From information age to century of insight

By Joern Fischer

Data is more abundant than ever. Humanity’s insatiable wants have marked the onset of the Anthropocene, and countless data summarizing the state of the world are available in red lists, food (in-)security indicators and other summary statistics.

Information is also increasingly abundant, and humanity’s various excesses have been summarized aptly in documents like the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the series of IPCC reports, or reports on poverty and inequality.

So we have plenty of data and plenty of information. But can humanity leverage the era of big data and the information age to make the 21st century the century of insight?

And is the role of science to use data and generate information, and then hope for the rest of the world to be insightful? Presumably partly yes, but perhaps science doesn’t need to stop at generating information.

Assuming for a moment that just generating more information, on its own, won’t do to make this the century of insight, I wonder if the notion of insightful science might be useful. As opposed to science seeking to generate information, insightful science would seek to generate something that somehow goes deeper, and is more than just proliferation of information. Perhaps all science is more or less insightful, in which case the notion of insightful science may be of little use. But even then, assuming that some scientific endeavours are more insightful than others, this leads to a series of potentially interesting questions:

  1. What are distinctive features of insightful science?
  2. Can these features be fostered in research projects, in research institutions, or by funding agencies?
  3. How can insightful science be made visible, so that it’s not just “big data” that gets the attention, but “big insights”?

For now, I’ll just put those questions out there… if there’s something to the notion of insightful science, it may be worthwhile to explore these points in a future blog post.

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8 thoughts on “From information age to century of insight

  1. Thaks Joern for this nice post. Certainly a very nice topic of thinking, which rizes other questions too. I was thinking lately to something similar but a bit different in angle (I guess converging towards the same thing). I then inevitable ended up being beyond science (i.e. an insighful science for me is much more than science). To illustrate what I think, here is a quote from a Hungarian poet. This should be judged both rationally and irrationally:

    ‘There is one single command, everything else are just advices: try to feel, to think, to act, in a way to be in the favour of everything.
    There is one single knowledge, everything else is just annex: the earth is below you, the sky is above you, and the stairs are in you.’ (Weöres Sándor)

    I learned from this that my career, position, papers are just annexes, and if I loose myself in these annexes, I miss the real point, that is ‘the single knowledge’. To produce more annexes, like papers, fancy terms and recombine them, and secure my social position alone, without some internal personal metamorphosis/transformation, may be useless in the context of sustainability.

    Talking about transformations, I use again a non-scientist approach:
    Béla Hamvas writes about the ability ‘to transform, in the magical travel of the metamorphosis, into sea, sun, wine, juice and wind.’ And about the need to ‘Try to not experience the world in the behalf of yourself, but, to experience yourself on the behalf of the world’.

    The task for me, is, to try to realize my annexes and use them as such. While I enjoy publishing about frogs and trees.

    Insightful science for me is more than science. Its a great personal challenge.

    • This is beautifully said. My thoughts after reading Joern’s piece on “Losing humanity and other questions science doesn’t ask” perhaps hold similarity to the thoughts in this comment. I thought science is a powerful tool and one that the world must use to address the fundamental and complex issues such as Joern mentioned, but that while science provides the information we need to make decisions that can transform systems and conditions in the long run, it isn’t the only means available. For something deeper and truly transformative, one will have to look beyond science, without missing the powerful capacity of science to make a meaningful contribution towards the desired changes, and eventually transformation.

  2. Hi Tibi and Aisa, thanks for your thoughts. So both of you are voting for the need to not limit oneself to science. Does this mean then, by definition, that you would respond to my question regarding “insightful science” that there really is no such thing — that science will invariably stop at generating information, and that to get insight, we need to go beyond science? If so, my three questions on features of insightful science etc are evidently not-so-useful. I’d be interested in your thoughts…! — J.

    • Hi, Joern! While I think one should not limit himself/herself to science as a tool/avenue for attaining the type of transformative change in the depth, scale, and direction desired, science can be insightful and needs to be so if it is to point us to more sustainable trajectories. This is an interesting video of Sam Harris on whether or not science can weigh in on value-laden issues (http://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right?language=en). But there are limitations to this – there are scientific disciplines, the nature of which will be less amenable to becoming an insightful science; and disciplines that will more easily lend itself to the nature of insightful science because of the principles guiding it (e. g. sustainability science). And so I would consider a move towards “insightful scientific disciplines” as more attainable than “insightful science”. This however, should not be interpreted to mean some disciplines generate more insights than other disciplines — only that some disciplines, because of their applied, problem-driven, and solution-oriented nature, engage more in interpretations, arguments, and recommendations based on values and principles than the others.

      Also, while there is a number of factors that can be considered important for making science insightful, the factor of “people” is very important. I imagine that the type of science the world has, is largely affected by the type of scientists it has. Insightful science therefore, requires scientists who are willing to take the further step of deep reflection and making a stand on a fundamental issue – which to me require as much courage, as intelligence and scientific expertise.

      But even in a world where science has become insightful, the information “insightful science” produces and the recommendations it makes still have to pass onwards to entities and systems (e. g. governments, international development processes, local political structures) whose ways of thinking and ways of working are not always and only guided by accurate scientific information but by other factors. Then again, science can help improve ways of thinking and working in these entities and systems (e. g. researches on corruption and the impact of improved governance on economic development). Gill Westhorp’s (2014) Realist Evaluation is an interesting paper that offers an innovative approach in understanding change processes, recognizing that the things we observe or experience are caused by deeper usually non-observable processes known as mechanism, and that we can study how these mechanisms are likely to operate, the contexts in which they might operate and the outcomes that will be observed if they operate as expected.

      And yet, for all the power of science to provide information, and all the prowess of scientific institutions, there remain realities, experiences, change processes — outside of science, but within humankind’s reach — that remain as powerful, if not more, in determining the course of the world.

      (The following part isn’t logical at all!) Sometimes, one wakes up in the morning to sunlight streaming through the window, the sound of birds, and breakfast with family, feeling that life is alright. And sometimes, one feels like all the answer is in the peaceful wind brushing gently against the cheek. The world is challenging and beautiful like that.

      • Science as everything in this world is well stakeholderized. Honestly I dont want to see further stakeolderization, as I experience well the consequences of this: conservation and sustainability scientists can and do harm to nature simply because they forget the real goal and make a big confusion between the goal and the ego-annexes (see above). This happens becuse each scientist stakeholder group thinks that they are more insightful than the others smarter than the other, and so one.

        For example, a payment paxkage was proposed for a rare bird by a famous nature conservation group in an eastern european country (i will not say which country which bird and which organization) for areas without this bird and the measures proposed will be catastrophic for hay meadows. This could be avoided if that organization would consult more, in other words, if that organization would not take their knowledge as bettwr (probably more insightful too? I guess they feel they are insightful…) than the others. Etc. Itd about the ego (who does things, in order to ground the “annexes”-see above) rather than the goal.

        I feel we need to promote an attitude to keep us bridged/connected. If the “insightful science” will be wise as well, and will not further stakeholderize the community, then is wellcome irrespective to the three points yourised.

  3. “When people domesticated grains, their diets became starchier and less diverse with fewer foraged seeds, nuts and fruits. Their teeth had more signs of decay, their life spans were shorter, and diseases like smallpox emerged with crowded conditions. If the notion of planetary boundaries had existed at the time, surely someone would have warned against the spread of agriculture….Science can neither prescribe nor predict the future of civilization. Even the most sophisticated number-crunching models cannot capture the ingenuity of farmers fighting for their survival. Perhaps by offering with humility its powers of analysis and observation, science can highlight possible consequences of different courses of action for different places and peoples. Science is surely just one cog in a wheel of many spokes that shape the future as cultures around the world continue to evolve and adapt”. Elizabeth DeFries, Columbia University
    (from the New York Times: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/?s=%22planetary+boundaries%22)

  4. Hi, Tibor. I completely agree with you, and thank you for raising that issue. Indeed, even the combination of excellent research and the best of intentions can still lead to unintended negative impacts. The quote above by Ruth Defries shared by Tedlefroy presents an excellent illustration of the limits of science, while also highlighting its powers; and you made this more real, and one that not few of us can relate to, by citing as an example the case of the proposed payment package for a rare bird. It often happens that findings from one excellent research lead to seemingly sensible recommendations and seemingly sensible interventions, but which, in an analysis that considers other factors within the system, become less sensible. And so, the issue you raised on consultations between different groups are indeed important. I think that is a matter that goes beyond insightful science. While I imagine insightful science as something that scientific disciplines may become, I imagine the consultations, the connectedness you mentioned as an additional cog to the wheel that Tedlefroy described (but this is only my interpretation of Joern’s “insightful science”). This reminds me of the blog Sustainability Science is Puzzling by Dave Abson — about how we all hold a piece of the puzzle and how coming together helps us form the picture. And yet, these partnerships and collaborative networks are also amenable to insightful science because there are researches that investigate outcomes and impacts from collaboration; and such researches can inform the way transdisciplinary projects are designed and implemented and the way research organizations structure and restructure (e. g. CGIAR’s system reform to enhance collaboration and integration in agricultural research). But the act of collaborating, being humble (again mentioned above), and recognizing that other’s insights are as important as ours if not more, that goes beyond science and lies in the hand of the scientist himself/herself. Something you and I may yet have the capacity to do something about, in our own little way, which collectively and over time, may become our own not-so-little ways.

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