By Joern Fischer
Researchers operate within networks, and people within those networks tend to share certain worldviews. None of us are free of this — different researchers see the world through different analytical lenses, which one might also call “paradigms”. My sense is that we’d get a lot further in terms of insight if relatively less research energy was put into developing sophistication within paradigms, instead focusing on the differences between paradigms and ways to learn from multiple paradigms. One might also call this “epistemological pluralism“, or less technically, it would be nice if scientists were a little more open-minded.
This phenomenon of “group think” amongst different sets of research groups is something I have found fascinating for a long time, and I think it exists in various topic areas. I list some of those areas here where “group think” appears quite strong, and potentially this causes some problems. These topic areas are in no particular order — so I’m not claiming that all are equally “guilty” of group think, nor that the ones near the top are somehow more guilty than those near the bottom.
Resilience thinking. Researchers working on resilience tend to have a specific toolbox of concepts that they like to apply to all problems. For example, they might see thresholds in all kinds of phenomena, or adaptive cycles. These are, of course, useful concepts, but there are instances where the threshold concept is perhaps neither the most useful, nor the most important concept for a particular kind of problem — the same is true for the adaptive cycle.
Ecosystem services. In an effort to more effectively “sell” the value of nature, ecosystem services researchers have often conveniently ignored the dis-benefits provided by nature. The rhetoric, for example, is that ecosystem services are especially important for the poor. But in some poor communities, people complain about disservices, such as wild animals raiding crops or threatening human life.
Though shalt incentivise. Many ecologists like to say that better incentives (typically meaning financial payments) are needed for farmers or other actors to conserve nature. This idea of “incentivising” people, however, tends to embody quite a narrow construct of people as Homo economicus, caring above all about financial and material gains. This is often not the case — other governance mechanisms exist, related to things like the flow of information, or even articulation of shared values; but such “softer” approaches are often ignored.
We must be evidence-based. There is a strong rhetoric in some parts of the conservation community that our actions must be evidence-based. While this is fine in principle — the alternative is that everything we do ought to be haphazard — it is a very empirical (not conceptual) view of the world, which sheds light on phenomena for which evidence is readily gathered while glossing over other areas. That is, certain epistemological biases are very likely embodied in writing that emphasises the need to strengthen the “evidence base” .
Food demand will double, and we must meet it. This is one of my favourite ones. It is virtually unquestioned among ecologists that demand for agricultural products will double, and that we must meet this demand. The question as to why we must, or who is going to benefit from this, is typically left for others to answer. After all, there’s nothing to be argued about: we must double it! At face value, this is no more or less obvious than saying “we must stop eating meat”, or “we must no longer drive cars”. It’s essentially an assumption that, given a desired outcome, a certain action is required. The desired outcome here is that all demand must always be met. That’s something on can assume or take as a starting point for analyses, but it is no a self-evident truth.
We must solve problems by “going local”. If only things were local! We could all happily live re-united with nature ever after. This worldview has some serious limitations in that it ignores connections via large distances — tele-connections — which are built into the Earth System (e.g. the carbon cycle), and into many of our modern economic and social systems. So … local will only be a part of the solution.
I’m sure there are many other examples. But the interesting point is that, within each of these communities, the main focus typically remains fully unquestioned. Such group-think, in turn, means we miss out on a lot of opportunities for learning.