WALKING ACROSS THE scorched lawns of the quadrangle of a major university, not so long ago when this was a land beset by drought not floods, I found it impossible to ignore the increasingly agitated conversation of the man on his mobile phone in front of me.
'Yes, I know I am listed as a water expert on the university's media directory, but I can't answer your questions. What you want to know about is not my expertise.' He tried to explain the basics of the hydrology of groundwater and the specifics of his particular subset of knowledge.
The caller was a reporter who just needed a quote to round out a story about the drought that had left the country parched for years. It was not that a quote from any professor would have done – but for the agitated expert it must have felt like that. His knowledge was deep and specialised; he was a world expert with countless citations. His expertise intersected with public discussion only at the fringes. Even if he had been asked about the hydrology of groundwater, to comment in a way that made sense to the non-expert, the intellectual beauty of complex calculations and arcane terminology would have to be stripped away. It was easy to see how for him this could feel like betrayal of a lifetime of research.
Knowledge has become so specialised and self-referential that it delivers its own rewards. The best scientists, though, have long accepted that they need to explain their research, to make sense of complexity and to promote breakthroughs beyond the specialist journals. For many this is challenging. For those able to step beyond their specialisation the benefits can be clear and tangible – measured in research dollars, public and political recognition.
Yet even for experts who have completed media training, the public domain is fraught with risk – the unpredictable vitriol of debate is hard to prepare for, the search for someone to blame is unrelenting especially when unimaginable events make things go spectacularly wrong.
In these circumstances a high profile can be a burden – especially for those who most value peer, not public, recognition. Science has its own languages, its own standards of proof, which don't translate easily into a public domain that at best can be nuanced and informed, but disappointingly often is simplistic and inflammatory. Trust and respect are easily traduced in this domain.
This is just as troublesome for those in the humanities and social sciences, even if their language is less technical, their methods more accessible. These disciplines rarely have the benefit of promising breakthroughs that will extend life – but the habits of mind, the standards of proof and depth of knowledge, are at least as specialised.
The understanding they generate is at least as relevant to the big questions of the day and help us live fuller lives. In the aftermath of the 2011 floods the insights from the humanities and social sciences will be at least as important as those from engineers, hydrologists, lawyers, economists and risk assessors.
Those deeply steeped in the knowledge of psychology, sociology, history, literature and philosophy are the ones best able to explain what to me – as someone who lived through the 1974 flood – the most remarkable element of this year's deluge: the way people rallied around to help their neighbours and strangers.
I look to those with deep knowledge of human behaviour to explain my most telling image of the aftermath – the train from the Gold Coast filled with holidaymakers carrying mops and buckets travelling to Brisbane to help out. Strengthening and learning from this intangible dimension of human behaviour is what will ensure the place and people, flourish in future. It is at least as important as dam design and disaster management.
THE WET SPRING of 2010 signalled an even wetter summer and highlighted the consequences of the long-term exclusion of the humanities and social sciences from public discussion and policy formation, which Stuart Macintyre documents in The Poor Relation (MUP, 2010), played out with book-burning bonfires in country towns in the Murray-Darling Basin. The drought may have broken but the problem of water in the driest continent remained.
After eighteen months of research, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's long-awaited draft framework on the 'volume of water required to maintain and restore environmental assets, using best available science and the principles of ecologically sustainable development' was released. The experts concurred that the science was excellent, the report a monumental achievement.
Anyone with even a passing interest in public life could not have failed to notice it was not generally well received by those most directly affected. As officials from the Authority travelled to town after town they were confronted with the stark reality of the distrust of experts. In some towns the reaction was violent, the report was torched, tractors were driven into blockades; in others palpable fear numbed communities already stretched to the outer limits of resilience after a decade without rain. The prospect that even as the drought broke there would not be a return to the good old days was too hard for many to contemplate.
Coastal dwellers whose only exposure to this came from the nightly news could be excused for thinking it was an attempt by vested interests to emulate the rage of the American Tea Party movement – made-for-TV events with self-interest cloaked in inflammatory garb, designed to achieve political outcomes and the maintenance of the status quo.
There were elements of this cynical game-playing, but reading on the Authority's website the record of the dozens of meetings, attended by tens of thousands of people, points to something more fundamental. As Professor Chris Miller from Flinders University has argued: a hunger for genuine consultation, for answers to local and human-centred problems, for research that went beyond the number-crunching derived from simple telephone surveys, for understanding and respect for Indigenous and traditional ways of life, for pathways that make it possible to create a thriving future by working within sustainable environmental limits.
The scientific and environmental research was exemplary, but the glaring gap in the voluminous report was of research that used the full range of tools of the humanities and social sciences, research that engaged with people, that drew on historical and international precedents, that explored the detail of local differences, the psychological response to change, the economic consequences and opportunities, resilience and fear. Research that enabled the progressive leaders dotted throughout these towns to imagine and articulate a different future, research that put the environmental issues in human terms, and helped maintain a place for the people who know and love the lands of the Basin.
The exclusion of this perspective threatened the whole project. In contentious areas the aphorism holds: the whole is only as strong as its weakest link. This is an important lesson for Queensland.
The glib response uttered in countless interviews – that there would be no future unless the environment was sustainable – missed the point that effectively making such a major transition could not be left to either the market or policy handed down from Canberra. The non-specialists who live in these communities wanted everyone to know that they had something to add, and that in the era of connectivity they expected their hard-won expertise to be considered – just as the citizens of Queensland are likely to do in coming months.
The changing tone of the consultation process is clear in the reports from the meetings. At first the officials exuded a father-knows-best certainty, but it did not take long for them to switch to more attentive listening. When the Authority eventually committed to another round of 'socioeconomic' research to be conducted over the summer, it tacitly acknowledged that this research had not been adequately conducted in the first place – although the truncated timelines for the new project beg a similar question.
The danger was that the need for political compromise would again mean that nothing was done, when what was needed was a broader perspective, more persuasive and inclusive approaches, drawing from a wider range of disciplines, incorporating more ways of seeing.
It is notable that the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, who made the health of rivers a matter of such potent political consequence, have in recent years broadened the scope of their work to include social scientists – with striking results – but by the end of 2010 they feared that the science would be swamped by emotion. Both are needed to make sense of such events.
This attempt to draw the human and social sciences into a scientific project echoes an earlier attempt to create a place for the humanities and social sciences in the big issues facing the driest continent. In 1970 the heads of the three learned academies – science, humanities and social sciences – decided to work on the Murray River as a 'combined exercise', ranging across natural and human history, ecology and the legal, administrative, economic and political aspects. After several years of symposia that tested the limits of interdisciplinary research, it was concluded that it was time to abandon the assumptions on which the Basin had been managed, lest 'future generations curse us'.
NOT SO LONG ago, socioeconomic research accompanied every major policy proposal or significant initiative. It is still done, but it has lost an authoritative place at the centre of the policy development. Government departments stripped back their in-house research units and expertise dissipated, consultants with econometric models prevailed, the 'social' virtually disappeared.
As Stuart Macintyre points out, even in the postwar days, when a mandarin culture prevailed – uniting leaders from the public and private sectors with the god professors of the major universities in seeking solutions to pressing national problems – the social sciences had to fight to be included. But they were heard and taken seriously – at least until the late 1980s, when rational-choice economic theories came to dominate the policy process and public debate. Then it was expected that people would behave like cogs in a well-oiled machine, so there was less need for social research.
At the time, in a handful of important books, leading scholars pointed to the limits of this thinking. They argued that economics alone was too narrow a frame, that there were matters that the market could not resolve, that there was such a thing as society.
Within a few years of the 1991-92 recession we had to have, the benefits of deregulation made most of us richer. It seemed that these eminent professors had been crying wolf. They became easy targets for ideologically motivated commentators. Locked in a political straitjacket, they lost confidence and a respected public voice.
As the metrics on academic research excellence released at the beginning of February 2011 show, academics in the humanities and social sciences failed to keep pace with their colleagues in other disciplines. There are many contributing factors. One can point to the rise and rise of popular culture, the uncertainties postmodern thinking brought to traditional ways of thinking, and the increasingly narrow credentialising of academic life. In this context scholars in the humanities and social sciences who chose to engage with the public domain were pulled into ideologically defined battles.
As the limits of overreliance on the market become clearer, so does the need for new ways of analysing problems and making sense of the world. The conservative American commentator David Brooks observed, 'The technicians have an impressive certainty...they have amputated those things that can't be contained in models, like emotional contagions, cultural particularities and webs of relationships. As a result everything is explainable and predictable...they can dismiss the poor souls down below...'
Now we know that people individually, in groups and in companies, do not always make rational choices. Behavioural economics may bring the social back into economics, but the problems and issues we are facing – climate change, population size, globalisation, water shortages – are even more diffuse, complex and human-centred. Making sense of them entails creating a space for those from the humanities and social sciences to contribute to the public debate, and encouraging them to speak up and be less defensive.
As we deal with the aftermath of the natural disasters that have again beset Australia this summer, it is essential that future-proofing includes human as well as engineering solutions, that draws on the spirit that inspired Gold Coast holiday makers to get on the train to help people they had never met, instead of retreating to one of the fantasy 'worlds' en route.
1 December 2010
– revised 1 February 2011