Consilient Science? Confronting Global Challenges

41QCRQTJF7L._SX299_BO1,204,203,200_Many of the big challenges and issues confronting humanity are only solvable using all available knowledge – across disciplines and paradigms of knowledge. Edward Wilson set out an agenda for better integration of all sciences in his book “Consilience” two decades ago.

In 2018 the World Economic Forums annual global risk assessment was published. It identified a large number of issues. The top eight concerns are listed below. If we crudely divide academic disciplines into three groups – physical sciences, engineering and technology and social sciences (including humanities) it is easy to see that any solutions to any of these eight issues require inputs from all three areas of academic research and expertise (see below).

WEF Annual Global Risk Assessment – Top Few Risks and Possible Contributions from the sciences?

Top global risks according to WEF 2018

Physical
Sciences

Engineering & Technology Social
Sciences

Extreme Weather

x

x

x

Natural Disasters

x

x x

Mitigation failure

x

x

x

Water shortages

x

x

x

Cyber-attacks

x

x

x

Ecosystem failure

x

x

x

Mass migration

x

x

x

Food crises x x

x

There are some who would argue that it is sufficient for individual academic disciplines to make their distinct and unique contributions to these problems and their policy solutions and leave it to others – policymakers? – to integrate their offerings.

More-over many of the most interesting developments in knowledge, of both practice and theory, are coming from inter- or trans-disciplinary domains.

There have been huge developments in the practical integration of knowledge across many disciplines often outside of academia – examples like rare species preservation, ecological management, space exploration, etc come to mind.

In addition the existence of multi-disciplinary social science ‘vocational’ University departments – like social work, business administration, public administration and public policy – have encouraged more cross-disciplinary working and created their own ‘spaces’ (conferences, journals, etc) where such fusions can occur (although that is not a given even in these schools – disciplinary boundaries can still persist).

There have also been increasing attempts to address the theoretical issues involved in integrating knowledge across disciplines, especially in the social sciences. Some adopt what might be called a strong inter-disciplinary approach – that is that individual disciplines such as anthropology, economics, political science, social psychology, and sociology should maintain their separate identities but collaborate more across disciplinary boundaries.

41yt4Gt7myL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_
Others have taken a more radical approach to trans-disciplinary, or even fully integrated, social science – which is more in keeping with the approach of ‘Consilience’ – i.e. the unity of knowledge. Although few acknowledge it explicitly, this is precisely what has happened in practice in the big applied fields of business, public administration, public policy and many specific domains such as health services, education, criminal justice and other policy and practice arenas.

Such efforts at integration have, however, been made even harder by paradigmatic differences (which cut through many academic disciplines, especially in social sciences). By paradigmatic differences we mean the big debates over ontological, epistemological and methodological issues.

Integration Across Disciplines and Across Paradigms?

Single Discipline Inter- or Trans-Disciplinary

Single Paradigm 

Simple

Moderately simple

 Multi-paradigm/method Moderately challenging

Very challenging

A variety of terms and concepts are used to characterise this paradigmatic cleavage (indeed the term ‘paradigm’ is itself controversial): positivism versus post positivism; scientific realism versus social constructionism; etc. We would contend that cross-paradigmatic dialogue and integration is in many respects far more challenging than cross-disciplinary working within the same paradigm? (See Figure 1)

It might be thought that adding an additional challenge – that of making integrated knowledge accessible to policy-shapers – would make things even more difficult. On the contrary, we would argue that adding a practical focus to the problem of cross-disciplinary and paradigmatic working provides a spur to better integration.

The big examples of successful bringing together of various knowledges for practical purposes – whether it be landing humans on the Moon or preserving rare species, of managing complex businesses and government agencies or addressing complex policy problems – suggest it is this practical focus that provides the incentives needed.

51QTmI2sDLL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

This will be the focus of a new journal we are developing: Consilient Science.

The purposes of CONSILIENT SCIENCE are:

To promote dialogue and integration amongst academic disciplines through a focus on significant problems and challenges to humanity

To promote dialogue between academia and policymakers to enable both sides to better understand both possible challenges and feasible solutions

To critically but positively examine the processes by which both of the above take place to improve them.

CONSILIENT SCIENCE will be open to all academic disciplines but its focus is on trans-disciplinary contributions and dialogue. (This does not exclude contributions from a single disciplinary perspective, so long as they also engage with other disciplinary viewpoints).

CONSILIENT SCIENCEwill be academically rigorous, through open peer review, but also to accessible to both academic and non-academic audiences, especially policy shapers and makers in the media, politics, business, civil society and the wider public.

The initial Editorial Advisory Board includes:

Honorary President: Edward O. Wilson (Harvard)

Members: Diane Coyle (Cambridge), Brian Cox (Manchester), Athene Donal (Cambridge), Robin Dunbar (Oxford), Steven Pinker (Harvard), Dan Davis (Manchester), David Sloan Wilson (Binghampton), Henry Mintzberg (McGill), Mariana Mazucato (UCL), Mike Kenny (Cambridge), David Schultz (Manchester), Mark Collard (Simon Fraser), Jennifer Rubin (ESRC UK), Beryl Radin (George Washington), Kiyoshi Yamamoto (Tokyo), Reito Gotoh (Hitobashi), Edward Slingerland (British Colombia), Bobby Duffy (Kings, London), Lord Michael Bichard (London), Geoff Mulgan (NESTA, London), Ralph Heintzman (Ottawa), Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh (Cambridge), Catherine Rhodes (Cambridge)

(*All those listed have all agreed to participate).

If you want to follow how this develops, sign up to our twitter feed @ConsilientS 

2 thoughts on “Consilient Science? Confronting Global Challenges

  1. Perhaps consilience fans will come to understand that the problem is ‘disciplines.’ If we started systemics with 4 year old learners the cross-disciplines challenge doesn’t occur.

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