Crumb Trail
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Tuesday, August 26, 2003

This paper gives an interesting perspective on the Wendell Berry essay mentioned earlier.

Conservation Ecology: Cultural Landscapes as a Methodology for Understanding Natural Resource Management Impacts in the Western United States:

"Inadequate cultural knowledge stems from the current approaches, the formats of which do not bring out deeper understanding of other cultural groups’ relationships with the land. In a public forum, for example, an Indian person might state that the mountain is sacred, which non-Indian people hear as religion. Although religion is part of what is meant by sacred, it is not the entire or even dominant meaning. The lack of understanding results from using one culture’s term for another culture’s concept, and from the reluctance to express intimate feelings or share sensitive knowledge in a public forum (Appendix 2).

The lack of a consistent strategy to obtain cultural knowledge stems from the traditional management approach that relies on biophysical sciences to understand natural resources, and on social sciences, such as history, archaeology, and sociology, to understand cultural resources. Each science may provide an understanding of a resource, but those understandings often are not contextualized or are restricted to material or man-made cultural items." [emphasis added]

Conservation Ecology is a fine journal published by The Resilience Alliance. "The Resilience Alliance is a multidisciplinary research group that explores the dynamics of complex adaptive systems in order to discover foundations for sustainability." They are holistic, take the long view of the big picture, as well as assiduously measuring and modelling particular systems. They believe that it is possible to usefully model complex systems with a small number of factors if they are well chosen and well measured.

That Rebecca S. Toupal recognizes the disconnect of scientists from the systems they study, and the fragmentation of scientific disciplines which map poorly to reality, is a measure of the quality of the journal and the promise of their multidisciplinary approach.

But it also seems like the efforts of the android Commander Data to understand humans so that he can behave appropriately and perhaps have a sort of transcendent experience. If we are generous we can agree that his computational intelligence is conscious, that he is not a clever flat-line that simulates consciousness well enough to fool Turing and Searles, but even so he is not human and will never understand humans unless he is sufficiently superior to humans to model them within himself, while remaining himself. He would have to be vast.

What the scientists attempting to model natural systems that include humans don't have is the intimate tacit knowledge Berry speaks of in his essay. More importantly, even if we granted the eventual ability of the scientists to fully model these complex systems they still couldn't operate them, couldn't define policies that could be implemented to allow remote powers to control local systems, to regulate them. To Berry's assertion that "If one out of every two of us should become a public official, we would be no nearer to good land stewardship than we are now" we can add "no matter how many computers they have or how sophisticated their models".

That doesn't mean that the scientists efforts are wasted or that their models have no value. If Berry's interested and engaged residents living on the land, by the land, had these tools in addition to their tacit and experiential knowledge they could make good use of them. This principle generalizes. Scientists should come to see that their clients are not public agencies, they are the people and systems being studied. The tools and techniques they develop should be informed by this reality from beginning to end.

posted by back40 | 8/26/2003 11:40:00 AM


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