by MERLIN CROSSLEY
It’s sometimes said that people fight most with those that they care about, with people who matter to them, with those they interact with but can’t control. When I hear that people across the world, or in America, are fighting against facts, against science, or against expertise in general, it reassures me that these things matter.
People tell me that we live in a post-truth world but I don’t believe it. To me there have always been political battles and, of course, the war is now about facts – but it is because facts have never been more powerful or important.
Expertise is more important than ever too.
Disciplines are becoming deeper, and there are more of them.
I see the old world like a chess board with only a few options in life – one could be an old king or a powerful, dynamic queen, a member of the church (bishops), the army (knights), or a skilled craftsmen (rooks/castles), but most people were just pawns – foot soldiers, cannon fodder, with little expertise.
In the new world, there are hundreds of different professions, and endless opportunities but sadly, as expertise becomes more sophisticated and impenetrable, more and more people feel like pawns.
At an individual level no one is just a pawn.
Each of us matter enormously to our families, friends, co-workers. We all have vital roles. But many people crave a purpose beyond that. Many fear exclusion from meaningful work as we lurch further towards automation and artificial intelligence. And it is not all about automation, part of it is just the obvious fact that disciplines are becoming more complicated, deeper, less accessible, and skilled jobs, or even just meaningful work, appears out of reach to many.
Last week I watched a Netflix series (as one does during COVID) Dead to Me. Near the end Judy comforts Jen, and invokes the idea that Jen is being saved for a special purpose, Jen still has an important role to play in the world. With tired defeatism Jen replies, “oh yeah, like I might cure cancer”. Judy responds cheerfully with striking American understatement “well, you’d have to focus”.
To cure cancer you would indeed have to focus – to focus through an undergraduate degree, a doctorate, and probably twenty years of research, and even then you would probably not be curing cancer but just charting one small part of a seemingly infinite problem. But a problem that is actually being solved. Cancer has not been cured but the yearly increases in quality life of patients is something to celebrate. The science is working. But is it including people?
Most people today realise that they can’t just join in and help cure cancer. Some people feel excluded by the elites at universities who are always talking about the wonderful work they are doing and are explaining it using, and even pedantically policing, complex technical language. Jargon so dense that it does exclude people and prevent newcomers from joining in.
As scientists we are often told to avoid technical jargon. Most of us try but in some ways the jargon is not just an add on, it is our discipline. I realised this when I worked in a very multi-cultural lab in the US and heard people talking on the phone in their own first languages – I could not understand much but the conversations often sounded like this ‘blah, blah, blah, ultra centrifuge, ah, oh, restriction enzyme, blah, ba, blah, lambda phage, blah, blah, Southern blot, blah, blah, Eppendorf tube, blah, blah, knockout mouse …’. The only words I recognised were pure molecular biology.
The languages of different disciplines simultaneously unite the discipline and exclude the uninitiated. The exclusion is not deliberate, but it is a side effect of the depth of knowledge. Or rather the heights of knowledge. The low hanging fruit is all gone now, and one has to climb long ladders of expertise to join in and make a contribution. No wonder some people feel excluded.
But not everyone. Others recognise that there are now more disciplines than ever and more opportunities to join in. But having many disciplines makes it harder “to focus”, to commit to one sub-discipline. You have to choose one and you have to start at the bottom. Gone are the days when you could hope to sample and get on top of everything. There is now so much choice – once there were just bishops, knights and rooks, but now there are more options. This can be daunting but is good news because there will be something that fits everyone’s talents or interests provided there are pathways in.
There is an idea that we should all unite and work together in one convergent team but perhaps we should spread out – avoiding what I call the lure of the witch’s hat – where we all try to climb to the top of the same of grand project, and jostle together more and more and as we move upwards towards the crowded peak. This is like the race for ATARs, top school marks, and it is like many populist political races. It is a convergent, rather than a divergent race.
I prefer the idea of turning the witch’s hat upside down so it becomes an ice cream cone. Now as people ascend they spread out along different paths. Everyone learns, and works, and progresses towards a purpose but since people do different things they are not thrown together into competition. Some people call this ‘siloing’ but I see it as specialisation and the development of complementary expertises.
The trick of course is to establish accessible paths and to celebrate all the different trajectories so that the rocket scientist or vaccine developer is as valued as the nurse or cleaner in an aged care facility. I do not believe in magic and do not under estimate how difficult that is, but I do believe in excellence, both in intellectual disciplines, and in fine craftsmanship, and in many areas that combine the two. There are many special purposes out there for Jen.
Facts are important, expertise is important, and education is the pathway upwards. I believe that high quality education, in every system, school, university and the vocational sector, is the best way to provide opportunities and to include people. So all we have to do is find the best way of configuring the system so that everyone can find their own path in the race up towards the ice cream.
Professor Merlin Crossley
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic