Uncertainty and Interdisciplinary Solutions

This post should probably be subtitled “OR: Why Environmental Studies?”

A lot of people, upon hearing that I’m going to school to work on studying water issues, ask “why aren’t you going to law school?” A lot of others ask if my grad school program is in environmental policy or environmental science. These are good questions, but they arise from an understanding of the water crisis and/or environmental/ natural-resource issues in general that I think is holding back our search for solutions.

Let’s talk about the two supposed “divisions” of environmental studies into science and policy. The appeal is kind of apparent. Scientists discover what the water system (or anything else) is doing, and the political types implement the solutions that “good science” calls for. Others might say that policy analysts determine what a problem is and scientists then should search for scientifically valid ways of addressing it. Besides the fact that these two visions of problem-solving are impossibly simplified (does anyone think the world really works this way, in any field?), it implies an unhealthy separation between the specialties. Scientists and politicians (or bureaucrats, or what have you) only coming together after one of them has already made a decision for society is the exact sort of thinking that got us to the current predicament in the first place.

Kind of how I imagine a compact call...

Kind of how I imagine a compact call…

Let’s bring this back to the Western water crisis more directly. (After all, that’s why I’m here, and presumably why you are too.) Suppose there is a prolonged drought throughout the Colorado River Basin and there is a shortage of water delivered to the lower basin states under the terms of the Colorado River Compact. Specifically, let’s suppose there is a “compact call” in which uses in the upper basin (Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming) are curtailed in order to deliver an adequate amount of water to the lower basin (Nevada, Arizona and California). There are scientific and policy-related reasons for both the supply and demand of water in the basin, as there are everywhere. But let’s suppose we are merely a scientist. How might we construct a “mental map” of the situation of a compact call? Something like this?

Theoretical "mental map" of scientific causes and results of a compact call

Theoretical “mental map” of scientific causes and results of a compact call

Note: I in no way want the above map to represent what a scientist actually would think of a compact call. I drew this diagram in the course of about ten minutes for the purposes of this post only.

All of the immediate causes are there, and the way a hydrologist, biologist or agronomist might attribute those causes are present as well. Now let’s suppose I am a bureaucrat or social scientist presented with the same challenge, Maybe I would come up with something like this?

Potential policy perspective of a compact call. Note the immediate causes are identical to the scientist's map above.

Potential policy perspective of a compact call. Note the immediate causes are identical to the scientist’s map above.

The above disclaimer applies to this diagram as well. Again, this is what ten minutes of thinking about the compact gets you.

The immediate causes of a compact call- reservoir levels and mandated deliveries are the same in both circumstances. But the attributed causes by an economist, sociologist, politician, lawyer or bureaucrat (and the effects they see from a call) are wholly different.

confused-seo1-300x197What is the point of this poorly-drawn exercise? It strikes me that neither mental map is remotely adequate to the task at hand when dealing with conditions of uncertainty. We don’t know perfectly how people or natural systems respond to stresses, management techniques, and changing inputs. I believe that separating the scientists and policymakers into different rooms, with different mental maps, considering only their own disciplinary causes and effects, creates an unacceptable risk of inducing unwanted outcomes, especially in the opposite “field.” A solely political decision to curtail flooding of a field may have vast consequences for the waterfowl that normally make a home there. But a solely scientific decision to flood that same field may have similarly devastating consequences for the downstream municipality deprived of that water.

I’m not trying to suggest that “pure” disciplinarians don’t understand these possibilities. But I do think that we get these sorts of conflicts between competing valuations of water when we don’t talk to our cross-disciplinary colleagues until after we have reached a management decision that makes sense to our own field. A better solution would be to come up with the decision together, and an even better solution is to train environmental professionals in multiple disciplines in the first place. Certainly we can’t expect to prosper under conditions of tremendous uncertainty without this sort of thinking.

Again, I’m not trying to castigate pure disciplinarians or suggest they’re ignorant of the consequences of their decisions. There is a great need for specialization given uncertainty at large and the immense amount of information environmental problems present us with. I myself will graduate with a specialization in social sciences and expect to work primarily from that vantage point. My thesis in this post is merely to suggest that training disciplinarians to collaborate across disciplines only to achieve specific solutions, after they’ve justified those actions by disciplinary logic, is inadequate for modern environmental problems in general, and the Western water crisis in particular. So that’s why I’m training to be an environmental inter-disciplinary social scientist rather than an environmental social scientist who wants to collaborate with people who are not. And, incidentally, why I’m not going to law school.

This was a very wordy post (more cool pictures and maps next time, I promise) and I congratulate you if you have come this far. Here’s a picture of a majestic moose in fall foliage to reward you for sticking it out.

Reward moose.

Reward moose.


One thought on “Uncertainty and Interdisciplinary Solutions

  1. As a scientist that is now interested in policy, I find your ideas engaging and have a few comments primarily from my own experiences. As a student, I saw very little of the applied ends of scientific investigation. For instance, I would perform water quality tests on samples and say “Yes, your drinking water has lead in it.” but the average person didn’t really care about the specific number because they didn’t know what it meant. They wanted to know what to do about it. I could give people my personal opinion or give them a few facts about how to run their water differently, but I really didn’t have the skillset to say “Here’s how to fix your problem” and to pretend that I was an expert at everything concerning water quality would be ridiculous.

    Over the years as a scientist, in order to get funding, research had to have some tangible benefit for society. It’s required in NSF paperwork, in fact. That mix really strays from the realm of pure science, because its intentions are influenced. My opinion is that scientists should remain unbiased by policy and social values.

    However, I do think exposure for every scientist during their studies of what role they will play when they interface with decision-makers (i.e. Pielke’s book), should be required. Additionally, I absolutely agree that there must be a cross-section of us that do understand both worlds.

    I do see science changing over the years to be much more cross-sectional, especially in the field of climate change. I went to a conference called International Polar Year, which typically is for scientists. This particular year it was entitled “From Knowledge to Action”. Among the presenters were scientists, decision-makers (heads of state even) and indigenous peoples from the Polar Regions. That cross-sectional interest at one conference was something I have never seen before. Things are shifting that direction.

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