argue that Geography is the most well-equipped to deal with the complexities and spatial variances of progress.  Aside from my own bias as a geographer, why do I hold this point of view?

– Many of the questions posed by Collison and Cowen are spatial, and therefore inherently geographical: one such question they pose is “Looking backwards, it’s striking how unevenly distributed progress has been in the past. … Why did Silicon Valley happen in California rather than Japan or Boston? Why was early-20th-century science in Germany and Central Europe so strong?”

– There is a well-established discipline of Development Studies, which is linked to Geography and has manifested itself as an undergraduate degree course as well as in Development Education Centres.  The existence of Development Studies as an IGCSE subject (it is to be withdrawn in 2021) and a World Development A Level (2009-2018) shows that it has had a foothold in formal secondary qualifications too.

– Geography has a long history of questioning very the notion of, let alone the definitions of, progress.  Diane Coyle (2019), an economist, states that “the standard indicator of real GDP growth, which leaves out much of what people value, will no longer do….How should it be measured and monitored, and who experiences it?”.  This is commonly understood by school age geographers; Economics has no monopoly on such questioning.

– The discipline is powerful – it can pose ‘Big Geographical Questions‘ which recognise complexity; it has also thrived on the challenge of tackling ‘wicked problems‘ and can interrogate and respond to them.

– Geography is proving its worth in a world which is crying out for knowledge and understanding over ignorance.  To hand the reins of ‘Progress Studies’ over to members of other disciplines might be unwise, as they may understand some concepts in depth, but their worldview is incomplete.  One example of this is Coyle (2019): this article implies a level of ignorance about the extent of progress across the world which some of the ‘new optimists’ would find ironic: she states that “if most people do not experience progress, then society isn’t really progressing at all” – when in fact, most of the people in the world are experiencing progress (see, for example, Norberg, 2017, Roslings et al, 2018, Pinker, 2018).  I contend that a more valid concern is that large numbers of global citizens do not appreciate this progress, not through willfulness or a lack of intelligence, but thanks to a complex interplay of psychological heuristics, media biases, and educational inertia.

Stand up and be counted!

Practitioners of geography are still wrestling with conceptions of progress – and will do indefinitely.  I have argued elsewhere that one of the challenges facing current geographical education is that it seems to be skewed towards negativity and is one of the midwives of the ‘age of anxiety’ (Alcock, 2019a, 2019b, Standish and Alcock, 2019).  Nevertheless, if Progress Studies is to develop as a discipline, Geography should stand up and be counted as the strongest candidate for ‘owning’ it – and for responding to the debate which has surrounded its proposal.

[I welcome responses, enlightenment and challenges to these thoughts!]

References:

Alcock, D. (2019a) ‘An Optimistic Education: Rebalancing the curriculum to more accurately convey human progress’. Impact: Journal of Chartered College of Teaching, Issue 6: https://impact.chartered.college/article/an-optimistic-education-rebalancing-curriculum-accurately-convey-human-progress/

Alcock, D. (2019b) ‘Optimism, Progress and Geography – Celebration and Calibration’. Teaching Geography, 44(3), 118-120.

Collinson, P. and Cowen, T. (2019) ‘We Need a New Science of Progress’ in The Atlantic, 30 July: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/07/we-need-new-science-progress/594946/

Coyle, D. (2019) ‘The Puzzle of Economic Progress’ in Project Syndicate, 13 August: https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/economic-progress-academic-research-puzzle-by-diane-coyle-2019-08

Laïdi, Z (1998) A World Without Meaning (Routledge)

Neff, G. (2019) Tweet,7:15 AM · Jul 31, 2019: https://twitter.com/ginasue/status/1156448180642488321

Norberg, J. (2017) Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (OneWorld)

Pinker, S. (2018) Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. UK: Penguin Random House.

Rosling, H., Rosling, O. and Rosling Rönnlund, A. (2018) Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World – and Why Things are Better than you Think. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Standish, A. and Alcock, D. (2019) ‘Social Progress, Optimism and the Curriculum: Where is the Intergenerational Conversation Going Wrong?’ – paper submitted to Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, 6 December

* Note on The ‘New Optimists’: Building on the ideas of Ester Boserup, Julian Simon and Bjorn Lomborg, their number includes Steven Pinker, Max Roser, Matt Ridley, Johan Norberg, and Hans, Ola and Anna Rosling.  Whilst they are by no means a coherent entity, and they span the political spectrum, what these so-called ‘new optimists’ share is a desire for a more optimistic – or at least, in the words of Rosling et al (2018), a ‘possibilistic’, view of the world.

In defence of carbon offsetting

2019-Meghan-and-Harry-private-jet-thekit.ca-facebook

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex

Source: https://thekit.ca/life/celebrity-life/elton-john-meghan-markle-prince-harry/

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have been given a rough ride in some sections of the media.  A short time after speaking out in favour of action to tackle climate change, they were criticised as hypocrites for taking four plane journeys in eleven days.  This is a familiar criticism levelled at celebrities and politicians who do the same thing.

One defence of this criticism is that to make the most of their influential positions, such people need to be seen and heard in as many places as possible.  It could also be argued that they are operating within a transport system which provides no reasonable alternatives for time-pressed travellers who wish to reach long-haul locations.  In my opinion, these are only partially acceptable excuses: accusations that frequent-flying eco-celebrities are being hypocrites still, at first glance, have a degree of validity.

Damned if they do and damned if they don’t

But what if their flights have been carbon offset?  Carbon offsetting involves paying an organisation to invest in climate protection projects throughout the world which reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, thus protecting the climate.

In the case of Harry and Meghan, Elton John was publicised as having contributed, on their behalf, to a carbon offset scheme run by Carbon Footprint.  Despite criticism of Al Gore flying around the world to push for climate action (as shown in his film An Inconvenient Truth), he too has carbon offset his emissions.  Leonardo di Caprio is another high-profile carbon offsetter, as is Greta Thunberg, who has ensured that the flights her crew took back to Europe following her ‘zero-carbon’ sailing trip to America have been carbon balanced.

I tend to support carbon offsetting.  I recognise that this opinion may partly stem from my self-interest of wanting to take a flight every year or two, but  I believe it has a role to play as a pragmatic, short-term response to climate change.  Let us examine the key criticisms made of the approach.

Criticism 1. They are not taking CO₂ out of the air

Dr Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace [disclaimer: I am a member], was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying: “These are good schemes, and they have positive outcomes, but they are things we should be doing anyway.  But they’re not taking out CO₂.”  It’s true in many cases: some schemes are not taking out CO₂, they are merely preventing CO₂ entering the atmosphere.  For instance, one project involves replacing fuel-inefficient stoves with more efficient ones in some of the poorest regions of the world, such as Darfur (Sudan) and rural Kenya.  Nevertheless, I would argue that preventing CO₂ from entering the atmosphere is itself a laudable goal, and one which may not take place to such a great an extent if it wasn’t for carbon offsetting schemes.

bruntcliffe_girls_plant Carbon Footprint website

Fig 1: A Carbon Footprint tree-planting scheme

https://www.carbonfootprint.com/plantingtrees.html

However reafforestation schemes do take CO₂ out of the air, once the trees have been established.  And I imagine that in the near future, schemes could involve investing in carbon capture and storage solutions too – such as the ones I write about here.

Criticism 2: The impacts of carbon offsetting will take a long time to have an impact

In the case of the Sussexes, the Daily Mail reported that it would take 320 years for a single tree to absorb all of the CO₂ emitted by the four flights they took in August 2019, as shown by Figure 2 below.  On one level, this graphic is ridiculous, as they wouldn’t have paid for just one tree to be planted!  But a more sensible argument is that even if many hundreds of trees were planted to absorb the CO₂, they would take a few years to grow to their full effectiveness.

Daily Mail Carbon Balance Graphic

Figure 2: Misleading Daily Mail graphic showing the ‘slow’ effects of carbon offsetting

Source: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7372959/Carbon-setting-scheme-supported-Sir-Elton-John-no-meaningful-effect-climate.html

As well as the slightly flippant, but nevertheless partially valid, response of ‘better late than never’, another riposte is that whilst it may well be a long time until the CO₂ you emit gets soaked up by the trees that are planted, most carbon offset schemes give more immediate results because, for example, their funds go towards renewable energy schemes or  energy efficiency measures.

Additionally, some schemes allow institutions to have the trees planted on or near their grounds (see Figure 1), therefore helping members of such institutions – including schoolchildren – a chance to physically connect with the natural environment, to associate climate change with nature, and to encourage a sense of ‘biophilia‘ which may encourage them to develop other pro-environment behaviours.

Criticism 3: The rich will be able to buy their way out of environmental responsibility

George Monbiot has compared carbon offsetting to the medieval Catholic church’s sale of ‘indulgences’ whereby wealthy parishioners could have their sins absolved for a price – and thus be free to sin again:

“Just as in the 15th and 16th centuries you could sleep with your sister and kill and lie without fear of eternal damnation, today you can live exactly as you please as long as you give your ducats to one of the companies selling indulgences. It is pernicious and destructive nonsense.”

But, if carbon offsetting were carried out routinely, and even became a legal obligation – perhaps by means of some kind of ‘overdraft fee’ for a personal ‘carbon budget’ – then I propose that they should be treated as a valid and in fact commendable extension of the notion of ‘the polluter pays’ principle.

Monbiot also stated that “Even if, through carbon offset schemes carried out in developing countries, every poor nation on the planet became carbon-free, we would still have to cut most of the carbon we produce at home [to restrict global warming to 2 degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels].”  This statement both ignores the possibility of carbon offsetting schemes being carried out in developed countries, and understates the abilities of developing countries to undertake a transition to a low carbon economy.

It is easy to underestimate the potential of carbon offsetting.  Yes, merely offsetting the carbon emissions of our activities may be insufficient to avoid runaway climate change, but if we were to double or triple our offsetting payments, then we could really make a difference in this regard.  Countries have indeed begun to consider introducing offsetting escalators: in the UK, the government’s climate advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, has recommended that a frequent flyer levy, under which each citizen would be allowed one tax-free flight a year, but would pay progressively higher taxes on each additional flight.

Criticism 4: The projects might have happened anyway

The ‘environmental Kuznets curve‘ theory (see Figure 3) states that countries develop, they go through three stages in relation to environmental degradation:

  • Pre-industrial Economies: The environment becomes gradually more degraded as agriculture mechanises and energy-intensive industries grow
  • Industrial Economies: The dominant economic sector is manufacturing, and energy sources tend to be high carbon
  • Post-Industrial Economies: Pollution decreases as manufacturing activities either become more energy efficient or close down [pollution can be ‘exported’ abroad in some cases], environmental awareness rises, and increased levels of affluence enables countries to enact and support environmental laws

Environmntal_Kuznets_Curve

Figure 3: The environmental Kuznets curve

Source: Kjeffreytaylor [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

On this basis, it could be claimed that typical carbon offsetting projects such as afforestation and promoting renewable energy will happen anyway, and so carbon offsetting is a pointless diversion of funds away from other ways of protecting the environment.

But even if carbon offsetting projects would eventually happen according to this theory, I can see no harm in accelerating their implementation, as they will set the standard for others to follow.  And Monbiot’s criticism that some schemes may fail, and that many are unaccountable is now outdated, as there are now Quality Assurance Schemes and auditing of market leading companies such as Carbon Footprint.

Carbon offsetting – a short-term, pragmatic approach

Of course carbon offsetting is not a panacea.  Climate change is a pressing and long-term global problem, and carbon offsetting can only be a short- to medium-term response to it.

More efforts should be focused on shifting political, corporate, and human mindsets, and, in more practical terms, we need to develop renewable energy sources and increase energy efficiency.  But one irony is that such efforts could be funded by carbon offsetting, and by marshalling the troops against it, some commentators are reducing the chances that it can be solved, both by reducing the cash flow from such sources, and by fostering cynicism in pro-environment activity (as shown by the Daily Mail article).

Perhaps more disturbing, however, is the moral framing of the issue.  The ‘polluter pays’ principle is lauded by environmentalist commentators when applied to big businesses and countries.  But when it comes to individuals, moral arguments against it are marshalled – here is Monbiot again: “[Y]ou can now buy complacency, political apathy and self-satisfaction. But you cannot buy the survival of the planet.”

I contend that, although it is not the only way forward, you can to some extent buy the survival of the planet.  You may need to be impelled to do so and to overpay for it to have a significant effect, but you can buy it.  And if you do, then you should not feel guilty.

Moral absolutism will not win any friends in this most emotional of environmental topics; global citizens, corporations and governments should aspire to reduce their carbon footprint, and if carbon offsetting forms part of these efforts, then it should be welcomed as a short-term, pragmatic part of the mix.

Optimism, progress and geography – celebration and calibration

TG article Autumn 2019

In the most recent edition of the Geographical Association’s journal ‘Teaching Geography’ (Autumn 2019) I write about how geography teachers can help our students to become aware not only that the world faces severe challenges, but also that progress has been made, and to learn about past successes so that they can be built upon.

Inspired by ‘Factfulness’ (Hans and Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund, 2018), ‘Enlightenment Now’ (Steven Pinker, 2018) and other sources, I explore common misconceptions about the world held by students (and many teachers too!).  Then, adapting a framework suggested by Bobby Duffy in ‘The Perils of Perception’ (2018), I suggest ways that teachers can recognise and begin to address such misconceptions.

I conclude by asserting that “The raison d’etre of geography is to ‘write about the world’, so for the sake of our students, our discipline and wider society, let’s give it our best, most accurate, shot.”

Copyright restrictions mean that I can’t go into more detail, but I urge Geography teachers to join the GA and subscribe to the journal to keep their subject knowledge and pedagogy up to date: www.geography.org.uk

Read this, act now!

“Only the creation of a world government can prevent the impending self-destruction of mankind”

(Albert Einstein, 1950, as cited in Pinker, 2019, from Mueller, 1989) 

One of the criticisms levelled at those who celebrate the progress that society has already achieved is that a positive mindset can lead to complacency.  This is indeed something which everyone who is concerned with understanding global affairs should be wary of.  Complacency can lead to inaction where action is deemed to be necessary, and it can also mean that those who are more vociferous can be heard more loudly: the dominant narrative can be controlled by powerful interests.

However, I would argue that there is a more pressing case to be made against acting too soon, too urgently, and too rashly.

The dangers of urgency

Urgency can lead to a sense of despair – and this in its own right is concerning from a mental health perspective.  But despair is also a concern because it may lead to either a lack of action, or action which tends towards adaptation rather than mitigation (i.e. directing more energy towards solving the effects of a problems rather than its causes).  For instance, in the face of rising sea levels due to climate change, it may well be easier for authorities to prioritise the construction of higher sea walls over cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Acting urgently can also lead to responses to challenges which might be rushed, inappropriate, or uncoordinated.  They may even be counter-productive, or cause significant knock-on impacts elsewhere.  For example, the rush to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, initially by co-firing biomass with coal in pre-existing power stations, and latterly through the use of biomass boilers, has resulted in deforestation, some from virgin forests, with its concomitant loss of biodiversity.  Marco Magrini (2018) has also written about Germany’s rapid post-Fukushima shift from nuclear to coal power, and about China’s environmental challenge of dealing with rusting petrol-driven motorbikes caused by the government’s rushed promotion of electric scooters (see Figure 1).

Motorbike graveyard China

Figure 1: Abandoned motorbikes in Shenzen, China, April 2016

Source: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/peoplesdaily/article-3524655/Striking-pictures-China-s-enormous-motorbike-graveyard-thousands-vehicles-abandoned-following-strict-ban.html

Much like compassion fatigue, ‘urgency fatigue’ can also set in.  Politicians, commentators and advocates of special interest groups are all vying for media attention with ever more extreme refrains.  For instance, how many institutions have been experiencing ‘an existential crisis’ in recent years?  Well, a quick search of the web reveals that almost every organisation is apparently struggling to survive: the NHS, the army, social care servicesBritain, the EU, humanity and now the world!  Professor Mike Hulme (2019) has recently written eloquently on the reasons why he is resisting the trend towards ‘extinctionism’ in the current discourse about climate change here (thank you to Steve Brace for drawing this to my attention).

The ratcheting up of calls for ‘urgent’ help can also lead to a ‘crying wolf’ scenario: when there is a genuinely existential threat, what fresh rhetoric will be needed to make us take action?

Related to urgency fatigue is another problem – and this too is self-perpetuating: it can feed a news and current affairs culture where whoever shouts the loudest gets the most airtime, commands the most attention, and uses up valuable political capital.  This is all achieved at the expense of those issues which may deserve deeper reflection but which lack vociferous advocates.  Without a figure such as Greta Thunberg for climate change, Malala Yousafzai for women’s rights, or Nelson Mandela for racial equality, some causes flounder.  Is this fair?  Where is the antibiotic resistance poster child?  Where is the pro-vaccination icon?

Nuanced arguments and detailed contemplation can also be lost in this noisy atmosphere; is there time, for example, for us to understand the position of the Russian and Canadian governments, who can be reluctant to act on climate change, unless we appreciate that they may benefit from the expansion of arable land in their northern regions?

I propose that an atmosphere of urgency can lead to a sense of disbelief when confronted by ‘good news stories’ – a sense which is so profound as to make one doubt the existence, or even the promise, of progress.  This is shown in the ‘cycle of urgency’ flow diagram (Figure 2, below):

Cycle of urgency

Figure 2: The cycle of urgency

(Source: author)

Doesn’t urgency drive action?

One counter-argument might be that if it wasn’t for high profile, negative, urgent stories, then less human progress would have been made, as key players, citizens and consumers would have been less aware of them.

I appreciate that this line of reasoning does have some validity.  Would today’s environmentalists have been quite so numerous or effective in their work if they hadn’t been roused by ‘Save the Whales’ campaigns in their formative years?  Would climate change have climbed up the league of pressing matters for the UN to consider without the urgency instilled by Al Gore in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’?  (Update to blog post: Hans Rosling reported in ‘Factfulness’ that Gore told him in 2009 ‘We need to create fear!’).

However, does this counter-argument still hold as strongly today?  Haven’t the biggest global lessons been learned?  Do advancements in communications and education mean that society is capable of avoiding past mistakes without the headline-grabbing negativity and urgency which drove previous reforms?

For example, do we really need an ‘Extinction Rebellion’ campaign to push climate change to the top of the news?  Or is action being taken anyway, behind the scenes, to move the world in this direction?

Could it be the case that several ‘big issues’ are gradually being tackled without being driven by a headline-grabbing sense of urgency?  What motivates the drivers behind social and economic movements such as Professor Tom Crowther of Crowther Lab, who has produced meaningful and optimistic strategies for combatting climate change.  Or Chad Frishmann of Project Drawdown (Figure 3)?

drawdown_book cover

Figure 3: Project Drawdown book cover

Source: https://www.greenbiz.com/article/drawdown-and-global-warmings-hopeful-new-math

Overcoming the urge for urgency

There are significant challenges facing the world, but I would argue that it is necessary to strike a balance between educating and informing people enough to rouse and inspire them without inducing despair or panic.  Humanity should not have its achievements undermined by the corrosive effects of urgency.  We deserve better than being faced with daily self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling prophecies of doom.

References 

Hulme, M (2019) ‘Am I a denier, a human extinction denier?’ 27 May 2019 https://mikehulme.org/am-i-a-denier-a-human-extinction-denier/# (accessed 7 June 2019)

Magrini, R (2018) ‘Green loopholes’ in Geographical, 90:4 (April 2018), page 9 – available online at http://geographical.co.uk/nature/energy/item/2669-green-loopholes (accessed 7 June 2019)

Mueller, J (1989) Retreat from Doomsday: The obsolescence of major war (New York: Basic Books)

Pinker, S (2019) Enlightenment Now (Penguin)

 

Ignorant about the study of ignorance? Progress, agnotology, and anxiogenesis

“Our students will be more curious – and more intelligently so – if, in addition to facts, they were equipped with theories of ignorance as well as theories of knowledge”

Jamie Holmes (2015)

Doctors smoke Camels

Mid-20th Century Advertisement for Camel cigarettes

Source: New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/07/business/media/07adco.html

There I was, thinking I was digging away at a relatively underexplored vein of intellectual enquiry, when I find out that there is an entire sub-discipline of the social sciences which is dedicated to it.

Agnotology is the study of ignorance, and it is at least partly ironic that I was not aware of its existence until recently.

The term was coined by Robert Proctor of Stanford University in 1992.  It has been used to analyse why it has taken so long for the scientific consensus to be accepted on issues as broad as smoking, acid rain, ozone depletion and anthropogenic climate change.

Proctor argues that one of the main reasons for the prolongation of doubt about these issues is that vested interest groups try to control and divert discourse about them, for example by:

  • advocating more research when a sufficient body of evidence has already been amassed to prove something beyond reasonable doubt
  • insisting on ‘balance’ in a debate where the science has been overwhelmingly settled
  • working with various commentators and branches of the media to encourage the propagation of views which dissent with the scientific consensus

Two examples can be used to briefly exemplify agnotology in action: science historian Peter Galison of Harvard (quoted in Grigg, 2011) notes that one key approach taken by creationists, in the absence of evidence to support their theory, is to ‘teach the controversy’.  In another instance, he quotes a memo from the tobacco company Brown & Williamson that phrases their agnotology strategy even more succinctly: “Doubt is our product.”

(For the avoidance of doubt (ha ha), I was aware of some of these methods, but I was unaware that the sub-discipline had a name.)

Agnotology and environmentalism

Merchants of Doubt cover

Cover of Merchants of Doubt, by Oreskes and Conway (2010)

https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/merchants-of-doubt-9781596916104/

In ‘The Shock of the Anthropocene’, Bonneuil and Fressoz (2017) summarise their take on agnotology as questioning how the damages of ‘progress’ are made invisible.  They adopt the word ‘anxiolytic’ from the medical lexicon to suggest that a variety of forces, many of them endemic to capitalism, serve to reduce anxiety about the natural world, and therefore stymie meaningful steps from being taken to reduce environmental damage.  For example, the authors discuss the sowing of doubt about the causes of climate change by the oil lobby and its political mouthpieces – this is also covered by Merchants of Doubt (Oreskes and Conway, 2010).

I appreciate this exploration, and I recommend the book to those readers who are looking for a deeply thought-provoking look at our current human-dominated era (the Anthropocene), its current context, and its precedents.

Agnotology and social progress

However, I would like to direct the armoury of agnotology towards a new front.  It remains a fascination of mine that the gains of ‘progress’ are so poorly understood and appreciated by members of the public and even by some politicians, media professionals and academics.  If this premise is accepted, then there must exist forces which lead to a state of ignorance about social progress.  And if we accept that in environmental affairs, there have been anxiolytic forces, then I contend that in social progress, there are anxiogenic – i.e. anxiety inducing – forces.

But what are these forces, and to what extent are they conscious decisions made by certain interest groups, and to what extent are they unintentional by-products of other factors?  How many are timeless and how many are contemporary?  To what extent are these forces avoidable?

I am only just beginning to collate a short list of anxiogenic forces – and I am aware that some of these suggestions are contentious, and others draw on the same themes as some of my earlier posts, such as this, but here goes.

Anxiogenic forces in the context of social progress

  • Heuristics (psychological predispositions) These include
    • Confirmation bias: We are biased towards information that confirms what we already believe
    • Negativity bias: We focus on negative information
    • Our susceptibility to stereotyping
    • Our inbuilt desire to imitate the majority

These are timeless, and they are difficult – but not impossible – to turn around.

  • Mass media and the internet Playing on our psychological biases, ‘If it bleeds it leads’ is just as apt online as it was when applied to the print media. Bad news sells.  The worldview of the mass media is easier to turnaround than the inbuilt biases of our psyche, but it is still a mammoth task!  Although the tabloid press is apparently in terminal decline, ‘clickbait’ articles exploit our weakness for shocking news.

Rusty radiator award screenshot

Screenshot from one of the 2014 winners of the ‘Rusty Radiator’ Award for stereotyping poverty in aid adverts

Source: https://www.radiaid.com

  • The aid sector The raison d’etre of the aid sector is to help other people, so when there have been successes, and fewer recipients are in such desperate need of aid, and when salaries depend on it, is it any wonder that social progress is not publicised as much as it could be?  How many charitable adverts come from places that have seen success stories?  The aid sector has shown itself to be malleable – viz the shift away from emerging countries such as India, and the movement to a focus on more environmental issues – but vested interests are taking a while to dissipate.  This factor links in with concerns about ‘poverty porn’ and ‘white saviours’ – which are covered in articles such as this one – and the issue of stereotyping in aid adverts is satirised at radiaid.com.  I must emphasise that this is not to say that this sector plays a significant role in promoting social progress – far from it! – but some actors in the sector surely play a role in the public’s perception that the whole world is in dire straits.  Time will tell if the aid sector can reform itself in this regard.

 

  • The education sector I argue elsewhere that much of today’s education, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, contributes towards a negatively skewed view of the world, thanks to a combination of
    • outdated information
    • lack of historical context
    • a focus on ‘exciting’ but rare events such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and wars (yes, I did say rare!) over humdrum, quotidian, affairs and unpublicised, incremental gains

This is both fertile ground for further research and scope for change here.  To this end, I am working on an ‘optimistic education’ manifesto – watch this space!

  • Social media There will be more reference back to photographs, videos and posts shared on social media from years gone by – which are in the most part selected to show a ‘positive’ angle.  This will be accentuated by the fact that as people live longer (which is still the global trend, even if it is stalling in some developed countries), there is more scope for a ‘rose-tinted’ view of the past to spread.

These are just a few anxiogenic forces – and I would welcome your thoughts on others, and to what extent you think they are avoidable.

Closing thoughts

Learning the lessons of agnotology will take a while.  Using these lessons to push for a more realistic opinion of social progress – a more realistic worldview – will be an even harder task.  Of this I am no longer ignorant.

Bibliography

Bonneuil, Christophe. and Fressoz, Jean-Baptiste (2017) The Shock of the Anthropocene (Verso)

Grigg, Ray (2011): Agnotology – the propagation of doubt – 19 Nov 2011 (accessed 15 Mar 2019): https://tidechange.ca/2011/12/19/agnotology-the-propagation-of-doubt-by-ray-grigg/

Holmes, Jamie (2015) ‘The case for teaching ignorance’ – New York Times, 24 Aug 2015 (accessed 15 Mar 2019): https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/24/opinion/the-case-for-teaching-ignorance.html

Oreskes, Naomi and Conway, Erik (2010) Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury)

Shaking it up – enthusiasm and engagement in secondary schools

Champagne uncorking

Uncork their enthusiasm!

Source: http://www.commons.wikimedia.org

  • Springy pavements generating electricity from pedestrians!
  • Office blocks retrofitted with living roofs and walls!
  • Hydrogen powered buses!
  • Free public transport for all!
  • Monthly cycle to work and litter picking days!

It’s hard not to be buoyed up about the future when you come across ideas like these.  And this effect is heightened by the fact that they came from people who will be responsible for shaping what the future of humankind will look like – our young people.

Fizzing with ideas

I recently marked a Year 8 class set of designs for a sustainable city.  They researched their ideas independently, drew up plans in pairs, then justified their plans individually in a ‘books-open’ in-class report.  I often marvel at students’ ingenuity and depth of research, and I know it might sound corny, but whilst marking this piece of work, I found myself breaking off every now and again to wistfully consider their enthusiasm – and what happens to it in the remainder of their years of secondary education.

City plan 1

Year 8 sustainable city work – showing enthusiasm and promise!

I was reminded of my childhood, when I had fantastical thoughts about designing buildings and cities, which I expressed in cartoons and occasionally in Lego.  You might be thinking ‘No wonder he became a Geography teacher!’ – but looking at the imagination and creativity shown by students year after year, I think that this enthusiasm is common among a very large number of younger students, not all of whom will go on to become geographers, architects or planners.

In primary school and in the early years of secondary school, teachers of all subjects find that most students fizz with ideas and positivity.  The almost palpable feeling of energy is part of why a career in education appeals to many people.  But teachers will recognise a slide in the levels of enthusiasm of their charges as the secondary school years progress.

The Enthusiasm Transition Model (ETM)

This trend can be illustrated by the rigidly scientifically researched ‘Enthusiasm Transition Model’ (ETM).  How many teachers (or parents) recognise the stages shown below?:

ETM

The Enthusiasm Transition Model (ETM)

The ETM and the secondary school years

Year 7, and, with a following wind, Year 8 too: Most pupils are keen to take part in discussions and many of them even like to perform tasks like handing out books.  Many pupils are even sorely disappointed if they are not chosen!

Year 9: A scattering of pupils volunteer their thoughts, but almost no-one is bothered if they are not chosen.  The enthusiasts fight to keep their keenness hidden.

Years 10 and 11: A couple of students half-heartedly volunteer, and there is no need to implement a ‘hands down’ policy in most classes because it’s de facto in operation anyway!

Years 12 and 13: Students have actively chosen your subject, so there is a slight resurgence in classroom engagement, if you are lucky.   However, it can be hard to keep students’ attention at such a busy time of their lives.

City plan 2

More Year 8 sustainable city work

Letting the champagne go flat

So what explains this gradual decline in most children’s enthusiasm in their time at secondary school?

Some of it may be lost as pupils are exposed to more of the realities of their personal life – the creeping realisation that they will not always be able to get what they want.

Similarly, as they escape from the protective bubble of their carers, children will see at first hand some of the more challenging aspects of the world: the homeless person they see under the arches at the railway station; the incident of road rage on the way to school; conflicts amongst family members which were kept under control in the pupils’ early childhood.

Some enthusiasm may be displaced by the increasing responsibilities of youth and adulthood – when you have momentous decisions to make about future careers, relationships, driving, and so on, there is not enough time to dwell on ideas, let alone ideals.

Some of it is swallowed up internally as young people succumb to peer pressure.  The pressure to ‘fit in’ with the norms of their chosen group(s) is often overwhelming.  This impetus to impress their friends over their parents and teachers is reinforced by subtle glances and under-the-breath comments in classroom discussions whenever someone forgets where they are for a moment and dares to volunteer.

Still more of it will surely be eroded by exposure to the negative tone, not only of the ‘mainstream media’, but also of many of the ‘clickbait’ stories used by some news websites to hook in readers.

But some of it, I argue, is attributable to various aspects of the educational system.  Yes, we have come a long way from the days of ruling by fear, the crushing of individuality and corporal punishment which featured in some pupils’ lives in relatively recent decades (although some draconian approaches have made a comeback – see the debate about ‘flattening the grass’ (Smith, 2019)).  Nevertheless, students are still held back, in different degrees in different contexts, whether this be by regimentation, institutionalisation, momentum and paucity of imagination in our education system (I write from a UK context), let alone financial threats to the curricular and extra-curricular existence of ‘creative’ subjects and sports.

Bubbling over

Before going any further, I realise that a burst of enthusiasm is not going to be an educational panacea: a certain degree of structure is required to allow our current education system to work.  I also realise that some readers will question the need to (re)enthuse our youth – there are benefits for young people and their educators from the former being calmed and directed at times!

Furthermore, as Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, enthusiasm in the absence of facts and carefully considered analysis can be deleterious to the advancement of the populace, particularly in terms of politics and the economy: he believed that educated people are “less liable… to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition”.  To put my head above the parapet, I can see some validity in this point of view in the context of the Brexit debate.  Finally, as I write elsewhere, and inspired by Hans Rosling et al (2018), a fact-based worldview is essential for us to make the right decisions for the future of humankind and our planet.

But all this notwithstanding, I don’t think that more engagement and ‘buzz’ will lead our students astray – rather, it should re-energise them with education and the wider world.

City write up 1

More Year 8 work: How can you continue to generate this kind of outcome from your students in the secondary school years?

Uncorking students’ enthusiasm!

In my customary search for a solution, I hereby volunteer some thoughts for how educators could try to keep young people keener for longer:

  • The only time that pupils may go outside in the school day might be during lunch or breaktime. This runs counter to the needs of childhood development.  Why not embrace the outdoors?  You can read some of my musings on this subject here, but the YHA has launched a powerful video on ‘the adventure effect’ (https://groups.yha.org.uk/adventure-effect) which draws upon research showing that the outdoors is not only beneficial to young peoples’ physical health, but also their mental well-being too
  • Think how you could give opportunities to young people to express their enthusiasm outside of lessons, perhaps by holding lunchtime clubs, or competitions. To this end you could keep an eye on your subject association, many of which will run several such competitions a year – see, for example, the Geographical Association’s World Wise Quizzes: https://www.geography.org.uk/Get-Involved-1/Student-activities/WorldWise-local-quiz
  • Reward ‘below the radar’ enthusiasm – such as students writing in extra depth in certain homework tasks – by writing positive comments (and giving commendations/merits) to demonstrate that you recognise and celebrate initiative and keenness
  • Be a role model in the classroom – show the class that you care about the subject and your enthusiasm might become infectious. Fair enough, this is tough to achieve, and I am acutely aware that my enthusiasm can come across as being too eager to please, but combined with humour and perhaps a touch of self-deprecation, this approach can work
  • School and year-group assemblies can play an important role in celebrating achievements and inspiring students to follow their dreams and interests
  • School or personal subscriptions to news outlets dedicated to young people can help to redress the negativity of adult-orientated media. Examples of these outlets include The Day (which my school subscribes to and which every form tutor receives by email every morning) and children’s weekly newspapers such as First News
  • Finally, in terms of day-to-day and week-to-week pedagogy, consider the tasks that you set pupils – do they allow students a free enough rein to follow their interests within the task? For instance, could you give…
    • a choice of case studies (offer the choices then see how enthusiastic the students are when they are told it is first come, first served!)?
    • a choice of websites for research?
    • a choice of websites, articles, or TED talks for students to consume and feedback on (I tried the TED talk choice for a recent A Level theme of gender equality in education)?
    • a choice of presentation medium and/or group size? For example, in one task we allowed students to either plan and deliver a form assembly as a group, create a website and social media campaign as a pair, or to write to their MP individually
    • more time during which pupils could generate ideas (‘ideation’). Ewan McIntosh introduced delegates to methods to facilitate this at the 2016 Practical Pedagogies Conference – these include using randomiser websites such as http://www.randomideagenerator.com/ to mix up unlikely concepts and end users.  I have used these techniques to try to break deadlocks when students struggle to think of ideas for projects such as EPQs.  More ideation techniques are available here: https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/introduction-to-the-essential-ideation-techniques-which-are-the-heart-of-design-thinking

As always, I welcome your feedback.  Don’t be afraid of curbing my enthusiasm!

David

Bibliography

Hazell, W. (2019) Teaching at ’flattening the grass’ school ‘felt like being a prison warden’ – TES, 14 February 2019 (accessed 24 February 2019): https://www.tes.com/news/teaching-flattening-grass-school-felt-being-prison-warden

Rosling, H, Rosling, O and Rosling-Ronnlund, A (2018) Factfulness (Sceptre)

Smith, A. (1789) An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (5th edn: Methuen and Co, Ltd – as reproduced at https://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN.html),

Nine things that climate change and human progress have in common

The bumblebee

Source: Trounce [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Pause for a second and consider these short ‘earth stories’:

  • A Nigerian child is vaccinated against polio
  • The bumblebee’s habitat declines in Europe and North America
  • A sesame farmer in Tanzania buys his first bicycle
  • A British farmer decides to plant some grapevines

These kind of ‘earth stories’ rarely make the headlines.  Yet they are all part of the unfolding history of our planet.  Together with millions of other ‘earth stories’, they give us an insight into how we are interacting with our habitat in two key areas: climate change and human progress.

Understanding climate change and recognising the progress made by humankind are central to the future of our planet and of our species.  But neither gets the attention that they deserve.

But why have they both failed to get traction in the public’s consciousness?  The reasons are manifold:

  • Their manifestations are incremental. The 24-hour news cycle, human discourse, and the fast-moving world of business tend to favour more sudden, attention-grabbing events and narratives rather than drawing our attention to trends which occur over decades (such as climate change) or even centuries (such as human progress).

 

  • Both are complex in terms of their causes and implications. This makes them hard to comprehend, and so it is very tempting for individuals, governments, businesses, educational establishments, and other organisations, to shy away from an in-depth understanding of them.  Complex challenges – also known as ‘wicked problems’ (Rittel and Webber, 1973) – have been recognised as a key focus for modern and post-modern societies – but the hard work in translating this into practical measures has yet to begin in earnest.

 

  • ‘Human progress’ and ‘Climate change’ are both contested terms. I have written elsewhere about the difficulty in pinning down my worldview in relation to progress, but of course even the term ‘progress’ is a difficult one to pin down:  What spheres of ‘progress’ should we be considering?  Whose ‘progress’ should we have in mind?  How can it be measured?  I have referred to the work of Steven Pinker in previous posts and I believe that he does a good job of summarising ‘progress’:

“What is progress?  … Most people agree that life is better than death.  Health is better than sickness.  Sustenance is better than hunger.  Abundance is better than poverty.  Peace is better than war.  Safety is better than danger.  Freedom is better than tyranny.  Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination.  Literacy is better than illiteracy.  Knowledge is better than ignorance.  Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness.  Happiness is better than misery.  Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony.”  (Pinker, 2018: p.51)

However, others will disagree on what exactly constitutes progress, or will want to place different weightings on its constituent measures.

 

  • Obtaining an accurate and unbiased verdict on their current status is difficult. This is the case firstly because both spheres are politically sensitive and therefore most messages come to us via media which are subject to their own biases. Also, even though there exists a wide body of evidence to help us to reach conclusions, this body is so wide, and so dynamic, that it is difficult to synthesise.

 

  • Both have vested interests who find it hard to accept nuances and exceptions to their stated positions on one side or another. This means that there is considerable muddying of the water around the concepts. For the more outspoken and controversial proponents of human progress, such as Matt Ridley, the picture seems exasperatingly clear – the world is getting better – look at the proof!  But inadequate consideration is still given to the environmental (and social) problems caused by some of the progress made by humankind.  For many climate change activists, it is anathema to concede any benefits of climate change, whereas many sceptics, who have only just conceded that anthropogenic climate change is real, struggle to admit that it will harm the world’s poor more than the rich.

 

  • Both seem to escape easy academic categorisation. Which discipline – if any? – should take human progress under its wing?  And what about climate change?  Universities have led the way with interdisciplinary departments and projects relating to climate change, but at secondary education level, it is only recently that disciplines outside of Geography have begun to explore it.  Meanwhile, human progress is such a contested term and covers such a wide range of human experiences that it has an even more diffuse academic grounding – and as it is often stigmatised (with, admittedly, some good reason) as being a hobby horse of the right, then it is in danger of being shunned by the academy in favour of more fashionable and ostensibly more socially acceptable concerns.

 

  • Both seem to have been side-lined by successive governments. In the UK, should the crucial task of tackling climate change be given its own department of government?  Or should it belong to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?  Either would seem to be sensible – but it is in fact the responsibility of The Department of Energy and Climate Change – two areas which have historically been antagonistic in their priorities.  What about human progress?  Should responsibility for this lie solely with the Department for International Development?  If so, who is responsible for tracking human progress in areas that DfID is not active in, and what about human progress in the UK?

 

  • Neither issue – particularly human progress – has gained much political traction. Many voters are much more likely to prioritise issues that are closer to home than to pay attention to global issues, especially if they are either misinformed or uninformed about their key roles in the future of the planet.

 

  • Both terms lead to reactions that are psychologically complex. Just one example is the cognitive dissonance experienced from holding the same two views simultaneously, such as ‘a holiday would do me good’ and ‘flights are one of the most damaging actions that can be taken in terms of carbon emissions’. Sometimes it is easier to avoid thinking about the deeper consequences of one’s actions than to confront them, question them, and act accordingly.  In the context of climate change, George Marshall (2014) has written about the psychological mechanisms that allow us to know something is true but to act as if it is not.

 

Concluding thoughts

How and when will these barriers be overcome?  When the twin UK obsessions of Brexit and Trump pass, as surely they will, who will set the tone for future social and environmental discourse?

When will a tipping point be reached in either sphere?  When will the default position of anyone (or indeed any algorithm) considering any significant action be to consider the impact of that action on climate change?  When will there be widespread acceptance of the generally positive trends seen in terms of human progress?  As ever, your thoughts are welcome.

David

Bibliography

Marshall, G (2014) Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (Bloomsbury)

Pinker, S (2018) Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Humanism and Progress (Allen Lane)

Ridley, M (n.d.) www.rationaloptimist.com

Rittel, H and Webber, M (1973) ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’ in Policy Sciences 4 (1973), pp155-169: https://web.archive.org/web/20070930021510/http://www.uctc.net/mwebber/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas+General_Theory_of_Planning.pdf