A longer version of an article published in Adbusters, October 2021, which was an adaption/excerpt from an article published in ISLE in 2016.
Category Archives: interdisciplinary thinking
Science and Social Influence: Student Essays
Student essays from UCLA’s Honors 43w, written during the pandemic and remote learning, Winter quarter 2021. The students are justifiably proud of their work, and so they’re sharing essays on the following topics here:
the depths of the ocean
the human gut microbiome
dissociative identity disorder (DID)
what “organic” officially means
our brains and religion
If it works, don’t fix it
Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong (Trans. Howard Goldblatt)
a book review by Dana (the photo is of coyotes, not wolves)
A beautiful, fascinating, exhilarating, tragic story of the way the Olonbulag grasslands of inner Mongolia were quickly ruined by the short-sighted and hubristic agents of “progress.” As one official says impatiently, we don’t need wolves to control gazelles and marmots and mice when humans have guns and trucks to eradicate all of them.
During the 1960s Cultural Revolution, “Old Man Bilgee” teaches the visiting Han Chinese student Chen that “wolves are the divine protectors of the grassland” (20, 123). The real source of wealth, what’s at the bottom of everyone’s livelihood, is the grass, which is put at risk from rabbits and marmots and also (especially) gazelle and horses and the fact that Han (outsider) farmers are quickly replacing Mongolian (native) herders. The grass is “the big life” and all the others lives, including wolves and humans, are “little lives,” dependent on that big life. The grass is “fragile,” “miserable,” has “shallow” roots in “thin” soil, and “cannot run away” (45). And “when you kill of the big life of the grassland,” says the wise Bilgee, who the visiting students call “Papa,” “all the little lives are doomed.”
But the inexorable pride, ambition, and blindness of people working in a punishing bureaucracy mean that the expected tragedy unfolds. This “semi-autobiographical novel” is a detailed, almost anthropological study of the problem with messing with balanced ecosystems. It’s a warning tale about thinking humans can easily re-engineer nature, changing the rules so we get all the advantages with no downsides and as little effort as possible. I think it’s a tale of optimization using models that fail to take everything into account. It’s also a tale of what happens to people in this situation: they don’t need dogs anymore so they no longer have big, enthusiastic families of dogs around them; they get satellite dishes; they have less community and less purpose. As Rong writes, “After the disappearance of the wolves, the sale of liquor on Olonbulag nearly doubled” (494).
It turns out, of course, and again, that nature has already solved complex problems, and that human short cuts to prosperity (because we don’t want to put up with the trade-offs nature demands) fail because we barge into new situations, ignore the wisdom of the knowledgeable people who already live there, and ignore most of the variables in our eager, optimistic simulative imaginings. One resource that helps engineers become more aware of the variety of ways nature might have already solved a problem that they are contending with is AskNature.com (https://asknature.org/), which describes “biological strategies” for problem-solving that are already in action.
For one, then, this book is about geo-engineering, a kind of terraforming that has happened all over our earth, a simplication that seems nice and straightforward until we see all the value we’ve lost. That’s a warning.
On the other hand, this is a story about grass. One might hear similar, more local, estimations about the value of grass from Virginia farmer Joel Salatin (who figures prominently in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma). They both make me want to change my “Food not lawns” bumper sticker to another that says “grasslands not gardens” (and I love nothing more than a garden!).
I will add that this is a beautiful book and that it let me spend days on the grasslands with the wolves and swans, with thoughtful, morally conflicted people, and with their exciting adventures in that stunning landscape. The book has some strong views on ethnic character, which I translated into ideas about the way landscape fashions cultures and people. It shares a deep respect for the wolf totem and for Tengger, the sustaining sky that gives them all things and to which they hope to return at death. And finally, it let me spend some time not just in China and Mongolia, but in the minds and hearts of people there.
Novices get a say at sea level
This is a revision of “Speak up and write,” which I published here yesterday. I did not replace that essay with this one, because I wanted to show what a revision might look like. If writing is thinking, then revision is thinking even more deeply. The words on the page give you a moment, overnight in this case, to evaluate what you said yesterday. This morning I woke up aware of what I meant to say yesterday –even though I did not quite know it yesterday!. I had become conscious of the connection between the three ideas of yesterday’s essay: Mount Everest, NASA, and of amateurs weighing in (speaking, writing, and acting) on topics of public importance. I took out my introduction (just a bridge, a comment, and not especially on point), I got rid of the tangential and probably distracting commentary on capitalism, I saw the obvious contradiction between my thoughts on the first two topics and my thoughts on the third, and I tried to figure out why it’s not a contradiction. My new draft is based on those realizations.
Writing is a form of thinking, and today I want to think about the pros and cons of expertise.
Expertise is an obvious necessity in many tasks, ancient and modern, artisanal and technical. It’s one reason that a college education, even in the United States, has become so focused and even vocationally oriented–and thus less exploratory, less experimental, less humanities-focused, and less “able to help students figure out their place in the universe and their moral obligations to fellow humans” (see Molly Worthen’s “The Anti-College is on the Rise” in today’s New York Times, 9 June 2019, for more on that). But our valuation of expertise sometimes lets us compartmentalize our participation in life too much.
First, the need for expertise. Many people were horrified recently to discover that there were crowded lines on the safety ropes to summit Mount Everest. In The Guardian’s “In Focus” podcast, “Death, carnage and chaos: a climber on his recent ascent of Everest,” (3 Jun 2019), a climber describes how people at that altitude can’t think straight, how they are each barely able to survive on the oxygen they carry, and how sick and injured climbers cannot expect to be saved by the others. They are all stuck on the same safety line, but everyone is at the end of his rope. This has always been true on Everest, of course, but now inexperienced climbers expect that their money can get them to the top. The others, in this life-or-death situation, do not always help them. Yes, there’s co-dependencies even in the best troupe of climbers, but every person must be an expert on key issues relevant to climbing mountains at high altitudes.
Now (well, as early as just next year, 2020) NASA is thinking of charging 58 million dollars (plus $35,000/day) for a trip to the International Space Station (Los Angeles Times, 7 June 2019). But I can’t help thinking of Everest. If something goes wrong–if people have to survive by their wits and what they know of space, science, and technology (think The Martian), or if there’s just a simple shortage of oxygen (think Everest 2019)–then will the “guest” astronauts survive? Even the experts with the greatest human gift of compassion will have to calculate that the survivors need to be able to, well, survive. Keeping the guests alive for another day will not solve the longer-term problem of getting the oxygen production back working, getting the ship’s communications up, getting the ship home to earth, or whatever else needs to get done. In short, sending amateurs to space is a lousy idea. Space survival requires expertise.
But life at sea level is possible for amateurs, and amateurs need to weigh in on the public debates we’re having on big issues such as economic inequality, the power of algorithms, and the climate crisis. Engineering and scientists are sometimes reticent to speak up, however, when the topic is not their area of expertise. I’ve asked ECE graduate students to read about the climate crisis, for example, and then I’ve asked them to opine. They generally won’t. They think it’s out of their area. They say they can’t evaluate all the evidence because they haven’t read it all. They say it’s a different methodology than they are familiar with. And yet, if anyone outside an Earth and Space Science Department can understand, evaluate, and appreciate the data, it’s another scientist or engineer. Also, recognizing what “scientific consensus” means might help, and there are many political, economic, and policy issues that must be discussed and then advocated for or against.
Becoming a specialist does not mean that you must voice no opinions on other topics. You are a citizen, a brainy one who asks important questions and knows how to go about answering many of them. Please, then, share your thoughts with the rest of us. Climbing Mount Everest and going to space may be the dreams of your childhood, but if you don’t have the expertise, then skip them. On the other hand, whether you understand the details or not, you can still use your voice and actions to advocate for the type of society in which you’d like to live.
Cross-disciplinary thinking, and a crazy suggestion
The EE department set up a class called “technical writing,” but discussions with some EE faculty suggest that another main goal is related to your getting a more liberal education. The assumption seems to be that inputs from other fields can inspire and fertilize the minds of engineers. The class changes from quarter to quarter, but this goal explains why I assign a nonfiction public science book during some quarters; it explains two quarters that included Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man; it explains our improvisational games, too.
One of my experiences this summer has only increased my interest in and valuation of cross-disciplinary thinking. I worked at a summer camp for a week, a summer camp that draws in children and teens who love certain books about alternative worlds and then builds on their interests in reading, fantasy, science fiction, technology, role-playing, writing, and art and encourages them to combine all those interests, along with “design thinking,” to imagine the future. When I was there, I happened to be reading Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Seveneves, in which he spends most of the book describing a surprising future—and particularly all the technology that lets humankind survive the destruction of the earth.
This type of imagining, whether in the service of entrepreneurial opportunity or science fiction, seems worth devoting some of your attention to. Whether or not you espouse the singularity—I don’t, quite, but the Camp Director thinks it’s arriving in the next 15-35 years, which I hope will be within all our lifetimes—technological change is happening faster and faster. And with that, in spite of the ways cultures and traditions try to pump the brakes on drastic behavioral change, contemporary societies are changing surprisingly quickly, too. How to prepare?
Well, there may be no specific way to prepare for unknown changes, but all you creative electrical engineers can probably succeed in this situation. At camp, I asked my writing students to imagine a future, and one told the story of a boy using his iPhone as a hovercraft and matter generator (not just a 3D printer!). I assume this is impossible, but I am also sure it’s limited thinking. Why just try to improve an iPhone? Why not imagine a society beyond that, where iPhones seem as obsolete as my flip phone does now? What will replace them? What do people—you!—fantasize about being able to do now, but you can’t? And what will enable that?
Since we were sitting on a beautiful beach while writing, two students wrote short poems about the sea, the birds, the rocks, and the boats. And then they moved from there, imagining a future in which readers would not be able to interpret their poems, since humans no longer had access to this natural setting. That got them going, and the next step (if they’d had more time) would have been to imagine ways to prevent this from happening. Are there technological means to enable more rather than less human interaction with the complexity and beauty of nature? How can technology reduce mediation, or environmental degradation, rather than increase it?
In short, start jotting down some fantasy fiction, and see where it takes you as an engineer.
Some further reading:
The books and “fandoms” these kids love: Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, Doctor Who and Sherlock (from BBC television), Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan trilogy, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra (related tv series), and others (including, of course, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books). You might enjoy reading some of these yourself!
One article on Neal Stephenson’s contributions to scientific vocabulary and research is Gray Scott’s “Interdisciplinary Sage” in Tomorrow Through the Past: Neal Stephenson and the Project of Global Modernization (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006):